Cal’s Wonder Team Centennial: Game Eight – The Big Game

When the Bears and the Cardinals met in the 26th Big Game on November 20, 1920, the stakes were enormous. With the teams tied atop the Pacific Coast Conference, the winner would win the championship. A win would almost certainly mean a first trip to Pasadena on New Years Day for California. For Stanford, a Rose Bowl trip would be a distinct possibility, depending on how USC, which was not yet a conference member, fared in its final game. And, as always, there was the pride of winning the rivalry game. A loss to Stanford would bring a humiliating end to an otherwise perfect season for the Bears. For the Cardinals, a win would cap a remarkable mid-season turnaround and give them something to rub in California’s face for years to come.

The entire Bay Area was buzzing in anticipation of the game. The largest sports crowd in area history was expected at California Field in Berkeley, where extra bleachers had been constructed in the end zones. Tickets were being scalped for outrageous sums and California’s student manager was warning of counterfeits. Special automobile parking was arranged, extra ferries were added, hundreds of ticket takers and ushers had been hired, fans without tickets were encouraged to drive or hike into the Berkeley hills to watch the game through binoculars. The Daily Californian announced it would put out its first-ever “Extra” edition immediately after the game. Bookmakers were giving 3-to-1 odds on a California win and the smart money predicted a 20-point margin. Although California was clearly the superior team, there had been talk all week about the “Stanford spirit” that could win the game. When asked about that, California’s Coach Andy Smith replied, “We know all about that Stanford spirit, but I know that there is also a California spirit, and we will rely on that as well as football in our efforts to win this afternoon’s game.” His reliance turned out to be well placed.

The Season to Date – California

It’s easy to see why the Bears were heavy favorites. They were near the end of what still remains one the greatest seasons in college football history with wins over the semi-pro Olympic Club and over the Mare Island Marines, a 127-0 destruction of St. Mary’s, and lop-sided victories over Nevada, Utah and a highly regarded Washington State team. Only a 17-7 win at Corvallis over the Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State) had been remotely close. And this perfect 7-0 record was just the beginning. The Bears had outscored their opponents by a total of 444-14 and out-gained them by similar margins. The two touchdowns given up by the Bears had been the the result of a California fumble on a punt return against Nevada and a trick play by the Oregon Agricultural College involving a fake player substitution. Otherwise, the Golden Bear defense had been unmovable.

California Head Coach Andrew Latham “Andy” Smith

Despite scoring 444 points in the first seven games of the season (an average of more than 63 points per game!), Andy Smith regarded himself as primarily a defense-oriented coach and described his football philosophy as, “kick and wait for the breaks.” For Smith, nothing could replace repetitive drills in practice. “It takes about two minutes to tell a man the proper form to use in tackling and blocking,” he said, “but it often takes two years to get him to do it instinctively and well.” As for the importance of defense, in Smith view, “defensive methods are much more difficult to acquire than offensive methods. And while it is easier to teach offense than defense, it is my opinion that there never was an offense in any one exclusive style of play that could not be stopped by the defense — if there is time enough to drill it into the man.”

The Season to Date – Stanford

The Stanford Cardinals had traveled a very different path to the conference championship showdown with the Bears. (Note that Stanford was generally called “Cardinals” or “Cardinal” prior to 1930, then became “Indians,” before reverting to “Cardinal” in the 1970s.) Coach Walter Powell’s team had begun the season unpromisingly. Yes, they started off with what seemed to be a very good 41-0 win over St. Mary’s, but the win lost its luster when California demolished that same team 127-0 the following week and St. Mary’s promptly canceled the rest of its season. Next for the Cardinals came a 10-7 loss to the Olympic Club, which California had beaten 21-0 during the first week of the season. Following that game, San Francisco Examiner sportswriter William Unmack, in an article entitled, “Stanford Woefully Weak Compared With Bears,” stated simply, “Everything that California has, Stanford has not.” Calling Stanford, “pitifully weak,” Unmack opined, “Stanford’s team will have to improve sixty to seventy per cent to stand any chance with California this year.”

Stanford Head Coach Walter D. Powell

But Stanford did begin to improve. There was another non-conference loss at USC the next week, but the score was 10-0. Considering that USC was considered one of the two or three best teams in the west, that score was something of a moral victory, and it was followed by a solid 21-7 win over a decent Santa Clara team.

Stanford had gotten a big boost a few days prior to the Santa Clara game when the Pacific Coast Conference declared Robert “Dink” Templeton eligible to play after his return from the Olympics in Antwerp. At first glance, a 140-pound kicker like Templeton might not seem like a big prize. But he was a great athlete, having competed in both long jump and high jump at the Olympics, and having won a Gold Medal playing on the US Rugby team. And kicking (which included what modern fans would call “punting”) was a huge part of 1920-era football. The large football used at that time was difficult to catch and teams counted on fumbled punts as a large part of their offenses. The oversized football also made the passing game more difficult, so that games tended to be lower scoring and placed more emphasis on field goal kicking. Dink Templeton was considered the best kicker on the west coast, if not the country. He also had considerable success as a punt returner. California players professed to be unimpressed by little Dink. Duke Morrison told the Daily Californian: “That Templeton is my meat. I hope someone doesn’t get him before I get a chance.”

Robert “Dink” Templeton

With its star Templeton back on the team, and having developed a quality defense, Stanford began its Pacific Coast Conference schedule with a 10-0 upset of Oregon at home. Then the Cardinals traveled to Seattle for another defensive battle against the Washington Sun Dodgers (they would become the “Huskies” in 1922). Templeton proved his value with a field goal that gave Stanford a 3-0 win. Thus, Stanford entered the Big Game with a surprising 4-2 record and tied with the Bears at 2-0 in Pacific Coast Conference games.

Big Game Week

Both schools had a bye the week before the Big Game and local sportswriters passed their time writing about the weather and injuries. Rains considered heavy for November caused great speculation about which team would be at most disadvantage on a wet field. The consensus gave the advantage to the heavier Bears, but the only really close game California had played all year had come on a muddy field in Corvallis.

The Oakland Tribune‘s cartoonist anticipating California star Brick Muller serving up Pig Skin Rouge a la Stanford to the hungry Bears in the paper’s November 17, 1920 edition

At least three Stanford players, Deems, DeGroot and Pelouze, had suffered injuries in the Washington game, but only Deems seemed to be definitely out against the Bears. Any loss was difficult for Coach Powell’s Cardinals, however. As the Examiner‘s Jack James explained, “Andy Smith has a whole roster to call upon should one of his first string men be hurt. Powell has just his first string, and some willing but none-too-valuable substitutes.”

In any event, Andy Smith’s boys were all healthy. In fact, Coach Smith lamented that he could only start eleven players since there were so many deserving men on his roster. “There are so many men of equal caliber that it has been a hard task to name eleven,” said Smith. Doug Montell reported in the Oakland Tribune that Smith’s biggest challenge was deciding whether to start Duke Morrison or Archie Nesbitt at fullback since, according to Montell, Nesbitt was the better passer but Morrison the better kicker. These may seem odd considerations in selecting a fullback, but at the time quarterbacks typically lateraled the ball to a fullback or even a lineman to throw forward passes. Further, since there were very limited substitutions, everyone played on offense, defense and what is now known as special teams. Thus, in deciding who to play, coaches had to balance players’ offensive abilities against their defense or skills such as kicking or returning punts.

The Examiner‘s Jack James also reported a dispute over the game officials, who had to be selected by agreement of both teams. According to James, one Harry Braddock was conceded by all concerned to be the most capable referee on the west coast. Nevertheless, Stanford objected to Braddock because he had played football at Penn, which was also Andy Smith’s alma mater. Never mind that they attended Penn at different times, the “connection” was too suspect for the Cardinals. In James’ words, “That’s a hot one, isn’t it? Admitted he was the best referee, but wouldn’t have him.” The schools finally settled on a Washington State alum, J.C. Cave as Referee, along with Umpire Dudley Clarke (Oregon), Head Linesman A.B. Korbel (Washington) and Field Judge L. H. Battersby (Swarthmore).

A huge crowd was expected, and the University of California built extra bleachers in both end zones of California Field, adding 1,400 seats. Several hundred more seats were added when boxes were built in front of the sideline rooting sections. With these additions, stadium capacity was now 27,000. It would be the largest crowd in Bay Area history. The week before the game, California’s Graduate Manager, Lute Nichols, announced that the game was sold out and that more than 20,000 ticket requests had been turned down. To handle the crowd, California hired more than 400 ushers and ticket takers, announced that the gates would open an hour earlier than usual, and encouraged everyone to arrive as early as possible. To minimize confusion, the local papers all published stadium maps to help fans determine in advance where their seats were.

Diagram of California Field published in the November 17, 1920 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle

Extra ferries from San Francisco were added and thousands of fans were expected to arrive by automobile. Indeed, after the game a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner estimated that there were some 15,000 “machines” (as cars were often called at the time) in Berkeley on game day. While this estimate seems improbably high, all the free city parking provided on Durant, Channing, Telegraph and other streets near the stadium was taken. More drivers, as well as pedestrians, headed up into the Berkeley hills to find a spot to watch the game through binoculars.

Game day information from the San Francisco Examiner

The demand for tickets resulted in large-scale scalping, which was illegal. Despite this, there were reports of a hotel in Oakland charging $50 per ticket and another in San Francisco asking $150 for a pair, the equivalent of nearly $2,500 in 2020 dollars. Two Stanford students caught trying to sell their student rooter tickets for $12.50 had their tickets canceled. They were also suspended from all student activities for a week, placed on probation and “blacklisted for all time from getting tickets to the big football games,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. California Graduate Manager Lute Nichols also warned of counterfeit tickets being sold around the Bay Area.

A genuine ticket to the 1920 Big Game – used by my own grandfather. The two signatures are “Edward R. Martin,” the Graduate Manager at Stanford, and “L. A. Nichols,” the Graduate Manager for California.

On Thursday evening both schools held large rallies to whip up their respective student bodies, Stanford’s at Encina Hall and California’s in old Harmon Gymnasium (now site of Dwinelle Hall). As was traditional, Coach Smith and Coach Powell each announced their starting lineups at their respective rallies and members of the teams spoke. Both Powell and Stanford captain Art Wilcox predicted a win, with Wilcox proclaiming that “Stanford spirit” would be the deciding factor. At Harmon Gym every member of California’s starting lineup addressed the crowd. Albert “Pesky” Sprott told the crowd that he had heard enough about Stanford spirit. “We will show the folks Saturday that California has some spirit, too. California not only has the spirit, but also has the team, and that is the most important thing of all. Stanford might be bubbling over with spirit, but unless the boys can do the work out there on the gridiron, their spirit isn’t going to win the game!”

Despite all the talk about “Stanford spirit,” the “dope” on the game was that California would win. Sports page of the San Francisco Examiner on game day, November 20, 1920.

Game Day

After days of rain, the sun finally came out on Saturday, November 20. The field was still muddy, but not in nearly as bad condition as feared. Marjorie Driscoll described the day in the San Francisco Chronicle in florid terms: “the hills washed clean and fresh by the rain for the background, the bleachers a dazzling kaleidoscope of color, the weather a blend of sunshine and cloud that made it ideal for players and spectators alike, and the rooters’ sections blossoming into masses of brilliant crimson and blue and gold.”

The football-shaped 1920 Big Game program

The Stanford team motored up from Palo Alto that morning, stopping at the Hotel Oakland for a meal which the Oakland Tribune reported consisted of a “cup of consommé, a medium-sized portion of roast beef, cooked medium and without gravy, dry brittle toast with one pat of butter, water without ice, and nothing else.” The Tribune further reported that Stanford’s Graduate Manager, Edward Martin, told the hotel that Stanford, “insists on a private dining room and a private rest-room to which absolutely no visitors will be allowed admittance.”

According to Marjorie Driscoll, “the horde began to pour into Berkeley early in the day.” All the ferries from San Francisco were crowded and parking for “machines” was hard to find. At the stadium, “regiments of ushers were waiting for the final shifting of the crowds, set in the right path by huge and abundant signs.” Hundreds of fans were watching from the Berkeley hills, and hundreds more were found on any rooftop in the area with a view of California Field, “perched on slanting roofs for hours, clinging by precarious toe-holds.” Even the trees behind the south bleachers were full of fans.

California Field during the Big Game, as seen from the Campanile looking south toward Bancroft Way , from the November 21, 1920 edition of the Oakland Tribune

The Stanford Band arrived wearing actual uniforms of “red coats and white trousers,” and packed themselves into a corner of the Stanford section. Then came the California Band, in military-style uniforms and “marching with military snap.” Camera men were “thick as flies” on the field and, according to Driscoll, “if there were an instant of the game not pictured, it was not the fault of these eager knights of the lens who clustered along the side lines.”

A Magnavox sound system had been installed at the stadium that allowed information about about the game to be conveyed to fans both inside and outside the stadium. It was manned by none other than Cal Track Coach (and future US Olympic Track Coach) Walter Christie, who boomed out yardage gained and downs, as well as the scores of games from around the country, to enlighten the crowd.

As the California team ran onto the field to a deafening roar, a new innovation was revealed to the crowd. As the Chronicle had reported that morning, each player on both teams had been assigned a number. The Chronicle explained to its readers: “These numbers are attached to the backs of their jerseys and will enable you to follow the work of the various individuals.”

Then Stanford’s team, seeking to make a dramatic entrance, ran onto the field with only a minute to spare before kickoff. Everything was in place. The fans, the teams, the officials. The game that would decide the Pacific Coast Conference championship was ready for kickoff.

The Game

Duke Morrison kicked off for the Bears and the ball was fielded by Stanford right guard Levy. As he was tackled by Brick Muller and Bob Berkey, the ball jarred lose and was recovered by California’s captain, Cort Majors, on Stanford’s 23-yard-line. It was not the start for which the underdog Cardinals had been hoping, but it did represent Andy Smith’s “kick and wait for the breaks” philosophy perfectly. Five plays later, Pesky Sprott carried the ball into the end zone and the Bears led 7-0.

Pesky Sprott scores one of this three touchdowns of the day – from the Blue and Gold Yearbook

On its next possession Stanford had to punt and soon the Bears were knocking on their door once again. But this time it was California’s Duke Morrison who fumbled, letting Stanford recover inside their own five. The sturdy Golden Bears defense held, and Dink Templeton was called upon to punt from deep in his own territory. He managed only a 17-yard kick and the Bears started a drive from the Cardinals’ 40-yard-line. Despite a 20-yard run by Sprott, the Bears eventually found themselves with a fourth-and-two at the Stanford 10. Andy Smith decided on a field goal, which Crip Toomey kicked straight between the uprights. As the first quarter ended, California led 10-0.

From the Stanford Quad Yearbook – the California line blocking for Charlie Erb

Then Stanford’s defense started to stiffen and the second quarter became the punting duel between Duke Morrison and Dink Templeton many had predicted. Morrison actually got the better of it, sending one punt 65 yards down field, while Templeton’s punts were shorter than usual. But the quarter was a scoreless a battle of defenses and when the half ended, it remained a 10-0 game. Although Stanford fans were pleased to have kept the score close, their team had shown no ability at all to move the ball on offense, having gained a total of 12 yards from scrimmage and no first downs.

At the half the two rooting sections came alive with what all present regarded as the best half-time stunts ever. Stanford began with its band playing a funeral march. The Stanford rooters sang along, “We’re going to bury you, California,” as their card stunt showed a coffin with a yellow “C” on it. Then the card section put up a red “S,” against a white field, followed by a “T,” and then an “A” until the word “STANFORD” had been spelled out one letter at a time.

The “S” from Stanford’s halftime card stunt

Then it was California’s turn. The card section began with a small gold “C” against a field of blue. Then a larger “C.” Then an enormous “C.” Then a gold border appeared around the blue field and the entire picture reversed color. The “C” became smaller, then smaller again, returning to the original stunt, but with the colors still reversed.

Part of California’s halftime card stunt

In the third quarter, California’s larger, more powerful line started to wear down Stanford’s defense. The Bears finally had a long, sustained scoring drive in the middle of the quarter, with rushes by Karl Deeds, Crip Toomey and Duke Morrison, plus one 15-yard forward pass from Toomey to Brick Muller, bringing the ball from the California 30 to a fourth-and-goal at the Stanford 1-yard-line. Morrison plunged through the Stanford line and the score was 17-0. That score, plus a presumably tired defense, seemed to break the vaunted Stanford spirit. The fourth quarter would be all California.

From the Stanford Quad Yearbook – California scores another touchdown

The Bears began the fourth quarter with another long drive that ended in Morrison scoring another touchdown from inside the Stanford 1-yard-line. Down 24-0, the Cardinals turned to the passing game, but that resulted in interceptions which gave the Bears short fields. First Pesky Sprott intercepted a pass at the Stanford 32. Seven plays later, Sprott scored from the Stanford two, making it a 31-0 game. On Stanford’s next possession it was Archie Nesbitt who got the interception, at the California 30. The ensuing California drive featured a 40-yard pass play from Karl Deeds to Brick Muller, and once again ended with Sprott taking the ball into the end zone for a 38-0 score. This was followed by Stanford’s final drive of the game, which ended with yet another Pesky Sprott interception as time expired and more than 5,000 Cal students and alumni poured out onto the field to celebrate in the traditional serpentine.

“And when we serpentine, their red will turn to green…” (In case you’ve ever wondered where that line from the Cal fight song “Big C” came from.)

The game statistics were, if anything, worse for Stanford than the 38-0 final score. California’s defense stifled them completely. The Bears out-gained them 303-19, Stanford did not make a single first down in the entire game, and never ran a play that gained more than 5 yards. Stanford’s reputed strong point, the passing game, was disastrous. The Cardinals attempted 12 passes. Only two were completed for a total of 10 yards, while the Bears intercepted FIVE of them. California, by contrast, completed 7 of 10 passes for 88 yards. And Stanford’s star, Dink Templeton had a fairly miserable punting day, with kicks of 17, 25 and 28 yards, along with some better kicks. He never got to attempt a field goal. California’s Duke Morrison far outshone him.

The scoreboard at California Field showing the final score, from the Blue and Gold Yearbook

The Examiner‘s Ed Hughes gave credit for the dominating win to the California line. “It was the line that did the business for California. Toomey, Sprott, Morrison, Deeds and Erb did the spectacular work carrying the ball, but it was those big fowards that made their gains possible. It was the California line man who opened up the holes through which the backs shot for their gains. It was the line men who plugged the holes so effectually that Stanford could not make first downs even once in the whole afternoon.”

Also writing in the Examiner, former Michigan quarterback “Hub” Huebel heaped praise on Andy Smith and what he called, “the well nigh perfect coaching system and the machine like play of the California team of 1920.” He added, “every member of the Blue and Gold combination, regular or substitute, was but a perfect fitting and well oiled cog in the mechanism that has been built up by Andy Smith.”

The Daily Californian‘s special Extra edition, which appeared on the afternoon of on November 20, 1920. It was the first Extra ever produced by the Daily Cal, which bragged that it carried the news of the victory before any other Bay Area newspaper.

By contrast, the Daily Palo Alto, the Stanford student paper, complained that “the breaks of the game seemed to fall to the Berkeley men.” The Daily Palo Alto writers noted that California recovered more fumbles than Stanford, that there was “always a California man ready to intercept the Stanford pass,” and that “a light wind assisted by the condition of the field helped to handicap the kicking of Templeton.” But even they acknowledged that at times, “the Stanford eleven seemed unable to fathom the play.”


Prior to the Big Game there had been some talk about the possibility that a strong USC team, which was not yet part of the Pacific Coast Conference, might get the west coast’s Rose Bowl berth instead of the Bears. There had also been some discussion of some sort of “playoff” game between the schools to decide the question. However, the day after the Big Game, USC head coach “Gloomy Gus” Henderson proclaimed that California was the greatest team on the west coast and should represent the west in Pasadena on New Years Day.

A Rose Bowl invitation was duly tendered to the Golden Bears. Andy Smith gladly accepted, but stated his men would not even begin thinking about that game until after final exams were finished. The Bears’ opponent remained in question, however. Princeton was believed to be the favorite, but their coach announced that several of his players had moved on to basketball and there would be no more football from his team that year. Notre Dame, Penn State and Ohio State were all discussed as possibilities. Then, on November 28, it became official. Ohio State would be coming west to play California in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1921. It would be as close to a national championship game as college football could come up with.

However, the Rose Bowl was only one of the significant results of the 1920 Big Game. Another arose from the enormous crowd at the game and the more than 20,000 fans who had to be turned away. While the teams had netted an estimated $78,000 from ticket sales (just over $1 million in 2020 dollars), California Graduate Manager Lute Nichols estimated that another $90,000 ($1.2 million in current dollars) in gross revenues had been lost because the stadium was too small. Talk began about building a new, substantially larger stadium, seating perhaps 55,000 fans or even more. In fact, the 1920 Big Game would be the last played at California Field. The next two Big Games would both be played at Stanford, the second in the Cardinals’ own brand new stadium. The Big Game would only return to Berkeley in 1923, to be played in a brand new, 73,000-seat stadium built at the base of the Berkeley hills and given the name California Memorial Stadium.

But all that was three years in the future. For now, the question at hand was whether the Golden Bears could continue their perfect season against one of the great eastern power houses. Could the Bears stand up against the undefeated Buckeyes? Would they be able to show the rest of the country that west coast football was worthy of respect and even something eastern terms should fear? Check back on New Years Day to find out!

NEXT: The 1921 Rose Bowl!

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