The Western Pennsylvania sports community lost another link to its glorious past with the death of Elmo Natali on May 28.
Natali's name was synonymous with California State College, now California University of Pennsylvania. He devoted 50 years to Cal as as a student-athlete, teacher, coach, dean and vice president.
Years later Natali reflected on his service to the University.
“What has Cal given me… All of this,” Natali told The Tribune Review in 2010. “They allowed me to do what I love to do. What more could I ask for?”
During his time at Cal U, Natali was given several nicknames.
“They call me The Dean,” Natali said.
Bruce Wald, formerly of Cal U’s public relations office, once called him “Cal’s Original All-American.”
Wald said Natali “bleeds black and red.”
Born in 1927 in Gallatin, Pa., to Attilio and Theresa Tomassi Natali, Elmo excelled in athletics at Monessen High School. He was named to the All-Mon Valley Football Conference team as a sophomore and junior in 1943-44. He also was chosen to the All-WPIAL team both years.
Natali passed up his final year in high school to enlist in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.
After earning his diploma by passing the General Educational Development (GED) test following his discharge from the service, he attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI) for one year before transferring to California State in 1950.
Natali rushed for 1,035 yards in 1951 while leading the Vulcans to a 7-2 season which included a postseason appearance in the Pythian Bowl against Lenoir-Rhyne. Also a standout punt and kick returner, Natali was the first running back in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season.
Natali's all-around effective play helped the 1951 Vulcans average 24.4 points a game, three times more than the team's output the previous season. He also averaged 41.6 yards a punt and wowed the fans with a 62-yard punt in the Pythian Bowl. In 1952 Natali gained a single-game, career-high 163 yards in a 27-21 win at Carnegie Tech before injuries forced him to miss the final three games.
He capped his football career by being drafted into the NFL by legendary head coach Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns. An injury he sustained in college prevented him from playing professional football. Natali received his bachelor’s degree from California State Teacher’s College in 1953, and his master’s degree from West Virginia University in 1958.
From 1953-1961, Natali served as a classroom teacher and football coach at Monongahela Junior High School, and he continued coaching after being promoted to elementary supervisor of the Monongahela School District. In 1962, he began his career at California State as a professor of education and assistant football coach, positions he held until 1966, when he accepted a teaching post at Broward County Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Natali returned to his alma mater in 1967 and remained at California until his retirement in 1992.
He took over as head football coach at Cal in 1973. He is credited by many with saving the Vulcans football program. Then-university president George Roadman asked Natali to take control in the spring of 1973, after former head coach John Katusa stepped down because of health issues.
“He asked me if I’d do it for a year while the employment freeze was on,” Natali said.
With a limited staff of coaches and a small budget, Natali went about making sure that 1973 wasn’t going to be the last year of football at Cal U.
Natali said he was just committed to the program, navigating it through a period that was both economically and socially difficult.
Hal Hunter took over as coach after Natali’s last year in 1977 and became Cal’s first full-time head coach.
When he resigned, Natali said at the time, “It's a move I've been contemplating for some time. I just couldn't devote enough time to coaching.”
In 1977, Natali was promoted to Vice President of Student Development. His dedication helped California become a premier academic and athletic institution.
Natali received many awards and accolades during his career. In 1992, the California Memorial Student Union on campus was renamed The Elmo Natali Student Center in his honor, and a Doctor of Humane Letters was conferred on Natali by the California University of Pennsylvania Council of Trustees in 2018.
“He was called ‘the tone and pulse of the campus’ for his ability to talk with students and really understand what their problems and issues were,” University President Geraldine Jones told the trustees. “It was said that his complete dedication to the University made it a better place then, and the place it is now.
“Elmo Natali’s commitment to California University and our students certainly exemplifies the University’s core values of integrity, civility and responsibility. While we can never repay Mr. Natali for all he has done for the University, we hope that this honorary doctoral degree will let him know that we truly appreciate all he has done for our University and, particularly, for our students.”
Natali retired from Cal U in 1992.
Some of the other accolades Natali received included the Alumni Association’s 1983 John R. Gregg Award for Loyalty and Service. The University retired his football jersey number, 34, and inducted him into the inaugural class of the Cal U Athletic Hall of Fame in 1995. He was also inducted into the Mid Mon Valley All Sports Hall of Fame in 1977.
Natali passed away on May 28 at the age of 92, leaving behind his wife of 73 years, Norma Beadling Natali, and three children, James Allen (Beth), Jamie Beadling (Vicki), and Jeanne Beth (Kate).
Natali's son Alan had this thought about his dad in a piece he wrote recently.
“My Dad accomplished so much, so much in his life that he would be incredulous now to see anyone crying for him. Dad achieved that most difficult goal for anyone, regardless of background -- he became a good and honest man. I’m sure that’s how he would want to be remembered.”
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.