As the California Golden Bears neared the end of the 1920 football season, they remained the odds-on favorite to win the Pacific Coast Conference championship. After a close road win over the well-regarded Oregon Aggies in Corvallis, the prognosticators uniformly proclaimed that the winner of the battle between California and Washington State on November 6 was certain to go to the Rose Bowl in January.
So far, the California season had been spectacular. The Bears shut out the semi-pro Olympic Club 21-0, the Mare Island Marines 88-0, and St. Mary’s College by an almost unbelievable score of 127-0, which caused the Saints to cancel the rest of their season. Nevada had managed the first score of the season against California, but still lost 79-7, and Utah was blanked 63-0, before the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State) finally managed to post a respectable, but still losing, score of 17-7 against the Bears. Now California was set to face the undefeated Washington State College Cougars – a team widely proclaimed to be close, if not equal, in talent to the Bears, and superior in experience.
The Match-Up with Washington State
Although Washington State had not yet played a conference game, they brought an impressive resume into the match-up with the Bears, with road wins against Gonzaga and Idaho, and an especially convincing 31-0 home blow-out of Montana. Montana had previously beaten Washington 18-14 and, in an impressive application of the transitive properties of college football involving Washington’s 3-0 loss to Oregon Agricultural College (O.A.C.), O.A.C.’s 17-7 loss to California, the Spokane Chronicle demonstrated that while Washington State was 31 points better than Montana, California was actually only 9 points better. In any event, the press was unanimous that Washington State was an outstanding team and one with the best chance yet of beating the Golden Bears.
Jack James of the San Francisco Examiner told readers that while they should by all means attend the Big Game if they could get a ticket to see the, “traditional color, crowds, excitement, beautiful co-eds, airplanes, bleacher students and cheers of the multitudes,” if they were “interested in football, and not as a side issue to a collegiate spectacle,” they should “journey over to California Field on Saturday and watch what Washington State does to California and vice versa.” Ed Hughes of the San Francisco Chronicle predicted, “the best game of the year.” And Doug Montell proclaimed in the Oakland Tribune that it would be, “a game worth going miles to see.” R.B. Coons wrote in the Daily Californian that the game was likely to be decided by punting or possibly a field goal, at both of which the Bears had the advantage, since California’s punter “Duke” Morrison and kicker “Crip” Toomey were two of the best in the Pacific Coast Conference. Coons added with a rhetorical florish: “Whether the mountain lion’s vicious charge or the crushing hug of a full grown bear is most effective is a matter of national importance.”
The Washington papers agreed. The Pullman Herald called it, “the most important game of the year for either team,” and predicted it would be decided by no more than three points. The Seattle Star predicted that the winner would meet the Big Ten champion in the Rose Bowl and reported: “Nothing short of a trip to Pasadena, Cal., for the annual New Year East vs. West contest will satisfy the Washington State College football team this year.”
California’s usually guarded head coach, Andy Smith, declared that the Bears and the Cougars were two of the greatest football teams in America and, “the winner of this bout is this country’s best and can beat any eastern foe.” Washington State head coach Gus Welch predicted a defensive battle: “Washington can hold her opponent. I look for a low score.” Andy Smith no doubt hoped for a more favorable outcome than what had resulted when he met up with Gus Welch in their college days. Welch, a full-blooded Chippewa, played for the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. In a game against Smith’s team from the University of Pennsylvania, Welch ran a punt back 100 yards for a touchdown.
Eighteen Cougar players, Coach Welch and Washington State Athletic Director Fred Bohler left Pullman by train on the Wednesday before the game. According to the Pullman Herald, “the boys received a good send-off and a large crowd of rooters were there to see them off.” An individual referred to as “Rooter King Atwater” was, “perched on top of the car leading the yells.”
The Washington State party arrived in Portland on Thursday morning morning and spent the day in that city. They had a workout on a local athletic field before boarding another train for Berkeley on Wednesday evening. They arrived at the University Avenue station in Berkeley at 8:45 on Friday morning and settled in at the Whitecotton Hotel at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Allston Way (now the Shattuck Hotel). That afternoon they worked out on the Oakland League baseball grounds.
The City of Berkeley was abuzz over the game. On Thursday, the Chronicle was predicting a crowd of 15,000 would attend. By game time, more than 20,000 tickets had already been sold. It was the largest crowd of the season and close to capacity at California Field. The stands were expected to be jammed full. In honor of the great occasion, Coach Smith and his assistants “automobiled” their team to the Claremont Hotel the night before the game where, according to the Daily Californian, “the whole bunch dined sumptuously.”
The importance of the game was clear from the fact that California had taken the unusual step of sending assistant coach Clarence “Nibs” Price to Pullman the week before to scout the Washington State-Montana game. Price reported that the Cougars “looked good” and if they played as well against against the Bears, the game could go either way. An even bigger indication of the game’s significance was the attendance of Seward Simon, a representative of the Tournament of Roses. He told reporters that he expected the winner to be selected to play in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.
As the game started, the predictions of a close defensive struggle seemed justified. The Bears won the toss, but the Cougars stopped them on their first possession, forcing a punt. Washington State marched down the field convincingly to the California 19. But then the defense stiffened, pushing the Cougars back and then stopping them on fourth-and-16. Several exchanges of punts followed, with the Bears progressively improving their field position. Finally, the Bears forced the Cougars to punt from their own 5. A shanked punt traveled only 20 yards and California took over on the Cougar 25-yard-line. California’s Pesky Sprott and Duke Morrison alternated carrying the ball, pushing forward into the Cougar line for consistent 4 and 5 yard gains. Sprott was stopped at the 1, but on the next play Morrison carried it over for the first score of the game. Toomey made the kick and the Bears led 7-0, with 5 minutes left in the first quarter.
That first touchdown seemed to clear the cobwebs from California’s offense. After forcing a Cougar punt, the Bears marched right down the field, scoring again on a 20-yard run by Duke Morrison. The first quarter ended with this 14-0 score, but it was just the beginning. The Cougars fumbled on the first play of the second quarter. The ball was scooped up by California’s captain Cort Majors, a guard. He rumbled 33 yards down the field for the third California touchdown. Washington State turned to the passing game to try to shake things up, but missed their best chance when wide-open receiver R. Hanley dropped a pass from quarterback Gillis on what would have been a sure touchdown. Two of Gillis’ next three pass attempts were picked off by the Bears. The half ended with California up 21-0.
If the first half had been bad for the Cougars, the third quarter was a total disaster. Another California drive ended with 15-yard touchdown run by Pesky Sprott. On the ensuing kickoff, Gillis ran the ball back 30 yards for the Cougars, but then fumbled when he was hit by California’s “Brick” Muller. Muller scooped up the ball and ran it back for a fifth California touchdown. Then Cort Majors blocked a Washington State punt near the goal line and recovered it for his second touchdown of the game off a turnover. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, “when a guard makes two touchdowns in one game, it is worth noting.”
Washington State then fumbled the kickoff and the ball was recovered by California center “Fat” Latham at the Cougars’ 20. A Pesky Sprott run around right end on the next play resulted in California’s fourth touchdown of the third quarter and seventh of the game. Andy Smith pulled all his starters for the fourth quarter, putting in second and even third string players. The teams exchanged punts and turnovers, but there was no further scoring. The final score: California 49, Washington State 0.
Safe to say, the game had not lived up to expectations. Jack James of the San Francisco Examiner summed it up thus: “The vaunted attack of the Cougars did not vaunt.” Doug Montell of the Oakland Tribune called the game, “the most complete defeat registered in the Pacific Coast Conference, the Blue and Gold showing amazing superiority in all departments of the game and after the first five minutes of play the outcome was never in doubt.”
The San Francisco Chronicle‘s headline proclaimed: “Bears Must Be Recognized as a Great Team.” Accordingly to Chronicle writer Ed Hughes, “the California team was so strong that it literally crushed the attack of Washington State. That team was not allowed to play its natural game and for that reason looked worse than it actually is.” Hughes added that Andy Smith had the game so well in hand that he had “a couple of teams worth of players sitting on the bench that could have beaten Washington State.”
California fans were, of course, ecstatic at the overwhelming win, but the game was not exactly the thriller that had been predicted. Indeed, after the first quarter, the biggest excitement occurred when a stunt pilot arrived and began doing nose dives and loops right over California Field. This would be a serious danger in any era, but with the fragile and unreliable aircraft of 1920, it posed an extreme hazard to those attending the game. The San Francisco Chronicle expressed outrage and the Berkeley City Council passed an emergency ordinance the following week making stunt flights over the city illegal. There was also a small fire in the bleachers in the fourth quarter started by a discarded cigarette. It sparked a minor panic, but cannot have been too serious, as the Daily Californian reported that California football alumnus W.G. Donald was able to put the fire out using a “sponge and water and dirt gathered from underneath” the bleachers.
The Bears were now unquestionably the favorite to win the Pacific Coast Conference championship and head to the Rose Bowl. However, there remained one rather unexpected obstacle – Stanford. The Cardinals had started the season with a couple of disappointing non-conference losses, but after wins over Oregon and Washington, were now tied with the Bears for the conference championship. The Big Game would now decide that championship and whether the Bears would make it to the Rose Bowl. Both teams had week off before they would play that decisive game in Berkeley on November 22. Come back in two weeks to find out what happened!
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