Thursday, November 20, 2008

Big Game 1986 - Farewell, Joe

During the time I worked as a busboy and then waiter at Chuck's Steak House of Hawaii, I met a guy named Steve who would hang out in our bar on a lot of evenings. Steve was a huge sports fan, to the point of obsession. At the time, he would wear a Denver Broncos cap that looked like it was 50 years old, and sported a very sporty (if not necessarily stylish) pair of mutton-chop sideburns. Well before Chris Berman became a household name in the sporting world, Steve had developed clever nicknames for just about every figure in the sporting world, nicknames that were all the more amusing for their frequent ribaldry. In short, Steve was a character.

As it turned out over the course of numerous late night conversations, Steve was also a huge Stanford fan. He didn't go to Stanford, or have any relatives that went to Stanford, but had adopted them as his team. He had season tickets to football, and would also go to many of their basketball games. As it also turned out, Steve hated driving in Berkeley, after a couple of bad experiences, and was delighted to find out that I had gone there, and in fact might be willing to drive and accompany him to the Big Game on the years when it was at Cal. Our deal, which stands to this day, is that he gives me the ticket, and I drive and pay for the parking. In 1986, I was getting the better end of the deal. Today, I think it's a wash.

Our routine - Steve, shall we say, is into routines - is the same every two years: I pick him up at 8 a.m. in front of his office in downtown Sacramento, we park on the top level of the public parking lot at Durant and Telegraph in downtown Berkeley, and then spend a couple of hours in the used book stores on Telegraph perusing the stacks. Steve is a collector, both of sports memorabilia and of books about old film stars. The book stores on Telegraph are a treasure trove of such stuff, and it's very easy to lose track of time wandering through the five stories of Moe's Books and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of Shakespeare's. After we're finished with that, we head back to the car, have our lunch and a beer, and walk up to Memorial Stadium for the game.

1986 was another one of those years (they were frequent back then) that Cal stunk to high heaven, and Stanford just needed one more win to make it to a bowl game. Heading into the Big Game, it was already known that the Joe Kapp experiment was coming to an end. Kapp, the legendary Cal quarterback who led the team to the Rose Bowl in the late 1950s and went on to a good pro career with the Minnesota Vikings (and who apparently, based on the SI cover shown above, was "the toughest Chicano"), had been hired to coach the Bears in 1982 despite never having coached a minute at any level of organized football. As became clear over the course of a five-year period, Kapp was a great guy and an absolutely wonderful cheerleader for the Cal football program, but was about as bad a coach as one can imagine. Despite having a lot of talent, the Bears underachieved each year under his tenure, although it must be said that Kapp was the coach for the single most exciting play in the history of college football (you know which one I'm talking about). He had little to do with it, but so be it. The Bears were 1-9, and the University had had enough. Joe had to go.

Back to Steve for a moment - another thing he is, is a pessimist. When he saw that Stanford was favored by 17 1/2 points, he decided right then and there that they were going to lose. All the way down to the game, he complained about the spread, and "how in the world those jerks could make any team a 17 point favorite in the Big Game!"

Well, as it turned out Steve was right. Cal played a great game, and basically outplayed the Cardinal until the very end, when it was too late. The first half was a defensive battle, but Cal crack through the end zone first to take a 7-0 lead. After Stanford closed it to 7-3, the Bears added a field goal in the third quarter, and then ran a beautiful, perfectly executed reverse with about 7 minutes to play to stretch their lead to 17-3. Stanford made things interesting with a late touchdown and two-point conversion, but for once in the Kapp era, the Bears held on when it counted, and prevailed 17-11. And once again, Stanford stayed home for the holidays.

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