Celebration starts at 5 p.m. on Friday, September 11.
By Jeffery Sandman
It was the fall of 1965. Lyndon Johnson was President. U.S. involvement in Vietnam was rapidly escalating. The Beatles had just performed in front of 55,600 people at Shea Stadium. The Sound of Music and Doctor Zhivago filled movie houses across the country.
And here in Frankfort, the Panthers were preparing for another season on the gridiron. Still shadowed by the successes of teams who strung along 21 straight victories a half a decade earlier, expectations weren’t very high. Many predicted that a fourth place finish in the Northwest “C” Conference was a best-case scenario.
However, a perfect mix of leadership from a close-knit group of seniors and a junior class beaming with talent would prove those forecasts of mediocrity wrong. Completely wrong.
The Panthers had another weapon on their side in head coach Jim Buzzell. Known simply as “Coach” to the Panther faithful, Buzzell came to Frankfort in 1960 with his wife, Luanne, and a growing family.
He served as George Elias’s assistant coach in his first year at Frankfort, and what a season it was. The ’60 Panther defense allowed only one touchdown on their way to winning all eight games. After taking over the helm in ’61, Buzzell led the Purple and Gold to a 7-0-1 record, with a 6-6 tie to Kalkaska in week four as their only blemish.
In ’62-’63, the Panthers struggled as they were only able capture one and three wins, respectively.
The following fall saw a rejuvenation as senior Len Classens’s 280 rushing yards led the Panthers past cross-county rival Benzie Central 26-7 in the annual Homecoming game, extending their record to 4-1. But the season would slip away with three straight losses to Leelanau School, Glen Lake, and Elk Rapids.
After losing Classens and a strong senior class to graduation, Buzzell and his ’65 team had an uphill battle. The challenge and the team’s reaction echoed a line that Buzzell would use time and again: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
It didn’t take long before the Panthers not only showed off their toughness but also their trickery. In their season opener at Lockhart Field, Buzzell, who would dedicate time each Thursday to practice a few trick plays, called for a transcontinental pass. It paid off, as running back Roy Nugent connected with quarterback Marc Anderson for a 54-yard score. On the defensive side, Dave Miller’s interception return for a touchdown capped off the 37-0 blitzing of Baldwin.
Still high on their win in week one, the Panthers traveled down Homestead Road in an attempt to spoil the Homecoming of Benzie Central. Nugent hit pay dirt five plays into the game, wrapping up an 80-yard drive, before Ed Gabrielsen — who would go on to play at Bradley University — added the extra point. Despite a solid Husky offense, led by Girado Sanchez, Neil Maddock, and Deryl Holmes, Frankfort’s defense held Benzie out of the end zone. With an Anderson QB-sneak in the fourth quarter, the Panthers moved to 2-0 with a 13-0 win.
The next week saw the Panthers having to come from behind to pull out a 19-12 win over Elk Rapids. Nugent had two touchdowns and Don Mills found the end zone once to lead the offense, as Jeff Frary and Tom Blacklock made big fumble recoveries late in the game to fend off the Elks.
Frankfort moved to 4-0 after traveling to Mesick to beat Brethren, who was in its first year of football, 12-0.
The Panther offense then flooded Glen Lake in a (then) school record 57-0 routing of the Lakers. The scoring bonanza began with some more Buzzell trickery as John Orr scampered for a 67-yard TD on an end around.
The momentum came to a halt when the Panthers traveled to Kalkaska (who ruined a perfect season in ’61). Buzzell found his squad down 7-0 at the half, and he tried to motivate them with one of his fiery halftime speeches. At first, it didn’t seem to work as the Blue Blazers upped their lead with a 77-yard touchdown pass — but then things began to turn around.
Anderson — who would later become at track star at Central Michigan University and then coach at Princeton College — showed off his wheels, as he made a cut to the outside and sprinted 60 yards for a score. Nugent ran in the conversion (one point at the time). Anderson then picked off a pass and returned it 65 yards for a touchdown. Again, Nugent was successful on the conversion to tie the game. In the fourth, touchdowns by Nugent and sophomore Roger A. Gilbert were the difference, with the Panthers grabbing another victory.
“The Kalkaska game changed the season,” said Gabrielsen recently. He and Nugent co-captained the team as juniors back in 1965. “The first five games, we didn’t expect much. But then in the second half of the Kalkaska game, everything began to click. We looked around at each other and thought, ‘Hey, we can run this.’”
Seven days later, the Panthers again found themselves behind 7-0, this time against Leelanau School. But like the week before, they fought hard and turned things around. Nugent started things off by scoring a 46-yard touchdown off an Anderson screen pass. That was followed by a 78-yard TD run by Mills and a one-yard dive into the end zone by Tom Zatkovic.
The win over Leelanau School set the stage for the team’s toughest meeting of the season: they played Mesick, who had only one loss at the time. The unbeaten Panthers found themselves trailing 6-0 deep in the third quarter. With Mesick’s back against their own goal line, the Panthers looked to take advantage of the field position. They did that and more, when a Bulldog back fumbled a pitch, and senior Bill Reich scooped it up and ran it into the end zone, tying the score. Moments later, Roger Reichel pushed himself through off left tackle to take the lead going into the final stanza.
With the strong October wind at their back, Mesick kept the pressure on the Frankfort defense as they put together a number of would-be scoring drives before the Panthers forced fumbles and interceptions. The Panther “D” forced one turnover-on-downs by less than inch. After an exciting and nerve-racking final few minutes, which saw six turnovers, the Panthers were able to run the clock out, solidifying their perfect season.
Bob Leatherman joined Gabrielsen, Nugent, Anderson, and Reich in receiving post-season honors. The team also boasted three Frankfort High School Hall of Famers in Gabrielsen, Anderson, and Pete Sandman.
Buzzell would skipper the football team for another six seasons, which in ’68, the Panthers finished 6-1-1, with a 7-0 loss to Benzie Central and tying Mesick 0-0.
Beyond his time pacing the sidelines of the gridiron, “Coach” coached track (two of the school’s three conference championships in the sport) and skiing. He also coached wrestling, which he started along with golf, for 25 years and brought home a state runners-up trophy in 1976 with state champ Lance Smith. Long before Title IX, he started intramural sports for girls. He taught English, history, government, and physical education.
High school sports have been a passion of Buzzell’s since before he graduated from Otsego High School, after winning a record 14 varsity letters. He then married his high school sweetheart, Luanne Kramer, and earned a degree from Western Michigan University.
After his retirement in 1990, Buzzell has kept a huge presence in the community that he helped mold. Whether it was his involvement with his church or with the library, protecting Betsie Bay or wielding the starter’s pistol at Panther track meets, or his role in running the CSA, Buzzel’s face has remained a fixture in the community.
For some, it might not be his face that one recognizes, but rather his voice — he spent over a decade behind the microphone calling football and basketball games for the Panthers and Huskies on WBNZ.
In 1994, Coach returned to the sidelines of Lockhart Field for a flag football game to benefit the family of Barney Roeters, a member of the ’65 unbeaten team who had just passed away from cancer. Buzzell donned his white, short-sleeved shirt and black tie, which he religiously wore while on the sidelines decades before, regardless of weather conditions.
The game pitted the ’65 team against member of the state championship teams of 1990-91. Under the hypnosis of Coach’s winning enthusiasm, the team of 40-somethings added one more win to their perfect season.
If you ask any of his former players or students, they will tell you that he was tough, but fair; he was demanding, but encouraging. To many, the meaning of the nickname “Coach” extended far beyond any football field, wrestling mat, or even classroom.
In 2012, fellow coach Jim Lalas told writer and historian Pete Sandman, “I think Frankfort is the luckiest community in the United States to have Jim Buzzell around.”
Fifty years after the ’65 Panthers surprised the Northwest “C” Conference and turned in a perfect season, they will recognize Coach Jim Buzzell for his outstanding contribution to the football program at half time of the Frankfort Panther football game on Friday, September 11. The team’s celebration will begin at 5 p.m. in the high school cafeteria. Call Roy Nugent at 231-383-2045 or Ed Gabrielsen at 720-851-7010 with any questions. All Panther alumni, family, and friends are welcome to join the crowd at Dinghy’s immediately following the game.
(Editor’s note: Jeffery Sandman is the son of the late Pete Sandman. Much of the information contained in this story was gathered from The Pete Sandman Collection.)