Friday, August 14, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Lee Corso

Most football fans know Lee Corso as the colorful wisecracking college football analyst for ESPN. But local football fans may not know he was once one of the best schoolboy athletes to ever come out of Miami. In the early 1950s, Corso was a 3-sport athlete at Miami's Jackson High School and was All-City in football, baseball and basketball. He was all-state on the gridiron and on the diamond and played both sports at Florida State University earning the nickname "The Sunshine Scooter". But long before he became famous as a TV comentator or coach, the Orange Bowl was his stage as a teenager.

Corso moved to Miami from Chicago when he was 12 years-old. His family settled in the Allapatah section of the city near Jackson High School. It was at Jackson, Corso became a local star. He played quarterback and defensive back in an era when football players played both offense and defense. While Corso has a goofball persona on television, he was anything but a clown as an athlete. He was tough and fiery. At just 5'9 and 155 pounds, he was smaller than most of his peers and wasn't the quickest of foot. But what he lacked in physical gifts, he made up for in hustle and competitive fire. He played without a facemask and he took and delivered the best shots opponents had to offer. He was pound for pound one of the toughest and most respected high school athletes of his era.

In Corso's day, high school football was huge in Miami. Jackson High, Edison High and Miami High all played their home games at the Orange Bowl and each of these schools were powerhouses. But none was more dominant at the time than the Miami High Stingarees. Going into the 1951 season, Miami High had never lost a game to a city rival. It was an amazing unbeaten streak that stretched for 26 years. But on November 10, 1951, Miami High's invincibility came to an end. Jackson head coach Roy French had finally assembled a team talented enough to dethrone Miami High. A crowd of 23,243 witnessed history as the Jackson Generals defeated the Stingarees 14-7. Corso was a junior reserve quarterback and defensive back in that game backing up senior Don Orr. Orr later went on to star at Vanderbilt and became a longtime official in the NFL. Although Corso didn't play a starring role in the game, it was his first defining moment in the Orange Bowl.

Jackson's victory was no fluke. In the early 1950s, the Generals roster included such Dade County greats such as fullback Joe Brodsky and halfback Jim Rountree who both were All State and went on to play at the University of Florida. Corso emerged as the team's starting quarterback as a senior in 1952. He established himself as the best signal caller in the city. The Miami Herald selected Corso to its All-City team and he was named All State. Jackson played in the Big 10 Conference, which consisted of many of the best teams throughout the state. Corso led the Generals to the conference championship. His most memorable game came in a 21-19 loss to Miami High in the Orange Bowl, when he accounted for all 3 of Jackson's touchdowns. Another highlight came when he outdueled Edison's prep All American halfback Jackie Simpson for the conference championship.

Despite a great high school career, Corso was not heavily recruited. Due to his lack of size, some considered him a better baseball player. The hometown school, the University of Miami, didn't show interest. Corso took his talents to Florida State University in Tallahassee, which had a new football program at the time. FSU gave Corso the opportunity to play both football and baseball. In 1953, an 18-year-old Corso played in his first college football game as a true freshman. It just happened to be against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl. It would be a very painful and humbling homecoming for Corso. He was knocked out of the game before halftime and the Seminoles would lose 27-0.

But Corso would recover well for an outstanding college career. He played both offense and defense leading FSU in interceptions in 1954, rushing in 1955 and passing in 1956. His 14 career interceptions was an FSU record until it was tied by Deion Sanders in the late 1980s. He was named honorable mention All American by the Associated Press and was selected to the Blue Gray All Star Game. His roomate at Florida State was a fast-talking, muscular running back from West Palm Beach who went by the name of Buddy Reynolds. He later became more well known as the actor Burt Reynolds.

When his college playing career ended, Corso went immediately into coaching. He was a natural. Corso was always known as a fiery leader as a player and he loved the strategy of the game. His first job was as a graduate assistant at FSU, working under head coach Tom Nugent. One of his favorite memories was being a part of the first FSU coaching staff to beat the University of Miami in 1958 at the Orange Bowl. When Nugent became the head coach at the University of Maryland, Corso followed him. Corso landed his first head coaching job at the University of Louisville in 1969 and led the Cardinals to the school's second-ever bowl game in 1972. Among his players was linebacker Tom Jackson, now an NFL anaylst for ESPN. In 1973 he left Louisville and became head coach at another basketball power--Indiana University. Corso was 41-68-2 at IU. He had short stints of success including a Holiday Bowl victory over BYU in 1979. He finished his college coaching career at Northern Illinois in 1984.

Corso later tried his luck in professional football. He made his broadcasting debut as analyst for USFL games in 1983. The following year, he went back into coaching and became head coach of the Orlando Renegades of the USFL. When the league folded in 1985, Corso needed work. His broadcast experience would come in handy. He was hired by ESPN in 1987 as an analyst for College GameDay and hasn't looked back. Always a showman, Corso is known for his catch phrase "Not so fast my friend!". He is also known for wearing the mascot head of the team he predicts will win the game of the week.

In May 2009, Corso suffered a minor stroke. Always gifted with a great sense of humor, Corso called the scary incident a "not so fast my friend" moment. He is expected to recover in time for the college football season, which is great news for all those who love the game.

1 comment:

buzzy reynolds said...

Lee and I knocked heads in basketball and baseball. Hate to admit he got the best out of these clashes with my Edison Red Raiders.

Lee is a good person and was a great athlete.

Buz Reynolds
Edison 1950-1953