2396...
TGS PAC-12 RETROSPECTIVE...THUNDER CHICKENS ON THE FARM!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Modern-day football fans and the new-wave ESPN crowd who have become used to the current David Shaw corporate model at Stanford probably have no idea what a colorful and personality-rich football history exists on The Farm. Indeed, there is a long and illustrious gridiron background in Palo Alto aside from John Elway and the band and being on the wrong end of "The Play" at the end of the 1982 Cal game (Stanford folk don't like to talk about that game, so we won't ing it up again).

And yes, the school's teams were known as the Indians until March of 1972. So, as we take a look back at football on the Farm, for historical accuracy, we'll refer to the pre-'72 teams as the "Indians" throughout this piece. The teams were then unofficially known as the "Cardinals" (although some referred to them as the "No-Names") until 1981, when "Cardinal" was officially adopted as the nickname.

The gridiron tradition on The Farm is a rich one, much of it long before Elway (who never took Stanford to a bowl, by the way) stepped on campus in the fall of 1979. The names associated with Stanford football roll off the tongue like a who's who of the sport: Walter "The Father Of Football" Camp, who coached at the school in 1892, 1894-95. Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost, coach in 1900. Glenn "Pop" Warner, coach from 1924-32, including three Rose Bowl teams and a national champion in 1926. Clark Shaughnessy, coach from 1940-41. John Ralston, coach from 1963-71, including back-to-back upset Rose Bowl winners in his last two years in charge. Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy winner in 1970. The incomparable Elway. Bill Walsh, coach during two different stints between 1977-78 and 1992-94. All except Walsh are members of The College Football Hall Of Fame, and Walsh of course made a greater mark on the pro game, and has been immortalized in its HOF at Canton. 

Camp, Yost, and Warner are recognized as pioneers of the game, and Shaughnessy was one of the most influential coaches in the history of the sport, as he was the "Father Of The T-Formation." Before arriving on The Farm, Shaughnessy coached at the University of Chicago and examined the Pro-T used by George Halas and his early-NFL Chicago Bears team. Shaughnessy was tinkering with ways to improve the formation, but before he could implement them, U of Chicago dropped the sport.

Hired at Stanford before the 1940 season, Shaughnessy inherited a 1-7-1 Indians team and proceeded to introduce his version of the "T-Formation," a and new offense that was dismissed by traditionalists and single-wing devotees. The famed "Pop" Warner who had coached Stanford from 1924 through 1932, was one of the critics. "If Stanford wins a single game with that crazy formation," said the legendary Pop, "you can throw all the football I ever knew into the Pacific Ocean."

We don't know if Warner followed through on his threat, but Shaughnessy fooled him and everyone else when Stanford's "Wow Boys" went 10-0 and defeated Ne aska in the Rose Bowl 21-13, and named College Coach of the Year in the process. But, in a pattern that would be repeated in subsequent generations, Shaughnessy abandoned The Farm after just two seasons. Although it was the out eak of World War II, not an offer of riches from elsewhere, that prompted his move from Palo Alto after the 1941 campaign, as Shaughnessy correctly predicted that the school would shudder its gridiron program during the war.

Preceding the "Wow Boys" were the legendary "Vow Boys" of the mid 1930s, coached by the outgoing Tiny Thornhill, who ran something of a loose ship. The "Vow Boys" were so named because a group of freshman who entered school in 1932 "vowed" to never lose to USC and Howard Jones' Thundering Herd, which had beaten the Stanford varsity 13-0 in the fall of '32. That freshman class extended the "vow" to hated rival Cal as well, and never lost to either the Trojans or Golden Bears for the rest of their careers on The Farm.

Over the course of their three varsity years, the "Vow Boys" compiled an impressive 25-4-2 record and went to the Rose Bowl three straight years, finally winning one on the last attempt against SMU, 7-0. As for Thornhill, he allowed his players to come to practice late if necessary, and installed no curfews. Indeed, it was hard to tell who ran the Stanford practices in those days, but that sort of independence manifested itself on the gridiron. Another Stanford trait that would be repeated in future football generations.

Although the next highlight era in Stanford football would wait until the 1960s regime of the innovative Ralston, whose pro-style offenses and maniacal defensive units (remember the "Thunder Chickens" of the early '70s?) produced contending outfits and colorful Rose Bowl teams in 1970 and '71. Not to mention borrowing a page from Tiny Thornhill's happy-go-lucky "Vow Boys" from nearly 40 years earlier, as Ralston allowed his boys to be independent, letting them grow their hair and sideburns long and even sporting a moustache if they wished, things that many staid football coaches of the day considered taboo.

We at TGS also consider those Ralston teams among the most colorful, refreshing, and entertaining departures from the norm that we have ever covered in our near six-plus decades of publishing. A look back at some of the Ralston staffs at Stanford indicated that he had a keen eye for coaching talent as well. Sorts such as future (or past) NFL head coaches Dick Vermeil, Jim Mora, Mike White, Rod Rust, Jack Christiansen (who would succeed Ralston at Stanford), as well the aforementioned Walsh and others, populated the Ralston staffs.

Ralston’s football foundation was formed as an undergrad at Cal, where he played as a 178-pound LB in the late 1940s for teams coached by the legendary Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf. Ralston would go on to become one of the more decorated of “Pappy’s boys” that retained a lifelong connection with one another through their former Hall of Fame coach.

Stanford had endured a bleak five-year period before Ralston arrived in 1963 from Utah State, where players such as Merlin Olsen, Len Rohde and Jim Turner were featured, and the Utags would go to two bowls, the Sun and Gotham, while recording a stellar 31-11-1 mark. It took three years before Ralston could fashion a winning record on The Farm. Ralston’s early Stanford quarterbacks were sorts such as Dave Lewis and Gene Washington, both future NFL players and swift players who led sprint-out attacks. (Washington would eventually move to WR, where he would star play for years in the NFL). But when Plunkett showed what he could do as a passer, Ralston changed to a drop-back style.

“John loved to run the football,” Vermeil said. “But we greatly increased the effort in the passing game.”

“They built it around my abilities,” Plunkett said. “They saw me throw the football and my ability to run was not quite as stellar as Dave and Gene. One of the guys who helped tremendously with that was Jack Christiansen. He came in here as a linebackers coach, but he was also my coach one year and helped develop that pro style attack and made it work.”

The seeds of change were planted in a near- eakthrough 1968 campaign in which RS soph Plunkett burst upon the scene with 2156 passing yards. By comparison, neither of the preceding Stanford QBs Lewis, Washington, or Chuck Williams, passed for as many as 1000 yards in 1966 and ‘67. A near-miss early in ‘68 season against USC and O.J. Simpson, which squeezed to a 27-24 comeback win on the Farm, signaled an upturn in Palo Alto.

Various longtime West Coast football followers still believe Ralston's 1969 team might have been the best of that Stanford era, if not the best team in the country that season, and maybe the best in school history. Plunkett had established himself as a force as a sophomore the previous season, and though the decorated Gene Washington had graduated after 1968, Stanford still owned solid receiving targets in TE Bob Moore & WRs Randy "The Rabbit" Vataha and Jack Lasater. Not to mention a stout defense with potential postseason honorees on the DL (Dave Tipton and Pete Lazetich, both to play in the NFL) and at LB (Jeff Siemon and Don Parish, also both future NFL players). The Indians seemed to have the necessary experience, balance and depth to make a run at Pac-8 honors. Early lopsided wins over San Jose State (63-21) and Oregon (28-0) moved Stanford to the 17th spot in the rankings before an early-season showdown at number 8 Purdue, and an anticipated shootout between the Boilermakers' Heisman Trophy candidate QB Mike Phipps and Plunkett.

The Indians, behind Plunkett's 4 TD passes, took a 35-21 lead into the 4th Q, only to see Phipps rally Purdue to a pair of late scores, the last a TD strike to RB Stan Brown (Phipps' 5th TD pass of the day) with 3:03 to play, and a subsequent 2-point conversion pass to WR Greg Fenner put Purdue ahead 36-35. Plunkett proceeded to drive Stanford into Boilermaker territory and nearing the range of PK Steve Horowitz before being intercepted by Purdue DB Mike Renie with 2:04 to play, saving the 36-35 win for the Boilermakers.

The consensus after that game, however, was that the same teams might be playing in a rematch at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. For Stanford to get there for the first time in 18 years, it would have to go through defending Pac-10 champ Southern Cal, next on the agenda at the L.A. Coliseum. And the Indians believed they had a legit shot after (as mentioned earlier) coming close to a Trojan team led by Heisman winner O.J. Simpson in '68 at Stanford Stadium, bowing only 27-24, in what was Plunkett's eakout game.

If the Purdue game was a thriller, the SC game was off-the-charts exciting, as the early Pac-8 showdown at the Coliseum was a wild, back-and-forth affair between the 4th-ranked Trojans and 18-th ranked Indians. Stanford jumped to a 12-0 lead behind two Plunkett TD passes, although failed conversion attempts after both scores would come back to haunt the Indians. By halftime, however, SC had assumed a 14-12 lead, with DB Ty Hudson's 57-yard interception return of an errant Plunkett toss on the fianl paly of the first half staking the Trojans to the edge at intermission.

The teams went back-and-forth in the second half, SC taking what looked to be a final lead at 23-21 on a Ron Ayala FG with just over 3 minutes remaining, until Plunkett unleashed a 67-yard bomb to Vataha with under 2 minutes to play, setting up a go-ahead 37-yard FG by Horowitz with 1:02 to play. Down 24-23 and with no timeouts, SC's plight looked bleak, especially after facing a 4th down inside their own 30. Coach John McKay, however, called for a Clarence Davis run to get the first down, then QB Jimmy Jones commenced an urgent march upfield, with a 14-yard pass to TE Gerry Mullins getting the ball to the Stanford 17 in the final seconds. Mullins, however, had not gotten out of bounds, and the clock was soon ticking again after the first down markers were set. Without timeouts, McKay hurriedly sent his FG team on the field, with the snap barely beating the game clock to 0:00. PK Ron Ayala proceeded to hit the 34-yard FG at the final gun for a 26-24 Trojan win, and another Stanford heart eak.

"I can remember seeing the (Stanford) players strewn all over the field, not able to get up," All-American LB and future Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler Jeff Siemon said.

John Sande, the center, said, "That's the first time I ever cried after a game. There were a lot of us crying."

In watching and recalling football since the early '60s, that game rates as one of the all-time best I can ever recall, and one I would like to relive if I could. There were seven lead changes that night in the Coliseum, including one of the wildest finishes and final three minutes of action I could remember. I still recall the excited tones of SC play-by-play radio announcer Mike Walden, trying to make sense of the final minute. How I wish I could find Walden's commentary from that night!

Stanford's 1969 heart eakers weren't finished yet. Two weeks later, undefeated and 6th-ranked UCLA and perhaps Tommy Prothro's best-ever UCLA team invaded Palo Alto for another showdown. Stanford's Rose Bowl hopes were already on life support thanks to the SC loss, but Plunkett came out firing, with a pair of first-half TD passes to Vataha staking the Indians to a 17-6 halftime edge. UCLA rallied on a pair of Dennis Dummit TD passes to reclaim the lead at 20-17 before Horowitz tied the score with a 4th Q FG. Then, after Bruin PK Zenon Andrusyshyn duck-hooked a short go-ahead FG attempt (duck hook is no exaggeration, as Andrusyshyn nearly hooked his FG to the sideline), Plunkett drove Stanford downfield for a game-winning FG try by Horowitz from 32 yards with 4 seconds to play. UCLA, however, had different ideas, with DE Mike Ballou blocking the kick and LB Vince Bischof picking up the ball and momentarily looking as if he might return it for a TD. Bischof was tackled near midfield, however, and the game ended a 20-20 tie.

"Three plays decided our season," said linebacker Pat Preston, who was second on the team in tackles that year. "Phipps beat us with the PAT, USC kicked the field goal, and our field goal was blocked by UCLA. We could easily have been undefeated."

Stanford won its final four games, beating Cal 29-28 in the finale, and the returning players vowed to turn the tide against USC the next season after 12 straight losses in the series.

"We made a pact as a team," DE Dave Tipton said. "Most of the time, players went home for the summer. We were going to spend the whole summer here as a team working out. 'We're going to beat SC and get this done.' It was a turning point for all of us."

As for Plunkett, who had been redshirted earlier in his Stanford career and could have opted for the NFL Draft as a certain first-round selection after the ‘69 season, there was no consideration to jump to the pro ranks, which could wait until the subsequent 1970 season was finished. Plunkett, like the rest of teammates, still had business to tend to the following season.

When conducting our TGS radio show several years ago, we went to some lengths to have coach Ralston, then in semi-retirement and working as an analyst on San Jose State's games, as our featured guest for one of the programs. It was an honor for us, as Ralston was perhaps our most interesting guest of our 2-year run for the show, and thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing with us about the 1969 season and the old days at Stanford.

When I asked the coach if he thought the 1969 team could have been his best, he didn't exactly disagree. "Well, it might have been," said the coach. "Except I believe the teams in 1970 and '71 would probably have found a way to win those games we lost and tied in 1969. On the other hand, the '70 and '71 teams lost a few games the '69 team probably wouldn't have lost. But I think those near-misses in '69 really fueled our next teams, especially the next year. We probably needed to go through that as a team in '69 to achieve what we did in 1970.

"But I still think we should have won thsoe games in '69, too."


What the 1970 team would do is exorcise many of the demons that haunted the program for the previous two decades. Although the Indians did so in a rather jumbled manner.

Ranked tenth nationally entering 1970, Stanford would begin the campaign in a high-profile opener at Arkansas in the newly-created “11th game” that had been added to college schedules that offseason. Several colorful featured intersectional matchups were quickly added to the 1970 slate, including Southern Cal’s much-discussed trip to Birmingham to face Bear Bryant’s Alabama. While historians have since written more about the social significance of SC-Alabama, the real highlight 11th game of 1970 matched Ralston’s Indians against Frank Broyles’ Razorbacks, just nine months removed from the epic 15-14 loss to Texas in the storied battle for No. 1 in December of ‘69. Arkansas would return most of its team, including QB Bill Montgomery, and would be ranked fourth in preseason polls as it was favored in the opener. In fact, ABC thought so much of Stanford-Arkansas to make it the feature national telecast of opening weekend, with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson on hand at Little Rock.

The whole event bore a quality of unreality from the beginning, what with the game being a twi-night single-header to avoid a television matchup with Miss America, airing later that night on NBC. It all started with an outrageous early outburst by the cool and relaxed Plunkett, plus a 61-yard punt return for a TD by “Rabbit” Vataha, and before you knew it, Stanford had zoomed to a 27-0 lead by midway in the second quarter over a confused Arkansas bunch that looked as bewildered and beaten as Jess Willard had once been in the first round of his long-ago fight vs. Jack Dempsey.

But the early evening in Little Rock would soon evolve into the surreal, as the first black athlete ever to play for Arkansas, a quick little back named Jon Richardson--yep, right there in Orval Faubus' neighborhood--provide the spark for an amazing Razorback comeback that almost won the ball game.

It was soph QB Joe Ferguson, a whip-arm thrower whom Broyles had considered redshirting, but thrust into the fray when Montgomery would miss 11 of his first 12 passes., who got Arkansas moving for its first touchdown, and then it was the other sophomore, the slippery Richardson, who chased down a 37-yard wobbler of a pass from Montgomery for the score that gave Arkansas some reason for hope. It was the Richardson score that narrowed the margin to 27-14 at the half.

Plunkett would come out firing in the 3rd Q and lead an 86-yard march that would culminate in a 3-yard TD run by emerging jr. FB Hillary Shockley, so the lead expanded to 34-14, but stylish WR Chuck Dicus would subsequently catch an eight-yarder from Montgomery for one Arkansas touchdown and then Richardson, the son of a postman in Little Rock, went back into action. He took a screen pass, dancing and ducking 17 big yards, to set up the Arkansas score that drew the Razorbacks within six points in the 4th Q.

So, with the dust about to settle, Arkansas had climbed back to within 34-28 as the death of the game beckoned. Events, however, had conspired for a grandstand finish. In the last minute, the Razorbacks somehow had negotiated their way to the Stanford five-yard line, needing two measly yards for a first down--recovering a fumble at midfield had given them this last chance--and just another three yards beyond that on the ight Astro Turf for the potential winning score. Stanford appeared likely to lose again as it did vs. Purdue and USC the previous year, with big Jim Plunkett helpless by the sideline, and with the defense coughing so loud that Indians fans would feel an urge to call time and send in throat lozenges.

But finally, Stanford overcame an old habit it had of blowing things and got out of these wild and unlikely surroundings with a melodramatic 34-28 victory. On third down at the five, with the familiar "Woooo, pig, sooey!" ringing into the hot, humid night (the first half had been played in the hot, humid late afternoon), bouncy Bill Burnett, Arkansas' best runner, got stuffed on a bolt into the right side of his line by Stanford's middle linebacker, Jeff Siemon, on third down. Now it was fourth down and still two yards, perhaps a long one-and-a-half, to go for the first down, and five yards for the potential winning TD. Twenty-nine seconds remained, and QB Montgomery would come to the sideline to converse with Broyles. Likely to be called would be the sprint-out option, where Montgomery would be expected to first look for WR Dicus, his best receiver who had earlier caught a TD pass. But if daylight appeared, Montgomery could always run to get the two yards for the first down.

Run he did, but all he gained was one yard. Not enough. Game over!

On that last play, Montgomery, flustered most of the late afternoon/early evening by the Stanford pass rush, had looked for Dicus as he darted out to his left, only to find him covered by Indians CB and future Dallas Cowboy Benny Barnes. So Montgomery turned to run, only to be met .by LB Mike Simone, who smacked Montgomery down with a considerable authority, and even Schenkel in the ABC booth could see that Arkansas hadn't made the needed yardage. "Our defense finally came of age," said Ralston.

The Indians would cele ate with a midnight swim in a motel pool and looked forward to a Sunday-night stopover in Las Vegas, no doubt having visions of Plunkett putting wheels on the Heisman Trophy and driving it into Pasadena on New Year's Day.

Plunkett, indeed. For much of the evening, he devoured a good defensive football team, mainly with short, dump passes out to the side and over the middle to his backs, and with flares and screens, exhibiting his remarkable ability always to find the "hot" receiver, as Stanford called the open man. Then, as the Arkansas defense became Plunkett-conscious, Jim took advantage of it by sending his tough fullback, Shockley, off the flanks and against the underbelly of the Razorbacks for 117 yards, including a 43-yard romp for the game's first touchdown.

In the end, Plunkett had hit 22 of 39 passes for 262 yards and one touchdown. His statistics might have been better if he hadn't had a "tired" second quarter, when he went 3 for 13. He said he not only got tired but the humidity, to which he was unaccustomed, made his hands sweat and he couldn't control the ball so well.

No opponent had ever gotten a Broyles team down by four touchdowns in Arkansas, but more bothersome to the Razorbacks was how horribly easy it had seemed. No matter where Stanford started from, whether 80 yards away or something less, Plunkett just moved the Indians as if he were opening against San Jose State. The late defensive stand was appropriate, because it confirmed that Plunkett would remain the story of the evening. It would also mark a turning point for the Ralston stop unit that had a habit of surrendering late leads the previous campaign.

Stanford would move into the top five in the polls and would advance as high as third into early October, the week before the revenge showdown vs. USC in Palo Alto. But the quirky personality of this Ralston team (and the subsequent ‘71 edition) would surface October 3 on The Farm vs. a downgraded Purdue side now under former QB and new HC Bob DeMoss. With the decorated QB Mike Phipps having graduated and longtime HC Jack Mollenkoph having retired after ‘69, the Boilermakers appeared in steep decline, confirmed by a 48-0 loss the previous week at South Bend vs. Joe Theismann and Notre Dame.

So what happens? Purdue’s unheralded new QB Chuck Piebes, who would soon move to defense in the secondary, completed 15 of 20 passes and outplays Plunkett, who throws a staggering five picks, three to Boielrmaker DB Randy Cooper. Purdue cruises to a 16-0 halftime lead as swingback Stan Brown scored the first of this two TDs. The 2-TD underdog Boilermakers are never seriously threatened thereafter and waltz to a shocking 26-14 upset win, sending Stanford tumbling out of the top ten before hosting USC in the grudge match the following week. The Indians were not only flat as they looked ahead to the Trojans, but they seemed discombobulated on offense as they tried to deal with an unorthodox three-man Purdue rush.

"We got whipped in every way from beginning to end,” said a disappointed Ralston after the game. “We underestimated them. We were bad. It is my responsibility."

The subsequent USC game was still big news, however, and the game had been a sellout since summer, which in Palo Alto in those days meant 90,000 fans into the old Stanford Stadium, and the surprising loss to Purdue the week before did nothing to lessen local interest. As a matter of fact, the upset by the Boilermakers was probably an indication of how much Stanford was looking ahead to USC. "We weren't exactly overlooking Purdue," said Plunkett, "but we planned to play through them and peak for USC. Preparing for the Trojans, we only suited up once all week. We had done our physical training the previous week." It is also a fact that Ralston held five players out of the Purdue game to be certain their minor injuries would be healed for USC.

As for the Trojans, they had climbed back to the fourth spot in the polls after a 21-21 mid-September draw at the Coliseum vs. Ne aska (which would end up as the only blemish on the Cornhuskers’ national title-winning slate). SC had also not lost in 25 straight regular-season games dating to the 1967 loss at Dee Andros’ Oregon State, a classic 3-0 encounter reviewed on these pages last season

The Purdue game had its own effect on the Trojans. USC Scout Joe Margucci watched the game and said it wasn't worth reporting back to Coach John McKay. "Stanford's mental attitude was not right," he noted. "They didn't play their game." But Margucci made the mistake of inging back his scouting report anyway. Purdue had used seven, even eight, defenders in the secondary to guard against Plunkett's passes, and USC decided to try it, too...but to no avail.

The day before the game a bomb threat added to the already charged atmosphere. A group of "Weathermen" claiming to be a part of the same outfit that blew up a Marin County courtroom the previous week, warned that Stanford Stadium was next on the list. All night long police and officials searched the stadium. Nothing was found. At the game extra guards stopped every person carrying anything larger than a flask. Some 4,000 fans decided to stay away. Shortly before kick-off the new Stanford president, Richard Lyman, spoke on the public-address system. "Regarding the bomb threat," he said, "every precaution has been taken for your safety. No one is disposed to ignore this type of a threat, yet blackmail must not be allowed to paralyze a nation or an institution. If it once becomes established that such tactics can succeed, we shall have magnified the capacity of a malicious few to sabotage society." And on that cheery note the game began.

There would not be the drama of the ‘69 classic at the LA Coliseum. Stanford scored the third time it got the ball. When USC triple-covered Rabbit Vataha, Plunkett found TE Bob Moore in the clear and hit him on a 50-yard pass play. Steve Horowitz kicked the extra point--something he had failed to do against USC last year, with disastrous consequences. The lead would grow to 14-0 min the 2nd Q on RB Jackie Brown’s 1-yard dive on a fourth down.

Stanford went into the locker room at halftime leading 14-0, which left a lot of local skeptics wondering how in the world the Indians would blow it this year. As any veteran Stanford rooter knew, a lead over USC meant nothing. In 1968 Stanford led 7-3 in the second quarter and again 24-17 in the third, but then O.J. scored his third touchdown of the game and Ron Ayala kicked a 34-yard field goal. And we know what happened in the 1969 game at the Coliseum, with Ayala again from 34 yards providing the late heroics for the Trojans,

Sure enough, USC came roaring out in the third quarter and marched 74 yards to make the score 14-7. But this time, Stanford, would not flinch. Plunkett rallied his team, completing four consecutive passes that included a 34-yarder to Vataha. Jackie Brown would eventually once again crash over from the one on a fourth down to make the score 21-7 late in the 3rd Q. But the Palo Alto fans could not rest, as with more than four minutes left in the game, USC’s magical QB Jimmy Jones, facing strong pressure from a pass rush that would sack him six times on the afternoon., hit WR Bob Chandler with a17-yard TD pass to cut the lead to seven once again.

So now every Stanford fan knew what would happen. Plunkett would have one intercepted, USC would score. An onside kick, USC recovers and, with one second left on the clock, Ayala kicks a field goal--34 yards, of course.

Not quite. Plunkett did pass, and his toss was nearly intercepted by Trojan DB Walt Failor. Instead, the ball flicked Failor's fingertips and dropped into the arms of TE Moore. The completion took the ball into USC territory, from where Horowitz eventually kicked a field goal to make it 24-14 and erase the bitter memory of last year's missed extra point. Now there was nothing in the tradition of USC-Stanford games that USC could call upon, no way to score 10 points with no time left. Stanford won what Plunkett had called "the most important thing of the season to me."

The Rose Bowl bid, however, which would be Stanford’s first in 19 years, would not be sealed until November, and required a nervy battle in late October vs. another recent nemesis, UCLA, which had not lost to the Indians since 1962.

To that point in his college career that began the previous season, Bruin QB Dennis Dummit could relate to Plunkett in that his only losses came while standing helplessly on the sideline, and watching the UCLA defense give up late leads. Dummit had USC beat in ‘69 with under 2 minutes to play before the Jimmy Jones-to-Sam Dickerson miracle TD with 1:32 to play. Earlier in the 1970 campaign, Dummit passed for 340 yards and had a three-TD underdog UCLA poised to knock off top-rated Texas in Austin, but Eddie Phillips and Cotton Speyrer connected on an oddball 45-yard TD pass with 12 seconds to play and the Horns would escape. Two weeks before the Stanford showdown, Dummit had UCLA ahead of Oregon by a 40-21 score before a miracle rally by the Ducks (when Dummit would not take a snap) resulted in a 41-40 shocker. Although the Stanford game would indeed have Rose Bowl consequences after Dummit had rallied the Bruins to a dramatic victory at Cal 24-21 the previous week, frantically scrambling for a 3-yard TD with just 4 seconds to play to win the game.

Los Angeles was abuzz, as the Coliseum would be swelled with 83,518 fans (including this writer) for the Saturday night clash ona warm night that was the biggest to watch a Bruin home game vs. a foe other than crosstown USC since 1947!.

As often happens when all of the buildup insists there will be wild, shootout because of the presence of a couple of gunslingers like Plunkett and Dummit, instead we were treated to a 9-7 game that hurled everyone back to the late 1950s. Plunkett and Dummit did their share of pitching, each completing 18 passes ona combined 72 throws, but the defenses of both teams dominated the evening, UCLA's by holding Stanford to no touchdowns for the only time in Plunkett's college life.

The Indians, however, would play ball control, running 95 plays to a mere 63 for the Bruins, whose defense would play valiantly and force three turnovers to keep UCLA in the game. But Horowitz would kick three field goals, the last a 30-yarder with just 4:57 to play after Plunkett would connect on a 42-yard pass to Vataha to set up the Indians in scoring territory and eventual winning points.

Though the proceedings were more than a bit tedious, it was a tension-filled night. And that low-scoring battle would give Ralston, who spent much of the night nervously pacing the sideline and not watching the action, his coveted first-ever win at the venerable Coliseum..

But what would resonate from that warm October night would actually be taking place in the press box as the Plunkett-for-Heisman campaign would hit full stride. Plunkett’s candidacy would be stoked by legendary Stanford SID and longtime radio announcer Bob Murphy, who decided it was the perfect time to go on the attack for Plunkett with the 1,300-odd Heisman voters. The reason the time was perfect was because acknowledged Heisman frontrunner Archie Manning got dusted off by little Southern Miss the previous week at Oxford (another result chronicled in a past TGS Conference USA Retrospective piece a year ago).

"Archie Who? got beat by Southern What?" said Murphy, licking the stamps for the envelopes dispatching his Plunkett material to all the ships at sea. "How can anybody win the Heisman who gets beat by Southern Mississippi?" Murphy asked with the full approval of Ralston and most all followers of West Coast football who were not Dennis Dummit fans. From that point forward, Plunkett would be the Heisman frontrunner, and would comfortably win the award. Manning would fall to third in a race that saw Notre Dame’s Theismann finish in second place.

Stanford would sew up the Rose Bowl bid two weeks later in Palo Alto against Sonny Sixkiller and the Washington Huskies before Ralston's boys let their minds wander in the final two regular-season games, dropping a 31-14 decision against Sugar Bowl-bound Air Force at frigid Colorado Springs, then outhustled by an aroused Cal in the Big Game at Berkeley, 22-14. Those losses, however, seemed to diminish the Indians’ national stature, dropping them out of the top ten (Stanford had climbed back to as high as No. 6 after the Rose Bowl-clincher over Washington) and foretelling a hefty double-digit spread vs. favored and unbeaten Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.

The 1970 Buckeyes were the last of the fabled 1967 recruiting class, led by QB Rex Kern and ahost of All-Americans, that would win the ‘68 national title and suffer just one defeat in three years entering the Rose Bowl. In all, a staggering 13 Buckeyes would be picked in the upcoming '71 NFL Draft., with four of them (RBs John Brockington and Leo Hayden, and DBs Jack Tatum and Tim Anderson) grabbed in the first round.

The media of the day had more fun with the stark contrasts of the two programs than the actual promotion of the game. Stanford, with its loose and carefree approach, players with long hair and mustaches, cheerleaders in mini-skirts and go-go boots, and the funky band that would turn the New Year’s morning Rose Parade on its ear by scrambling around the awkward corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Boulevards instead of marching in awkward unison, presented a quite different model than the staid Buckeyes, whose coach Woody Hayes kept them on strict curfew, whose cheerleaders still dressed in traditional garb, and whose band would look decidedly old-fashion in comparison to the hip counterparts from the Bay Area. Moreover, the playing styles of the teams could not have been much more opposite for the day, Stanford preferring to go to the air, while Woody’s Buckeyes were content to play smashmouth and grind the Pacific Coast long-hairs into submission

Hayes, an avowed military buff, had another reason to look forward to his physical infantry marching through the effective “hippies” from Palo Alto, and doing so in the Pasadena locale from where one of his greatest war heroes had hailed.. "If we win it on the ground, what better place to do it than where the greatest tank commander of all was born--the great General George Patton."

But word filtered from the Ohio State camp that there was some discontent among the Buckeyes, who were young men just like their Stanford counterparts and wanted to have a little fun in glitzy So Cal, too, and maybe get a glimpse of our favorite Meredith MacRae (we didn’t watch Petticoat Junction in those days for the dialog) or some other starlet in Hollywood, as the usual non-Ohio State Rose Bowl visitors from the Big Ten would look forward to every other year in the run-up to the game. In the weeks leading up to New Year's Day, OSU players weren't allowed to meet the press long enough to ask if any wars had ended in the world, much less meet any TV starlets or talk about the Rose Bowl, while the Indians laughed in workouts, and went out on the town continually, thoroughly enjoying their prep time in the entertainment capital of the world.

With top-ranked Texas losing earlier on New Year‘s Day vs. Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, the door swung wide open for Woody Hayes’ team to claim the national title. But Ohio State could never quite gain control of the game. Hitting 20 passes for 265 yards, Plunkett put more pressure on the Jack Tatums and Jim Stillwagons than they had ever known about against more-conservative Big Ten opposition, and Stanford kept threatening all afternoon while the gallant Thudner Chicken defense would bend, but not buckle, against the Buckeye bulldozers.

And then, the momentum would shift for a final time. Up 17-13 early in the 4th Q, and driving for what looked to be a clinching TD, OSU would be stopped on a 4th and 1 at the Stanford 19, as the Thunder Chickens would stonewall Brockington. From there, Plunkett launched a flawless 81-yard drive to a go-ahead TD on a short run by Jackie Brown.

Then, in a raging moment of stress, Ohio State uncharacteristically panicked. With still 10 minutes left to play, plenty of time for the Buckeye tanks to grind down the field, sr. QB Kern would instead throw and get picked off by Indian DB Jack Schultz...a Pasadena native like General Patton. Set up on the Ohio State 25, Plunkett would soon hit Vataha for another touchdown, and a 27-17 lead that stood until the final gun.

Pasadena native Jack Schultz had never seen a Rose Bowl game before he played in this one and made the big interception that helped seal the win for Stanford. "I always wondered what went on in there," he said. "Now I know!"

Ralston finally got over the hump and into the Rose Bowl in 1970, but the Indians (who wouldn't drop that nickname until March of 1972) were hardly about to disappear in 1971. Ralston had an able backup through the later Plunkett years in the heady Don Bunce, who simply needed a chance to perform as a senior so he could shine. Much of Plunkett's supporting cast (RBs Jackie Brown, Hillary Shockley, & Reggie Sanderson, and WR Miles Moore) was still on hand, and Ralston's improved recruiting pipeline introduced new components in '71 including dangerous WR John Winesberry and a highly-regarded crop of offensive linemen.

Moreover, much of the Stanford "Thunder Chicken" defense from 1970 was still in the fold in '71, including linemen Pete Lazetich and Greg Sampson, LBs Jeff Siemon & Mike Simone, and DBs Benny Barnes and Charles McCloud.

The '71 Thunder Chicken "D" proved airtight, holding four of its first five foes to single-digit scoring and allowing a mere 12.3 ppg through the regular season. Bunce (who would go on to a medical career and serve as Stanford's team doctor before sadly passing in 2003 due to a heart attack) was more than a serviceable replacement for Plunkett, passing for 2255 yards, with Moore and Winesberry proving a pair of big-play targets.

The then-called Indians suffered a few upset defeats (much as did the '70 squad) but rose to the occasion in mid-October Pac-8 road showdowns vs. Sonny Sixkiller's Washington and Southern Cal, the latter game one we saw in person at the L.A. Coliseum and recall vividly with an accompanying electric storm. Stanford's defense dominated both of those games, especially the mid-October trek to Seattle when facing an undefeated Huskies team scoring nearly 50 ppg. But the Thunder Chickens throttled Sixkiller, who completed only 12 of 46 throws and suffered 4 picks, while Bunce and Co. eased to a 17-0 halftime lead thanks to a pair of 20-yard TDs by Winesberry (on a pass from Bunce) and Sanderson (on a run), then calmly played it safe in the second half en route to a 17-6 win. It was more of the same next week in L.A. vs. the Trojans, with Stanford dancing to an easy 33-18 romp, SC scoring all of its points during garbage time in the 4th quarter after the outcome was decided.

The Indians then cruised onward to another Pac-8 crown, though they were still unsure of the bid into the Big Game finale vs. Cal, played in Palo Alto. A win by the Bears and a conference ruling to reinstate their games in the league standings in a challenge to existing penalties created the theoretical chance that the Berkeley bunch could backdoor its way into the Rose Bowl. Ralston, whose team had exhibited some of the peculiar traits of its 1970 predecessor by losing three games it shouldn’t, and all of those coming as massive favorites (vs. Duke, Washington State, and San Jose State) at Palo Alto, would superstitiously outfit the Indians in their road white uniforms for the Big Game played at home, where Stanford had lost 3 of 4 earlier in the season.

There never was much doubt once the Big Game got underway. Stanford, in its road unis, performed as if the change was for the better. Bunce completed 18 of 24 passes for 211 yards, one of his seven completions to Jackie Brown going for a touchdown. The Thunder Chicken “D” was overpowering, allowing Cal only 123 yards on offense and intercepting Cal QB Jay Cruze the only time the Bears moved inside Stanford's 40.

Then it was back to Pasadena for back-to-back Rose Bowls, only this time it would be Bo Schembechler’s Michigan, with credentials every bit as overwhelming as Ohio State’s the previous year. The Wolveriens were unbeaten and ranked third in the polls, but were telling anyone who would listen that they were the best team in the country. Favored by 10 ½ points, Michigan was expected to roll.

But being the underdog was just what Ralston and the Indians seemed to enjoy, and they set the tone for the afternoon with a fake reverse on the opening kickoff. It didn't work, but the Wolverines got the message right there and the tone for the afternoon was set. This would not be an easy game.

Unlike the year before, however, when Plunkett was having some success moving the ball against the Ohio State defense, Bunce and the Indians were finding it heavy going vs. an ovewhelming Wolverine “D” led by DB Tom Darden that had allowed just 70 points in 11 regular-season games and held nine of those foes to single-digit scoring. But midway into the final period, Michigan was leading only 10-3, thanks to a spirited Indians' defense that bottled up the Wolverines' strong running game.

With another Stanford drive about to bog down, punter Steve Murray dropped back to kick away from his own 33 on a 4th and 10. But Ralston’s riverboat gambler instincts suggested this was the time for some trickery. So the snap went instead to FB Jim Kehl, who slipped the ball forward to HB Jackie Brown between his legs. As the Wolverines fell back to block for the punt return there was Brown running all the way to the Michigan 36. A few plays later Brown raced 24 more for a touchdown and it was 10-10. Schembechler would later fume at this bit of sleight-of-hand executed perfectly by Ralston’s team.

The Wolverines, however, seemed to get bailed out on one of the oddest plays in Rose Bowl history a few minutes later. With less than four minutes to go, Michigan PK Dana Coin tried a 46-yard field goal that was short. But instead of simply letting the kick roll dead, and taking over at the 20 yard-line, the gamling Ralston, anticipating a miss, ordered a "field goal return." Jim Ferguson, an obedient sophomore, caught the ball in the end zone, came out as far as the five, cut back to the two, was hit by Michigan FB Ed Shuttlesworth and thrown back into the end zone. Although Ferguson's forward progress was clearly dead at the two, the back judge, William Quimby (interestingly a referee from the...Big Ten) , ruled it a safety!

So instead of having the ball at the 20 and a tie game, Stanford was behind 12-10 and had to kick to Michigan.

But Michigan was unable to run out the clock, and with 1:48 toplay Stanford got the ball on its own 22. Suddenly Bunce began to look like a combination of Plunkett and John Unitas. The calm Bunce would complete five of six clutch passes on the final drive, two of those to big-play WR Winesberry, and Stanford moved the ball inside of the Michigan 20. Now there was no more gambling, as Bunce called two running plays and a time-out with 12 seconds left. In came 5'9, 155-pound Rod Garcia, a sophomore who had missed five field goal attempts in Stanford's shocking loss to San Jose State. But Garcia's kick was dead center and Michigan was just dead, 13-12.

It was one of the most bitter defeats in the career of Schembechler. As for Stanford, its victory provided a happy ending to what had been a mostly-depressing season for West Coast football fans.

Stanford supporters had been expecting that their creative head coach was probably bound for the pro ranks, and the inevitable occurred less than a week after the Rose Bowl win over Michigan. Denver Broncos owners Gerry and Allen Phipps would hire Ralston to pump life into a franchise that had never before experienced a winning season. So the Ralston era would end at Stanford, and it would be another 28 years before the school would return to another Rose Bowl.

As for Ralston, he burned brightly for a while in Denver, leading the Broncos to their first-ever winning season in 1973 when he was named AFC Coach of the Year, and two more winning seasons in ‘74 and ‘76. In the latter year, the Broncos would record a franchise-best 9-5 record, but did not make the playoffs. Ralston, who had taught Dale Carnegie positive thinking classes throughout his coaching career, saw his rah-rah style wear thin, and a disgruntled group of Broncos players would force the Phipps others and GM Fred Gehrke to hit the eject button.

In later years, however, Ralston was able to look back upon his dismissal with humor. “I got fired in Denver for health reasons,”  Ralston would quip. “They were sick and tired of me.”

Ralston, however, had laid the groundwork for a Bronco revival the following year under successor Red Miller, when Denver would make the playoffs for the first time and advance to the Super Bowl. Indeed, much of the roster for Miller’s three straight playoff teams had been constructed by Ralston.

Ralston would return to pro football in later years, as the coach of the USFL Oakland Invaders and in an executive role with the USFL Portland Breakers and then with the NFL 49ers. After induction into the College FB Hall of Fame in 1992, Ralston returned to the sidelines once more, this time in the college ranks at San Jose State for four seasons. Afterward, he worked for SJSU and was part of the Spartans’ radio oadcast team for several years. But he would always maintain that the nine seasons spent at Stanford were among the happiest years of his life.

Anyone who visits Stanford who wants to view a nice tribute to Ralston should swing by the Chuck Taylor Grove, not far from the modern Stanford Stadium and Maples Pavilion, where a very nice plaque honors Ralston and his teams among other decorated Indians/Cardinal legends.

Now 88, Ralston is retired and no longer available for interviews. But few coaches have ever made such a mark on their players and their profession, which is too often filled with shameful self-promoters and egotists. Not John Ralston. Never has a finer and more honorable gentleman coached the game of football. After decades of publishing TGS, we can honestly say that few coaches also have ever stirred the imagination and entertained the masses as Ralston did in his final memorable seasons at Stanford.

And we’re sure glad we remember those glorious few years on The Farm!


Return To Home Page