Joe Kapp is the living embodiment of Cal football. As a Cal fan I know once said, “Joe Kapp is Oski made flesh.” It is no coincidence, then, that Joe Kapp played a role in three of Cal’s biggest Big Game upsets: in 1956 as Cal’s starting quarterback in Pappy Waldorf’s final game; in 1982 as Cal’s head coach for The Play; and in 1986, in his last game at Cal, as the head coach for the Bears’ greatest upset and possibly most emotional Big Game win ever.
If 1980 had been an abysmal year for Cal, then 1986 was whatever is worse than abysmal. The Bears were beaten by Boston College in their opening game, but did manage to beat Washington State in their second game of the season. That was it, though. Eight straight losses followed, including a 49-0 loss to ASU and a 28-3 loss to USC in the two games preceding the Big Game. The worst, however, may have been the press conference following Cal’s 50-18 loss to Washington, where Coach Kapp, upon being asked if his coaching was the problem with Cal, proceeded to unzip his pants.
The Bears had a 1-9 record on the season and Joe Kapp was told before the Big Game that his time as Cal’s head coach, which had begun with such promise with a 7-4 season and The Play in 1982, would be over at the conclusion of the 1986 season. And then, almost unimaginably, the news got even worse for the Bears. True freshman starting quarterback Troy Taylor, who had replaced Brian Bedford four games into the season, went out of the USC game with a broken jaw.
Kapp had to decide between starting Brian Bedford, who had been ineffective at quarterback, but had been converted into a good wide receiver, and bringing back Kevin Brown, who had started games for Cal in 1985, but had been bypassed in 1986. Kapp settled on Brown, who hadn’t started a game all season, to lead the Bear offense, which hadn’t scored a touchdown in almost a month. It would be Brown’s final game at Cal.
Things looked much different down on the Farm. Under coach Jack Elway, John’s father, the Cardinal had built a 6-3 record and was ranked #16, with two games still to play. (Stanford was set to play Arizona in Tokyo the week after the Big Game, as part of a short-lived NCAA effort to bring American football to Japan.) With a strong starting quarterback in John Paye, an excellent running back in Brad Muster, a good defense, and a Gator Bowl bid already accepted, Stanford was considered a sure thing. The Cardinal were favored by 21 points over the hapless Bears.
Kapp, an old-school, from-the-gut coach, in an increasingly technical game, tried to fire up his players by bringing a 74-year-old former yell leader, Natalie Cohen, a fixture at Big Games for decades, into the locker room to lead the team in the Axe yell right before they ran on the field. As corny as it might seem, it worked. “We ran out on the field together, as a team,” said linebacker David Ortega. “We didn’t do that every week that year.” The Cal student section did their part to raise morale, imploring the team to “Win One For the Zipper,” in reference to Coach Kapp’s Seattle press conference.
On Stanford’s first possession, all seemed to be going as expected. Paye led the Cardinal to a first and goal on Cal’s 7-yard line. But the Cal defense held, and then Stanford missed a field goal try. The Bears started to believe they had a chance. And so did their fans. “Those Cal crazies got excited,” said Paye.
The Bears managed a field goal early in the second quarter to take a 3-0 lead, and the team and the fans got even more excited. Then Brown took the Bears on a 93-yard drive. Brown hit Mike Ford with a 61-yard pass, but on that play Brown himself received a helmet-to-helmet hit and suffered a concussion. Today, Brown’s concussion would have resulted in his removal from the game, but in 1986 he was left in to play and completed the drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Wendell Peoples, putting Cal up 10-0. Twenty years later, Brown said he still had no memory of throwing that TD pass.
Stanford finally got on the board with a field goal right before the half to cut the Cal lead to 10-3. The third quarter and the early fourth quarter were scoreless, and it was still a 10-3 game with 7:36 to go. On 2nd and 7 from the Stanford 47, Kapp called an option end-around. Kevin Brown says, “I was smiling to myself, because it probably wouldn’t work. But if it does work, this game is so over.” Brown pitched the ball to Mike Ford. Ford got a block behind the line from James Devers. Kam King threw another key block at the Cal 40, as did Todd Powers at the 30. Ford then waltzed into the end zone to give Cal a 17-3 lead.
By now, the crowd noise was deafening. And it was the defense that really got them going, with seven sacks of John Paye. “There were some pretty good shots on him,” said Cal linebacker Hardy Nickerson. “With every one, you could see him getting up slower and slower — and the crowd was getting louder and louder.” But Paye was a gamer, and, despite an injured shoulder, on Stanford’s next possession he completed a 69-yard TD pass to Jeff Jones, 55 yards of it in the air. Stanford made the 2-point conversion, and suddenly Cal’s lead was down to 6 points: 17-11.
Stanford got the ball back one more time, and Paye took the Cardinal down to the Cal 37. But the Cal defense came through one last time, sacking Paye twice to end the game. The 21-point underdog Bears, with a back-up quarterback and a fired head coach, had pulled off the biggest upset in Big Game history. As the crowd stormed the field, Joe Kapp’s players carried their coach off on their shoulders.
Hardy Nickerson climbed up a ladder and conducted the Cal Band in the middle of the field – then a novel innovation to Cal tradition. Pandemonium and joy swept through Berkeley. Linebacker David Ortega had been thinking about transferring, but his mind was changed by “that whole atmosphere at the end of the game, hysteria for a 2-9 team.”
In the Cal locker room, Natalie Cohen led the players in Hail to California, and Joe Kapp gave his players his farewell speech as their coach:
For more 1986 Big Game goodness, take a look at this outstanding 2006 San Francisco Chronicle article about the game, written by our own fellow Cal alum, Steve Kroner, 1986 Big Game: 20 Years Later Upset Is Still Hard to Believe.