By late October 1920, the California Golden Bears were the established favorite to win the Pacific Coast Conference championship and play in the Rose Bowl – despite the fact that they had yet to play a conference game. After beating the semi-pro Olympic Club in an almost competitive game in September, the Bears had spent October inflicting overwhelming defeats on the Mare Island Marines, St. Mary’s College and the University of Nevada. Next, they were set to face the University of Utah in the first match-up ever between the schools. Bay Area sportswriters proclaimed that this game would finally be a real test for Andy Smith’s men in Blue and Gold. Never mind that they had made the same prediction before both the Olympic Club and Nevada games. This time they really meant it! But would largely unknown Utah really pose a challenge?
The Match-up with Utah
In the first four games of the 1920 season, the Bears had dominated their opponents in every aspect of the game, outscoring them by a total of 315-7. However, that “7” really bothered Coach Smith. He had hoped to keep his team unscored-upon through the entire season. So he doubled the amount of practice time devoted to defense. He also focused on avoiding fumbles, which had been one of the few weaknesses in California’s game throughout the season. Indeed, the one touchdown scored against the Bears, by the Nevada Sagebrushers, had come after a fumble by Harold “Brick” Muller during a punt return.
The Bears also spent the week assessing injuries and contemplating replacements. Star running back “Crip” Toomey had been injured the previous week while trying to stop the Nevada touchdown in the third quarter. While his injury was not serious, the coaches decided to rest him at least part of the game in favor of “Pesky” Sprott. This was not as big a loss as it might seem, since Sprott had been a star for the 1919 Bears, before heading to Antwerp over the summer to run in the 800 meters at the 1920 Olympics. Having missed practices because of the Olympics, he was just starting to return to form. Another starter, “Duke” Morrison was also banged up and would be replaced by Archie Nisbet. Team captain Cort Majors had suffered an injury to his ribs against Nevada, which had turned out to be more serious that it first seemed, and would be replaced at right guard by William Gallagher. Perhaps of most concern, the center, George “Fat” Latham was out for the game, replaced by Webster Clark, in his first start for the Bears.
Utah regarded the California injury list as a hopeful sign. In an era when the same players were generally on the field for offense, defense and special teams for the entire game, the loss of any starter was far more significant than in the modern game. Utah was also hopeful of pulling off an enormous upset – or at least of making the game somewhat competitive – because it played a style of football California had not seen before. The Utah team, known alternately as the Crimson or the Mormons and occasionally as the Mountaineers, played what was considered a “wide open” game, featuring forward passes and trick plays, relying heavily on speed. This was in contrast to California and most other western teams, which primarily relied on running plays to power through the opponent’s line, sprinkled with some end arounds and just the occasional forward pass. The Daily Californian reported that even Andy Smith was concerned about Utah’s style. “This is the type of football that Andy most fears, for there is always a chance that any team, however strong, can be fooled by clever open work and tricks.” The San Francisco Chronicle agreed. “Unless California is fast enough and powerful enough to break through and mess up Utah’s plays before they get started, the secondary defense men will have to do some fast shifting to break up end runs, passes and fake kicks.” The Chronicle added, “if Utah gets California spread out far enough trying to stop open plays, a few plays may be shot through the line and Utah has the weight to make that style effective, if the men know how to do it.”
The 1920 Utah Crimson was a largely unknown quantity. It was the second season for Coach Thomas FitzPatrick, who had led them to a 5-2 record and the Rocky Mountain Conference championship in 1919. One of the losses had come in a hard-fought 20-7 road game against a strong USC team. But the big star of that 1919 team, Milton “Mitt” Romney, had transferred to the University of Chicago right before the 1920 season started, desiring to play in a more “big time” football program. This was a big blow to Utah since, as the Oakland Tribune put it, “this Romney was about the whole show for Utah last season.” Mitt Romney, a third cousin of the current Utah Senator, would go on to quarterback the Chicago Bears from 1925 to 1928. His younger brother, Floyd Romney, remained on the Utah team, but spent most of the year on the bench as a substitute.
The unexpected transfer of Utah’s star left observers unsure of how good they might be. According to the Tribune, “little or nothing is known of their strength his year.” Utah had played only one game before their trip to Berkeley, a 20-2 loss to Colorado College. No scouting existed and it was unclear whether this was a fluke related to injuries or whether Utah had deeper problems.
Buzz in the Bee Hive State
Utah and its team were excited at the prospect of the trip to California and the possibility of establishing themselves with a good showing against the powerful Bears. The Utah papers were predicting great things for the Crimson. The Ogden Standard-Examiner predicted the game would be “a thriller.” The Deseret News boasted: “It looks as though Coach Andy Smith of the California Bruins…is in for the surprise of his life when the Utah warriors meet the California 11 Saturday at Berkeley.” They pointed out that Nevada had managed to score a touchdown against the mighty Bears the previous week and noted that California’s biggest weakness was defending against the passing game. Accordingly, “Coach FitzPatrick is spending much time this week in perfecting his aerial attack, in case his team is unable to gain against the superior weight of the Bruins.” It was estimated that the California linemen outweighed the Crimson players by 10-20 pounds each, making the traditional tactic of attempting to plunge through their line unlikely to succeed. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the California backfield averaged 165 pounds and the linemen an extraordinary 185 pounds!
While the Deseret News proclaimed that the “Crimsonites are confident of bringing home the bacon,” the paper also took care to point out that Utah would be satisfied with playing competitively. “The Crimson wearers do not have to win this game to gain prestige, as a low score is looked upon by gridiron experts as a defeat” for California. If Utah could just keep the margin to less than 21 points it would be the closest game the Bears had yet played that season and could be considered a victory of a sort.
Despite cold and snowy conditions, the Crimson practiced every evening on “the sloppy cold field” until, “the eleven worked like a well oiled machine.” Concerned about the effect the noise of the anticipated large Berkeley crowd might have on his players, Coach FitzPatrick had his substitutes and as many students as could be recruited sit in the stands during practice and “yodel at the top of their healthy lungs.”
As a general rule, 1920 football fans had to wait for newspaper accounts a day or two after road games to learn any details. For this important game, however, the Deseret News arranged for reports to be telegraphed directly from the stadium in Berkeley to its own offices in Salt Lake City. The paper boasted: “The fans will get all the dope, therefore, ‘right from the griddle,’ just as it was furnished to them in the recent world series games.” The details would be reported through a megaphone to fans standing in the street in front of the newspaper’s building. The paper offered this treat for free, “to every red-blooded football fan in this neck of the woods.”
Coach FitzPatrick and 19 players departed from Salt Lake City by train at 9:15 a.m. on Thursday, October 21. Dean William Leary joined the party as a combination chaperone and envoy to the University of California. Reporters traveling with the team wrote of the efforts Coach FitzPatrick and Dean Leary made to ensure the players did not fall into temptation in California. After the train arrived in Oakland on Friday afternoon, the reporter for the Salt Lake Telegram wrote, “Tommy FitzPatrick led his gang of gallant invaders from the ‘choo-choo’ train today and initiated them into the ways and manner of foreign people, the residents of Berkeley, Cal., alleged U.S.A.” But it was San Francisco the chaperones feared most: “Tommy and Dean William Leary are showing signs of wear and tear over the worry occasioned by trying to devise means to keep the Crimson prides out of the rays of San Francisco’s bright lights.” He described players piling off the train asking “Where’s the promised land? They won’t even let us smoke on the campus” in Salt Lake. No doubt there was humorous exaggeration along with some genuine concern.
A large delegation of officials and students from the University of California was at the station to greet the Utah team and escort them “by machine” (i.e., automobile) to their lodgings at the Hotel Oakland. Just two hours after the train pulled in at Oakland’s 16th Street Station, the team was off to practice in the stadium used by the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League.
On game day, October 23, a large crowd was on hand. According to the Salt Lake Telegram, the crowd included a number of Stanford students from Utah, who abandoned their own school’s game against Santa Clara that same afternoon to head to Berkeley and root for the Crimson, bringing with them some of their Stanford friends. The game did not turn out as the Utah rooters might have wished.
The first quarter was as competitive as any the Bears played that season. Utah was sturdy on defense and the teams exchanged several punts. But then California’s Karl Deeds returned a punt 50 yards, down to the Crimson 20. A few plays later, “Pesky” Sprott plunged through the Utah line and into the end zone for the game’s first score. The quarter ended 7-0.
Special teams play, which had led to the Bears’ first score, handed the game to California in the second quarter. Unable to make any progress on offense (they made only three first downs in the entire game), Utah was forced into punt after punt, many of them netting only minimal yardage after outstanding California returns. As William Unmack described it in the San Francisco Examiner, “Utah was woefully weak on kicking and many of their kicks did not gain them more than 10 or 15 yards, where the same play by California took the ball away from the blue and gold territory and landed it down” at the Utah 25 or 30-yard-line.
Early in the second quarter, Karl Deeds had another excellent punt return, taking the ball back to the Utah 30, allowing Sprott to score again two plays later. Utah had one excellent end run by quarterback Smith down to the California 40, but could not advance the ball further. Then the Utah punt was blocked, setting up another California touchdown. That trip to the California 40 was the closest Utah got to the Bears’ goal line the entire game. California’s outstanding defense and punt returns allowed the Bears to score four touchdowns in the second quarter while gaining a total of only 103 yards on offense. The halftime score was 35-0, and the game was effectively over.
The second half was more of the same. Andy Smith removed most of his starters and even put in some of the third-string in the final quarter. Nevertheless, the Bears scored 28 more points, while the Utah offense was stopped cold. Despite all the pre-game discussion of Utah’s passing game, Coach FitzPatrick inexplicably did not call for a single passing play until late in the fourth quarter. The Bears’ substitutes were up to the challenge. The first Utah pass was intercepted. On Utah’s next possession, the first play was another pass, this time completed for a solid gain. But the very next play was another California interception. And that was the end for the Crimson. Final score: California 63, Utah 0.
The Bay Area papers lavished praise on the Golden Bears for the “machine-like precision” of their play and predicted they were on a “triumphant path to the Pacific Coast championship.” The Utah papers took solace in the effort put in by the Crimson against a great team. The Salt Lake Tribune opined that a loss against California was better than wins against lesser teams: “A victory over most of the Colorado teams is a hollow one at best. A beating by a team with a reputation is better than slaying some unknown.” However, that same paper’s headline summed up the game in a rather less favorable light:
The most memorable comment on the California team came from San Francisco Call columnist Clinton “Brick” Morse. Morse was a California alumnus and had played in the very first Big Game back in 1892. He also wrote two of California’s most popular songs, “Hail to California” and “Sons of California.” Two days after the Utah game, Morse wrote in his column that Andy Smith had created a “Wonder Team.” Smith was irate. He feared that such hubris would motivate opponents and cause complacency among his players. He telephoned Morse to berate him, but Morse just laughed, telling Smith, “Why don’t you break down and admit it, Andy, for you know as well as I that it is a real Wonder Team.” Smith’s reply: “They’re overrated.” But the nickname stuck, as witnessed by the title of this very article.
The Bears were, however, about to face a new challenge – the first game of the Pacific Coast Conference season. They were heading up to Corvallis to play the Aggies of the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). Was Andy Smith right? Was the newly-christened “Wonder Team” at risk? Come back next week to find out!
Next Week: Game Six – California vs. Oregon Agricultural College
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