Few seasons in Utah State's football history are more important, more impressive, or more interesting than 1961.
Head coach John Ralston's third and best team in Logan, the 1961 Aggies – referred to often by newspaper men simply as the Utags – lost only one game in 11 matchups, rolling through the Skyline conference on the way to a shared league title (at the time the school's sixth conference title, and only its second in the Skyline) and a final record of 9-1-1.
The Utags finished 10th in the AP poll, their first-ever inclusion in the end-of-season voting and the only mention of Utah State in the final ballot for its first 100 years of top-level football, a streak that Gary Andersen would snap at long last in 2012. They played in high-intensity battles, from thorough and long-awaited rebukes of rivals BYU and Utah to a midseason draw with Wyoming that would ultimately cleave the conference's title belt in twain
When Utah State wasn't involved in drama of the highest order, it was shredding opponents with a nationally renowned offensive attack built on the backs of the best group of linemen the sport could offer in 1961. Ralston's Aggies, many of whom made the trek from California to Logan with their head coach when he departed from an assistant coaching position at California in 1959, forced their way into the national conversation.
They were too fast, too strong and too dominant for even the most pompous members of the old-guard college football media machine to ignore. Sports Illustrated college football columnist Merlin Hyman was among those swayed by Utah State's efforts on the gridiron, writing in his national dispatch after a 17-6 victory over Utah that the Aggies deserved consideration among the best the sport had to offer.
“Utah State's victory will certainly move it into the 10 top teams and the only question is how high," Hyman wrote. “Utah State beat Utah, which the week before beat Colorado. Colorado beat Missouri and Missouri beat Minnesota. Minnesota, ranked fourth in the nation last week, may be third now, so theoretically, Utah State should be ranked around there. At least that's the way Tommy Larscheid and Utah State see it.”
The electors saw things differently, leaving Utah State out of all top 10 polls until the very end of the season, when the Aggies finally earned their deserved acclaim, sneaking into the final spot of the top grouping.
That, too, is a critical piece of the 1961 Utah State tapestry. Despite its supremacy on either side of the football, averaging more points than any other team and allowing fewer than all but 16 defenses, this is a team that faced questions at every turn. Ralston had to grovel for a bowl bid at the end of the season, ultimately earning his side a spot in the extremely short-lived Gotham Bowl against Baylor.
Worse yet, while the Aggies ran up the score on all but one of their Skyline foes, they knew that only a year later they would be abandoned. The Skyline Conference was slated to close its doors after 1961 as the majority of its members prepared to help form the nascent Western Athletic Conference, but Utah State's invite had been lost in the mail – perhaps intercepted by a pair of in-state foes that had pushed hardest for the creation of the new league, and which didn't wish to share any of the glory with their counterparts to the north.
One season later, Ralston would ship back to California, taking over the head coach at Stanford. Without conference affiliation, Utah State entered into an era of athletic darkness – fighting to fill out a schedule, let alone doing so with hopes of glory. The Aggies fell from rising power to bodybag game for larger programs, kneecapped by many of the same teams that they had throttled in Ralston's heyday.
It's a season that offers critical context for the decades of strife from which the Aggies have only recently emerged, but it's also a season worth remembering on its own merit. The 1961 Aggies, even 60 years removed, remain some of the most talented gridders the program has ever seen.
Their stories deserve told, and across the next two weeks, The Aggship will be exploring five vignettes critical to understanding this pivotal bunch in the annals of Utah State football:
- A look at the outsized impact the state of California had on the creation of the 1961 roster.
- An in-depth film study on Ralston's variable-T offense.
- The story of lineman Willie Redmond, the best-dressed man in Logan.
- A dive into the impact that his counterparts in the trenches had on this team.
- And a eulogy for the Skyline Conference, which suffered the same fate that may soon befall several of college football's oldest leagues.
These stories will be available exclusively to paying subscribers to The Aggship, with the film study only for Flaggship tier ($10 a month) subscribers. If you'd like to try the latter for one month, click the below button.
If you're already subscribed at the Aggship tier but would like to read the film study, you can upgrade your subscription for half off across the next two months.
Additionally, The Aggship has scanned and made publicly available all historical records kept of the 1961 Aggies in Utah State's athletics archive. Gamebooks, programs, rosters, stat sheets, photos and everything else from the season that has survived the tests of time is now preserved on The Aggship's 1961 archival page.
The 1961 archive is completely free to all interested and will remain free and unencumbered by advertisement in perpetuity – although support of The Aggship's independent and ad-free journalism is certainly appreciated from those so inclined.
Much of the information for the series of stories has been pulled directly from archival records, though the majority of quotes and color have been culled from newspaper archives – which will be credited throughout the series.
Though it is completely available for your enjoyment, The Aggship asks that you please be patient with the 1961 archive page. It's filled to the brim with PDFs and photos and takes quite a bit of bandwidth to load in full. It should open in full within about 30 seconds, but don't assume that something has gone awry when it doesn't snap into place right away. It will load, but it needs a bit of time to do so.
The first dispatch of the series has been posted in tandem with this welcome post and can be viewed here by all paying subscribers. All future posts on the 1961 team (which will be shared across the next two weeks) can be found on the archive page, which is also serving as the de facto home page for this series. Thank you for reading, and thank you for your continued support of The Aggship.