The history of the "Big Game" goes well beyond 1982's "The Play"
This article on the California vs. Stanford college football rivalry originally appeared in Athlon's 1993 college football annuals. As the rivalry is renewed this week, we thought it was relevant to take a look back at the history of what is commonly known as the "Big Game."
Great Rivalries — California Golden Bears vs. Stanford Cardinal
By David Bush, San Francisco Chronicle
It is simply known as the Big Game. And many times it really is.
The rivalry between the University of California and Stanford has always been one of college football’s most exciting, even when one or both suffer through a mediocre season. The best example is the unforgettable 1982 contest, won on California’s sensational five-lateral kickoff return. Kevin Moen raced through the Stanford band, which had taken the field in premature celebration, to score as time expired.
Known simply as The Play, it has superseded Roy Riegels’ wrong-way run in the 1929 Rose Bowl game as the most famous play in college football history.
The rivals were finishing so-so seasons when they met at Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium on Nov. 20. Stanford, led by senior All-America quarterback John Elway, came in with a 5-5 record and a Hall of Fame Bowl invitation resting on the outcome. California was 6-4 under first-year coach Joe Kapp, an alumnus and the only man to play in the Rose Bowl, Grey Cup game (for the Canadian Football League title) and the Super Bowl.
The amazing climax overshadows the fact that it had been a gripping game throughout.
The underdog Golden Bears dominated the first half and led 10-0 before Stanford came back to take a 14-10 lead. A field goal and a sensational touchdown catch by receiver Wes Howell put California up 19-14 midway in the fourth quarter. A field goal pulled the Cardinal within two points, and on a fantastic Elway-led drive, Stanford rallied to take the lead. Faced with a fourth-and-17 situation on his own 13-yard line with 53 seconds remaining, Elway completed a 29-yard pass to Emile Harry. Three plays later, after the Cardinal advanced to the 18, Mark Harmon kicked a 35-yard field goal. Stanford led 20-19. Four seconds remained.
From the Stanford sideline, several players raced onto the field to celebrate their apparent victory. The Cardinal was penalized 15 yards and now had to kick off from the 25-yard line. About the same time, Richard Rodgers, California’s special teams captain, huddled with the kickoff lineup and told the men: “If you get the ball and you’re gonna be tackled, pitch it. Don’t fall with the ball.”
“I was thinking, ‘This guy’s crazy,’” recalls Dwight Garner, a freshman running back that year. He soon learned otherwise.
Seniors Moen and Mariet Ford, the other two players who would handle the ball on the kickoff, did not hear Rodgers. Moen was already on the field, and Ford was looking on the sideline for his shoes, which he had taken off because of cramps in his legs.
It was Moen who scooped up Harmon’s squib kick at the Golden Bears’ 43 and advanced 5 yards before being confronted by several Stanford players. “I saw Richard open on the sideline and yelled, ‘Here you go,’” remembers Moen, who tossed the ball overhanded to Rodgers. Rodgers ran a few yards, lateraled to Garner, then got behind him. As Garner was going down, wrapped up by a bevy of tacklers, he pitched back to Rodgers. Many, including the Stanford band, thought that Garner’s knees touched the turf, and the game was over. Some Stanford partisans still believe it.
At this point, California had managed to keep the ball alive but had not made much progress toward the goal line. As the band was streaming onto the field from Stanford’s end zone, Rodgers broke into the open and crossed the 50-yard line before shoveling the ball back to Ford at the Stanford 47.
“Once I got it, I just took off,” says Ford. “I saw the band in front of me, and I’m confused. I’m thinking about not getting put down by band members.”
With his leg cramping and Stanford defenders looming from the left, Ford knew he couldn’t reach the goal line. In desperation at the 25, he tossed the ball blindly over his right shoulder.
Ford: “I knew I was in front of Kevin but I never saw him.”
Moen: “I grabbed the ball but didn’t really see the goal line. All I saw was the band. As far as I was concerned, they were all Stanford players, and I just busted through them.”
Referee Charles Moffett conferred with the other officials for 43 seconds. None, he said, “thought anybody was down at any time. We could have called a penalty on the Stanford band. But we called one on the Stanford bench.”
Finally, Moffett gave the raised-arms touchdown signal. Thousands outside the stadium had left immediately after Harmon’s field goal and were on their way to their cars. They heard a mighty roar from inside. All they had missed was The Play of the Century.
“It was the right combination of guys and being lucky,” Moen says. “If you were going to try and script that kind of play, it never would have worked. To complete one lateral is hard enough. But four different guys and five different laterals along with everything else that was involved, well, that was unique.”
“Just a typical Cal-Stanford game,” Kapp deadpanned after his team’s 25-20 victory.
As incredible as that ending was, it wasn’t the only sensational windup of recent Big Game vintage. Since 1970, five of the 12 games at Berkeley have been decided on the last play and three others in the last two minutes. Another was in doubt until the final gun.
Stanford is a private school located outside the affluent suburban town of Palo Alto on the San Francisco peninsula. California is a public institution carved out of the cosmopolitan city of Berkeley on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.
What the schools have in common besides geographical proximity are high academic standards, a good-natured dislike for each other in athletics and a particularly intense rivalry in football.
The first of the 95 football games between the northern California schools was played in March 19, 1892 — in San Francisco. According to the off-told story, the game was delayed because the Stanford student manager, a chap named Herbert Hoover, forgot the ball. Actually, according to John T. Sullivan’s 1981 book, The Big Game, Hoover, who in 1929 would become the 31st president of the United States, was only partially to blame. He was just one of several responsible parties who forgot about bringing the ball. The game was finally played, Stanford won 14-10 and the series was launched.
The era between World Wars was the football zenith for both schools. Nicknames fit their success. California had its Wonder Teams (1920-24) and Thunder Team (1937). Stanford had the Vow Boys (1933-35) and the Wow Boys (1940).
Perhaps the greatest Big Game in those years was played in 1924 between Andy Smith’s Wonder Team and Glenn S. “Pop” Warner’s undefeated Stanford squad. Both coaches are in the Hall of Fame. Stanford took a 6-0 lead at halftime, but the Golden Bears came back to go ahead 20-6 in the final quarter. Stanford, however, rallied and scored two touchdowns, the second with less than a minute left, and a dramatic 20-20 tie was in the books. Stanford then went to the Rose Bowl, losing 27-10 to Notre Dame and the Four Horsemen.
The series was discontinued from 1943-45 during World War II because Stanford did not field teams. When the rivalry resumed, it did not take legendary coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf long to build another dynasty at California. Between 1947-50 the Bears were 38-4-1, and played in three Rose Bowl games (losing all) and a memorable Big Game.
Down 18-14 with three minutes left in 1947 at Palo Alto, heavily favored California scored on a stunning 80-yard pass from fullback Jackie Jensen (who went on to hit 199 home runs as an outfielder for the New York Yankees, Washington and the Boston Red Sox) to Paul Keckley. In a series of events a screenwriter would reject as improbable, Keckley, who had injured a shoulder two weeks earlier, pleaded with Waldorf to go into the game. At first reluctant, Waldorf relented and sent in Keckley. Two plays later, he gathered in the toss from Jensen on the Cal 35, got the block he needed at the Stanford 40 and sailed across the goal line. Final score: California 21, Stanford 18.
In 1948 at Berkeley, California tackle Jim “Truck” Cullom kicked an extra point and blocked Stanford’s conversion attempt. The Bears won 7-6.
Fortunes at both schools were on the decline in the 1950s. In 1956 Waldorf ended his coaching career with a victory as sophomore quarterback Kapp led California to a 20-18 upset over Stanford and John Brodie, it’s All-America quarterback.
Kapp would lead the Bears into their last Rose Bowl appearance after the 1958 season, but he had to beat Stanford 16-15 in a controversial Big Game to do it. California took full advantage of the new two-point conversion option. The Bears’ two touchdowns followed by two-point conversions beat two touchdowns and a field goal. Arguments still rage over whether Stanford receiver Irv Nikolai really caught the first conversion out of bounds, as an official ruled.
A year later, the schools staged another hair-raiser. Stanford quarterback Dick Norman completed 34 of 39 passes for 401 yards, rallying his team from a 14-0 deficit to a 17-14 lead. California scored a go-ahead touchdown (20-17) with four minutes remaining and then had to hold off Norman’s last furious rally. Unable to find an open receiver on the game’s final play, Norman was tackled on the Cal 5-yard line, trying in vain to get out of bounds. A field-goal tee to be used for the tying attempt was tucked into the belt of his pants.
The following decade produced few notable games in the 101-year-old series, but the fun resumed in earnest in 1969. An underdog California team fell behind 17-0 midway in the first period. “At that point, I was wondering if I could make it to Rickey’s bar (in Palo Alto) have a drink and get back before the final gun,” says Bob Steiner, California’s Sports Information Director at the time.
The Bears rallied behind Dave Penhall, who had begun the season as third-string quarterback, to go in front 28-23 in the last period. But Stanford moved on the ground for the touchdown that won the game, 29-28.
The next year, the Bears, with Penhall again leading the offense, upset Rose Bowl-bound Stanford with Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett 22-14.
California freshman quarterback Vince Ferragamo drilled a 7-yard touchdown pass to Steve Sweeney on the final play of the 1972 game to defeat the Stanford Cardinal (the nickname Indians was dropped that year) 24-21. Ferragamo completed only eight passes, but four were in the drive that covered 62 yards in 73 seconds. Sweeney lined up at tight end just once: on the last play. It was the only pass he caught as a tight end that year.
All-American Steve Bartkowski passed California to a 10-3 lead after three quarters of the 1974 renewal. Stanford, behind reserve quarterback Guy Benjamin, led 19-13 before Bartkowski brought the Bears back. After Steve Rivera’s one-handed catch on fourth and 10 resulted in a 23-yard gain, the Bears had a first down at the Cardinal 13 in the closing moments. With 23 seconds to play, Bartkowski connected with Rivera for a touchdown that, with Jim Breech’s extra point, put California up by one. But it wasn’t over.
Starting from his own 19, Benjamin completed two long aerials. On the second pass, Brad Williams dragged two defenders out of bounds at the California 33 with two seconds left. The image of Mike Langford’s 50-yard field goal sailing between the uprights on the last play is still remembered by legions of California and Stanford followers.
Two years afterwards, Stanford won the first of three straight games, scoring with 1:13 left to win 27-24 after recovering a fumble on the Bears’ 2-yard line. California won both in 1979 and 1980, but both times Stanford had to be stopped inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes.
In 1982 The Play ended a great game but not the great finishes. The Bears rallied from a 24-0 third-quarter deficit to nearly pull off an upset in 1985 at Stanford. A late-game-field-goal attempt fell short, preserving Stanford’s 24-22 triumph.
The Bears sent Kapp out a winner 17-11 in 1986. A tie, 11th in the series, resulted in 1988 when Stanford’s Tuan Van Le blocked a 20-yard field-goal try as time expired.
And the thrills continued into the 1990s. Three seasons ago, Stanford scored nine points in the final 12 seconds to win 27-25 on John Hopkins’ 39-yard field goal at the final gun.
Each year when the Big Game is played in late November, alumni share memories. The Play is, of course, the hands-down favorite of Golden Bear fans. And of the California players who brought it off.
“Once your football career is over, it’s over,” says Mariet Ford. “But not for me.”