Weird, Wild, and Wonderful: Highlights of Big Game History
by John Curley, San Francisco Chronicle, 20 November 1997

The first Big Game was played in 1892. The second Big Game was played that year, too.

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The first game was played on March 19, and the excitement surprised just about everyone: Although 5,000 tickets had been printed, as many as 20,000 people may have watched Stanford win, 14-10. It was quite an upset: Cal, the more experienced club, was a 3-1 favorite going in.

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The second Big Game of 1892 was played on December 17, and the rules had been tightened up. Players had to be students at the school for at least six weeks before the game, and they had to be attending at least five lectures a week.

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The night before the second Big Game, Stanford rooters roamed the streets of San Francisco tooting a 15-foot horn. When they finally went to sleep, Cal backers stole the horn, painted it blue and gold and brought it to the game the next day. History had recorded the first Big Game prank.

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Appropriately, there were dramatics near the end of the second Big Game. In those days, touchdowns were worth four points, and PATs two, but the conversions were no sure thing. A team first had to kick the ball out of the end zone, and one of its own players had to catch it. Then that player had to kick the ball through the uprights from the spot where the ball was caught. Trailing 10-8, Cal executed the play perfectly to earn the first Big Game tie.

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After seven years of Big Games, Cal had yet to earn a win. But at Rec Park in 1898, the tide turned when Cal triumphed, 22-0. Pete "Kangaroo" Kaarsberg was a key player for the Bears. He was small but agile, and he was good at jumping over piles of players. He also had special straps sewn onto his pants so that his teammates could hurl him over those pileups and send him scampering down the field.

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Stanford won the 1905 game, 12-5, and it was the last football game between the two schools for 14 years. The presidents of Cal and Stanford had decided that football was just too dangerous, and they decreed that rugby would be the sport of choice for the Big Game. Stanford prevailed during the Big Game's rugby years, going 5-3-1 against Cal.

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There were no Big Games of any kind, football OR rugby, between 1915 and 1918. The universities had an off-the-field disagreement that scuttled the series. Cal wanted freshmen to be declared ineligible for varsity athletics, but Stanford, which required college-level work for admission, disagreed. So the two schools simply quit playing each other. Athletic relations were not restored until the formation of the Pacific Coast Conference, which adjudicated the eligibility dispute (freshmen were allowed).

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Cal's fine 1920 team was one that showed little mercy; among the thumpings administered that year was a 127-0 hurt put on St. Mary's. Going into the Big Game, Cal was undefeated, had scored 444 points and had given up only 14. A Chronicle reporter dubbed it the "Wonder Team." Playing at home in front of more than 27,000 people, the Bears whupped Stanford, 38-0. The Rose Bowl was also a rout; Ohio State fell, 28-0.

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Time was running out in the 1938 game, but Cal was moving down the field. With a few moments left, they had a first and goal at the Stanford 7-yard-line. Henry (Hard Luck Hank) Schaldach, who had gained 54 yards on six attempts in the final drive, got the call once again. This time, though, he was dropped after a yard. The gun sounded, ending the first and only scoreless tie in Big Game history.

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Cal won the 1952 Big Game by a score of 26-0, but Olympic decathlon champion Bob Mathias was magnificent in defeat for Stanford. But the really big news was that Cal's win had tied the series for the very first time. After 55 games over 59 years, one school could not say that it was better than the other: Everything was even at 23-23-9.

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John Brodie and Paul Wiggin were big-time stars for Stanford's 1955 team, but Cal hadn't lost a Big Game since Pappy Waldorf arrived in Berkeley in 1947. In fact, Stanford hadn't beaten Cal at home in 20 years. No matter. Stanford dominated Waldorf's worst Cal team, winning 19-0.

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Does this sound familiar? Cal and Stanford went into the 1959 Big Game trying to salvage their miserable seasons. Cal was 1-8-0, and Stanford was marginally better at 3-6-0. But as is usually the case, the records didn't matter. They would play the kind of contest that has made it legitimate to call this the Big Game.

Dick Norman of Stanford would set an NCAA passing percentage record by completing 34 of 39 for 401 yards. Norman also set Big Game records for total offense, passes attempted and first downs gained by passes. Cal broke a record, too — it was penalized for 110 yards. So you'd have to think Stanford would win. But no — the Bears prevailed, 20-17.

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In 1963, Stanford hired an "Old Blue," John Ralston, as head coach. Cal had beaten Stanford three times and tied once during Ralston's playing days, so he had some taste of success in Big Games. Ralston's staff included Bill Walsh, who would go on to a career of some note in the NFL. There was another future NFL coach on the other sideline: Cal was coached by Marv Levy. The outcome of this clash of coaching talent was a 28-17 victory for Stanford. Levy resigned after the season with a four-year record of 8-29-3.

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Stanford established the record for consecutive Big Game victories in 1965, when its 9-7 win pushed the streak to five. It was a record that didn't last long: Stanford extended it to six in 1966 with a 13-7 win that took place in a torrential rain.

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There was no lack of big names in the Big Game of 1970, especially on Stanford's side. Jim Plunkett was at quarterback, and he could throw to Randy Vataha and Bob Moore. But the really big names from that team were the "Thunder Chickens," Stanford's defensive front four. Guard Pete Lazetich is credited with coming up with the term, in part because he thought his teammate Dave Tipton "really looks like a big chicken the way he runs around flailing his arms."

Stanford, with an 8-2-0 record and ranked 11th in the nation, already had locked up a trip to the Rose Bowl, so maybe it's understandable that they took a 5-5 Cal team a little lightly. The unthinkable happened, of course: Cal won, 22-14. Stanford pulled itself together to shock Ohio State in Pasadena, though, so everybody could find a reason to be happy that year.

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The evidence continued to mount that the Big Game had to be considered one of the most consistently exciting games in college football history:

— In 1972, Cal trailed 21-18 with just 1:13 left and the ball on its own 38-yard line. The Bears managed to get to the Stanford 5 with three. A field goal would tie it, but Cal went for the win. The Bears got it when Vince Ferragamo hit Steve Sweeney in the end zone.

— In 1974, with only 26 seconds left in the game, an extra point had given Cal a one-point lead. After the kickoff, two Guy Benjamin passes brought Stanford to the 50 yard line. There were two seconds left, time to try a desperation field goal. Mike Langford kicked it with plenty to spare. Final: 22-20, Stanford.

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Nothing that has happened before or since has matched Chuck Muncie's performance in the 1975 Big Game. The running back scored four touchdowns and passed for another as the Bears annihilated Stanford, 48-15.

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Bill Walsh concluded his first stint as Stanford's head coach with a 30-10 win in the 1978 Big Game. His two-year record was 17-7-0. Three years later, he coached the 49ers to a Super Bowl championship.

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Kevin Moen fielded The Kick and eventually scored on The Play which won the 1982 Big Game for Cal. Richard Rodgers, Dwight Garner and Mariet Ford also got their hands on the ball during the kickoff return. For the record: Gary Tyrell was the Stanford trombonist who was bowled over by Moen in the end zone.

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Trailing 25-18 in the 1990 Big Game, Jason Palumbis drove Stanford down the field and hit Ed McCaffrey in the end zone to cut Cal's lead to a point. Stanford tried a two-point conversion, but John Hardy intercepted for the Bears, and it appeared the game was over. Not so fast.

Stanford kicked off from midfield after Cal was penalized 15 yards for excessive celebration. The Cardinal recovered the onside kick. With nine seconds left, Stanford could have tried a 54-yard field goal, but instead tried one more play. Palumbis' pass was incomplete, but a roughing-the-passer call gave John Hopkins a 39-yard field-goal try. He made it (his fifth of the day), and Stanford won 27-25, getting a measure of revenge for the events of 1982.

Sources: The Cal and Stanford athletic departments, 'The Big Game,' by John Sullivan; FANSonly.com, and Chronicle files

©1997 San Francisco Chronicle




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