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Swan Song

August 31, 2010
by Ron Fimrite
Pappy Waldorf and football players

Pappy Waldorf’s final seasons

Lynn O. “Pappy” Waldorf, now commemorated in bronze on the western edge of Faculty Glade, is a bona fide legend in college football, a coach in the pantheon with the Knut Rocknes and Pop Warners and Andy Smiths. In ten seasons at Cal (1947–1956), Waldorf notched a record of 67-32-4 and made three consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl. Along the way he earned both the lasting respect of his peers and the undying loyalty of his players, who still proudly call themselves Pappy’s Boys.

But even giants can be laid low, and the story that follows is not about Pappy’s winning years but about his final seasons with the Bears, after scandal rocked the Pacific Coast Conference and threatened to topple Waldorf from his pedestal. In fact, the PCC soon disbanded, eventually reorganizing as the Pac-8, and later the Pac-10. The story will doubtless resonate with today’s fans as the Conference once again expands, to become the Pac-12.

The piece is excerpted from Golden Bears, a comprehensive history of Cal football by long-time Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite ’52, who passed away last spring, shortly after seeing the book to completion. In the San Francisco Chronicle, where Fimrite’s byline appeared for many years, reporter Bruce Jenkins remembered his friend’s good-natured humor and talent as a raconteur. “When it came to a good story,” he wrote, “Ron’s version was always the best.”

The Golden Bears are lucky he chose to tell theirs.


After a 1952 season in which he threw 27 touchdown passes for Santa Monica High School, Ronnie Knox was considered the nation’s top quarterback prospect, much in demand among college recruiters, even though he came with considerable baggage; namely, his stepfather, Harvey Knox. A dapper gent with pompadoured silver hair and a Douglas Fairbanks mustache, Harvey had at one time or another been a store detective, a private eye, a Las Vegas casino functionary, an encyclopedia salesman, a service station attendant, and the proprietor of a failed haberdashery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. But his real job was promoting the athletic career of his gifted stepson and, to a lesser extent, the acting and modeling aspirations of Ronnie’s older sister Patricia. In effect, with Ronnie as his sole client, Harvey Knox was the sports world’s first player agent.

Though his knowledge of the game was no better than that of the average fan, Harvey exercised unusual care in seeing to it that Ronnie’s coaches fully appreciated the lad’s talent. In the process, Ronnie matriculated at two high schools, Beverly Hills and Inglewood, before Harvey finally settled on Santa Monica and its pass-happy coach, Jim Sutherland. After Ronnie’s banner senior season there, Harvey fielded nearly thirty submissions from college recruiters across the country, informing the most promising to, “just put your real offer on the line, and we’ll tell you how it matches with the others.”

After sifting through the numberless solicitations, Harvey chose Cal as Ronnie’s first collegiate way station. Ronnie told the San Francisco Chronicle that his reasons for heading north were wholly academic: he wanted to learn how to write beautiful prose and poetry with an eye to becoming a latter day Walt Whitman. Harvey had a somewhat different take. To begin with, a Cal booster club known as the Southern Seas hired him as a football talent scout for $400 a month. Ronnie’s literary ambitions would be furthered by a promise from the Seas’ chief recruiter, Frank Storment, to get him a job writing sports for the Berkeley Gazette. Sutherland, the only coach Harvey deemed suitably appreciative, was hired as a Cal assistant. And finally, Ronnie claimed he was promised “pocket money,” once he made the varsity line-up, of $500 annually in a deal engineered by the San Francisco Grid Club.

Ronnie was subsequently shocked to discover that many of these supposed inducements were not acceptable to the university. The administration would not allow him to be a professional sportswriter, particularly while playing a sport he might actually write about. If nothing else, Ronnie Knox writing about the spectacular play of Ronnie Knox was bad journalism. And he never did receive his proposed salary from the Grid Club because Ronnie never played a minute of varsity football at Cal.

When the PCC learned of Harvey’s deal with the Southern Seas, it both reprimanded the booster club and ordered Cal to sever all relations with it until it conformed to conference rules and got out of the business of hiring paid recruiters, particularly those who had stepsons on the football team. Sutherland stayed at Cal about as long as Ronnie did before becoming a successful head coach at Washington State.

Ronnie did play one season of freshman football at Cal in 1953, and played exceedingly well. But when Harvey discovered in spring practice of 1954 that his boy was playing second string, he fairly exploded, complaining bitterly that coach Pappy Waldorf was unwilling to heed either his or Sutherland’s counsel on Ronnie’s superior qualities. Harvey told Pappy, “We’re used to winning, and we’ve joined a loser.” This to a man whose teams had won twenty-two straight conference games only a few years earlier.

That June, Ronnie transferred to UCLA. Waldorf did not seem especially grieved by the loss. Acknowledging the boys’ great talent, he remarked, “Perhaps we’re better off in the long run.”

Not surprisingly, Harvey did not get along well with UCLA’s equally obdurate head coach Red Sanders, remarking at one point in their stormy relationship that if the coach didn’t “shape up, Ronnie and I are going to be forced to make a serious decision of our own.” In fact, faced with only a half-season’s eligibility because of conference penalties, Ronnie quit school in 1956 to play for the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League. After three years at two universities, the nation’s hottest high school prospect had played not even one complete varsity season. He lasted three years with four different teams in Canada and part of a season with the Chicago Bears, a brief NFL interlude punctuated by Harvey’s challenging the coaching acumen of the legendary George Halas.

Then, at age twenty-four in 1959, Ronnie “retired.” A game that had once promised him a bright future and certainly a different sort of celebrity than the one he now had was, he concluded, “strictly for animals, and I like to think I’m above that.” He would repair to a garret somewhere, he intimated, and write poetry.

Ronnie and Harvey’s lasting contribution to the game was to set in motion, through their own improprieties, a series of investigations into West Coast college football that would penalize its most dominant powers and lead finally to the dissolution of the once-prestigious Pacific Coast Conference.

The conference, long tolerant of the increasingly influential booster clubs, decided in 1955 to get tough with them and, as Chancellor and Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg put it, their “flouting of the rules” governing recruiting and subsidizing athletes. That year alone, PCC Commissioner Victor O. Schmidt and his staff examined eighty-one allegations of wrongdoing and found thirty-six clear violations. After a number of meetings involving the governing faculty representatives and college presidents, harsh penalties were imposed on the miscreants, most notably UCLA, USC and Washington, but also, to a lesser degree, Cal.

When the dust finally cleared, UCLA was placed on three years probation, meaning that its teams would not only be ineligible to play in the Rose Bowl but also unable to share in the bounty the game ordinarily distributed to all conference schools. Bruin home games were not to be shown on national television during the probation period. And a fine of $15,000 was levied against the school for attempts made by its administration and coaching staff to stonewall the investigation. Added together, financial losses from these penalties approached $100,000, a staggering cost in the 1950s. Furthermore, the school’s senior players would be eligible for only half of the 1956 season, those five games to be played consecutively.

Red Sanders, whose behind-the-scenes machinations had in large part brought about the punishment, was not in the least intimidated by their severity. “I don’t feel a bit wicked,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Declaring these boys ineligible was all wrong. We have been dealt the death penalty without committing a capital offense.” But Sanders’ respect for rules was famously lacking. When Pappy once accused him of ignoring a gentleman’s agreement among conference coaches concerning the use of bootlegged game films, Red replied, “Aw hell, Pappy, if I’d known I was breaking a gentleman’s agreement, I wouldn’t have done it. I just thought I was breaking a conference rule.”

For their part, Washington and USC were both placed on probation for two years, with the same restrictions that applied to UCLA, including the half-season eligibility rule for seniors.

But if the restrictions imposed on her three rivals were harsher, Cal’s embarrassment at being penalized at all was considerably greater. After all, it was UC President Robert Gordon Sproul who originally championed strict observance of the rules, and in Athletic Director Brutus Hamilton and coach Waldorf, the school had in place two generally acknowledged pillars of integrity. And though neither knowingly violated the trust invested in them, they suffered the consequences of the investigation. Hamilton, in fact, resigned as A.D. on September 27, 1955, but not, as he wrote, because of “pressure from any student, faculty or alumni groups.” He said he simply wished to devote his time to coaching track, which he did at Cal for another ten years. He was replaced as athletic director in March of 1956 by Greg Engelhard, a Cal basketball player of the 1930s and a veteran administrator at the University.

Pappy’s situation was more complicated. He had approved a fund, financed by the San Francisco Grid Club to provide loans for players facing financial emergencies. And though such “grants-in-aid” were within conference rules and common elsewhere, at Cal they required Sproul’s approval, which was not sought, and most likely would not have been given. As a result, Cal was placed on a year’s probation and fined $25,000 (to be paid over three years) “for the part played by the head football coach in the illegal aid given to student athletes.” The conference also specified that no Cal player would lose eligibility if his loan was repaid before or by September 1, 1957. Meanwhile, the ban against the Southern Seas had been lifted in 1956 since that organization had revised its rules to conform to the conference’s. Now, Cal was instructed to sever relations with the Grid Club, until it too fell in line, which it did rather quickly.

Though both UC President Clark Kerr and Berkeley Chancellor Glenn Seaborg had great regard for Waldorf, they reluctantly decided that to clear the air and prompt other penalized schools to do the same, they should publicly reprimand their coach. And so, on July 7, 1956, Kerr issued a letter of rebuke to Pappy: “I must hold you personally and individually responsible,” Kerr wrote to Waldorf, “for your participation, directly or indirectly, in any activity involving the offer of illegal subsidization of athletes.” In response, Pappy wrote: “I deeply regret the circumstances which made such a letter necessary…. I shall not defend myself or make excuses. For the record I want to assure you that the violations in question were individual cases of genuine need, which I established after personal investigation. No promise of tuition help was ever made to an athlete as an inducement to enter California nor was such aid ever given as a reward for athletic achievement. In the great majority of cases the individuals involved were not eligible for aid from University loan funds nor did they have anyone else to turn to.”

Any assumptions Kerr and Seaborg may have made about other conference schools coming forth with similar public reprimands were ill-founded. “We were wrong,” Seaborg admitted, “and our misjudgement would forever be painful. No other coach in the Pacific Coast Conference was publicly disciplined. At UCLA Chancellor Allen mildly chastised the entire coaching staff; no official criticism was directed specifically toward Red Sanders.”

The well-publicized scolding of one of the college game’s most beloved figures provoked an angry reaction from Cal alums, Bear fans and newspapers in the Bay Area and even southern California. In the July 13, 1956, editions of the Los Angeles Examiner, sports columnist Mel Durslag wrote: “Pappy Waldorf is a fine gentleman who is both personally and intellectually the equal of any member of Cal’s faculty. He is giving his school exactly the level of football that the alumni, the Board of Regents and Chancellor Kerr’s own administration expect. For Kerr suddenly to get lofty and embarrass Waldorf in public is the most pretentious act yet to come out of the recent scandals.”

Kerr’s remonstrations had only served to increase the university’s discomfort without noticeably reducing Pappy’s stature in the football community. And yet, the coach was under fire, not for any moral lapse but because his teams simply weren’t winning as they once did. The 1955 season was easily his worst at Cal. The Bears finished a miserable 2-7-1, suffering humiliating losses to Sanders’ implacable Bruins, 47–0; USC, 33–6; Oregon, 21–0; Pitt, 27–7, and, worst of all, to Stanford, 19–0. It was Stanford’s first-ever win over a Waldorf-coached team.

Pappy turned fifty-four early in the ’56 season, and he told friends in private that, win or lose, this would be his last year at Cal. Certainly, he’d been hurt by Kerr’s reprimand, and he was frustrated by three straight non-winning seasons, but the real reason for his decision, he confided, was that after thirty-two years on the job, he’d had his fill of coaching football. He’d wait until later to make his retirement public.

The ’56 season began, as the ’55 one had, with two straight losses, to Baylor, 7–6, and to Illinois 32–20, after blowing a 20–0 lead at halftime. The Baylor defeat was Pappy’s first at Cal by one point, but to show which way his luck was going, he’d lose another, by 14–13 to Washington State, later in the season.

The Bears were just 2–7 entering the Big Game. Stanford, at 4–5, wasn’t all that much better. Pappy made public his decision to retire from coaching at a team meeting the Tuesday before the Stanford game. He might have waited until just before the game and delivered a tearful Gipperish locker room oration, but that wasn’t Pappy’s way. “I wanted to end all speculation,” he told the Examiner, “and above all I didn’t want the boys to feel they were playing this one for me.” But of course that’s exactly how they did feel. As Cal Center Frank Mattarocci said after listening to the coach say goodbye, “We’re all boiling and we’re going out there Saturday and tear Stanford apart.”

Pappy was going out in style. The Cal band serenaded him the night of his announcement, the coach greeting the musicians in his pajamas outside his home on Grizzly Peak Boulevard. Tributes flowed freely all week, including one from Kerr that had an almost apologetic tone to it. “Lynn,” he said, eschewing the familiar nickname, “has represented the Berkeley campus with great personal dignity and outstanding success for ten seasons now… But more important is the fine example of good sportsmanship, calm composure under stress, and careful consideration for the feelings and interests of his fellow man that he has set for the men who have played under him and for our students generally.”

And in storybook fashion, his Bears won his last Big Game before a capacity crowd of eighty-one thousand five hundred at Memorial Stadium. They didn’t exactly “tear Stanford apart,” as Mattarocci had promised, but the narrow, 20–18, win was no less satisfying.

At the final gun, the players, none of whom outweighed him, carried Waldorf off the field to riotous cheers.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Pappy had indeed inspired the victory. He also crafted it by changing his line’s blocking assignments to create openings for the hard-running Joe Kapp. He had guards Piestrup and team co-captain Don Gilkey pull out of the line in opposite directions on quarterback running plays. Stanford’s linebackers, who keyed on the guards, followed them dutifully to protect against sweeps, ignoring the fact that, with the rules limiting possible ball carriers to one, something was amiss. With the middle left vacant and Mattarocci more than capable of blocking the man opposite him, Kapp had a field day, gaining 106 yards on 18 carries. As in Pappy’s heyday, the Bears rushed for 281 yards while passing only six times with two completions for 15 yards.

When the coach stepped onto the locker room balcony for his final post-game address, he was cheered by a crowd estimated at an amazing 18,000. He was visibly moved. Pappy smiled down upon them, and recalling the rooters’ questionable behavior in the past, he bellowed in that cavernous voice, “Sometimes they say you’re pretty rough. Sometimes they say you’re vulgar. Sometimes they say you’re even barbaric. I don’t care. I love you and I always will.”

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