Mark J. Price

With time running out on the clock, the University of Akron launched a drive to save its football program.

“FILL THE BOWL!” was the rallying cry 60 years ago as the inaugural Acme Zip Game kicked off Sept. 25, 1954.

University of Akron Athletic Director Kenneth “Red” Cochrane, a star halfback at UA from 1928 to 1930, approached the Acme grocery store chain with a proposal to develop a “package deal.”

Was Acme interested in underwriting a special game at the Rubber Bowl and distributing tickets to it?

Cochrane borrowed the idea from Ambrose “Bud” Dudley, athletic director at Villanova, who signed a deal with a local store chain in 1953 to sponsor a “Grocery Bowl” in Philadelphia. The game against Georgia drew 97,802 fans — about 68,000 more than usual for Villanova.

The Zips could only dream of numbers like that. UA had never come close to selling out the 36,000-seat, city-owned Rubber Bowl. In fact, peak attendance was 17,742 at the stadium’s opening in 1940. The Zips were lucky to draw 3,500 fans to a game, which wasn’t enough to sustain the UA football budget.

In May 1954, Acme took the ball and ran with it, agreeing to a sponsorship that guaranteed the university $10,000 (more than $87,500 today).

“It is not designed to put Akron U on a big-time basis,” Cochrane told the Beacon Journal. “It is a plan to assume that Akron U will be able to operate in the black this football season.”

Buchtel College, forerunner of UA, established its football program in 1891, the same year that Acme founder Fred W. Albrecht opened his first Akron grocery store at East Buchtel Avenue and Center Street. That site is now the heart of the University of Akron campus.

“The Acme Stores are happy and proud to cooperate with Akron U in promoting its athletic program,” Acme President Fred C. Pockrandt Sr. announced. “It was with this cooperation in mind that we decided to sponsor the opening game on the Zips’ 1954 schedule. It will be known as the Acme Zip Game.

“Acme Stores have always been interested in Akron U, even when it was Buchtel College. Fred W. Albrecht, founder of the Acme Stores, was on the board of directors of Buchtel College when it became the Municipal University of Akron in 1913. H.J. Albrecht, his son, is at present the senior member of the university’s board of directors. Acme is a home-owned institution and we are pleased to aid our local university.”

New football coach

UA hired Washington & Jefferson College football coach Joe McMullen to guide the Zips in 1954. Excluding three years in World War II when the university did not field a team, the Zips had recorded only three winning seasons since 1940.

Cochrane thought it would be wonderful if Akron residents welcomed McMullen with the largest crowd ever to see the Zips. The campaign began: FILL THE BOWL!

“This Acme Stores promotion of our opening game will be one of the greatest assists we have had in athletics here at the university,” Cochrane said.

Acme offered two tickets for $1 (about $8.77 today) to the opening game against Wittenberg. Fans who waited until game day would have to pay $1 per ticket on a first-come, first-served basis. Tickets practically flew out of Acme stores.

As the big game drew near, Coach McMullen put together a team of 54 players, and all but one had graduated from Akron high schools. Only 30 players showed up for practice the Monday before the game. The rest had late classes and were excused. Of those who practiced, 15 left early to go to jobs.

“Before you get any ideas, we’ll be ready for Wittenberg,” McMullen told the Beacon Journal.

The Zips were considered a lead-pipe cinch to beat the Fighting Lutherans. The Sporting News favored UA by 27 points.

The coach introduced his team to the “split wing T formation,” a new football system that he predicted fans would enjoy.

McMullen couldn’t decide whether to start Marion Rossi or Johnny Cistone at quarterback. Two days before the game, he was still unsure.

“Maybe I will flip a coin,” he said.

Traffic jams surrounded the Rubber Bowl that Saturday evening. Even though the city had increased bus service and added traffic officers, the roads were clogged.

Pregame ceremonies began at 7 p.m. with a flag-raising featuring bands from the University of Akron, Bantam Football and Yusef-Khan Grotto. The national anthem was performed, followed by fireworks and a commercial salute to Acme.

The only thing left to do was play football.

Record turnout

Announced attendance at the Rubber Bowl was 23,769 — not quite a sellout, but still a record for the Zips.

Led by coach Tom Ness, Wittenberg picked a heck of a time to play tough. Fighting Lutherans fullback Gene Urbanski scrambled for a 6-yard touchdown in the first quarter and fullback Don Wood ran for a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The score was 12-0 because Wittenberg missed both extra points.

McMullen must’ve flipped that coin. Zips quarterback Rossi started the game but had difficulty guiding the split wing T formation. UA didn’t get on the scoreboard until the third quarter when Zips fullback Bob Schutzbach ran 1 yard for a touchdown, bringing the record crowd to its feet. Rossi kicked the extra point.

Down 12-7, the Zips roared back in the fourth quarter. Receiver Jim Townsend caught a 41-yard pass for a first down on the Wittenberg 21-yard line. As UA positioned itself for a winning touchdown, the ball popped loose. Wittenberg recovered the fumble, ending the game with a major upset.

No matter the score, the Acme Zip Game was a victory for the grocery chain, university and fans. It rescued the football program from ruin and began an annual tradition that lasted nearly 50 years.

A carnival atmosphere prevailed as Acme Zip became a cherished event in the community. By the 1960s, attendance topped 40,000. In 1971, the game drew a record crowd of 43,171 as Akron beat Butler 24-0. Fans who attended the 1973 game will never forget seeing daredevil Karl Wallenda walk a tightrope over the Rubber Bowl.

In 2001, however, the tradition came to an unexpected end after 48 games. UA and Acme announced in 2002 that the grocery chain was ending its game sponsorship. It was sad news for those who remembered the glory years.

In 2009, the Zips abandoned the Rubber Bowl for InfoCision Stadium.

UA compiled an Acme Zip Game record of 32-15-1 with an average attendance of 30,000. Nearly 1.5 million fans attended the game during its 47-year history.

FILL THE BOWL! The Acme Zip Game definitely delivered on that promise.

Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.