Coach Andy Smith and his California Varsity squad could have been excused if they had approached the fourth game of the 1920 season, against Nevada, with considerable satisfaction. They had swept through the first three games in extraordinary fashion, first a 21-0 win over the Olympic Club, then an 88-0 beat down of the Mare Island Marines and most recently a 127-0 total destruction of St. Mary’s, which had resulted in the Saints canceling the rest of their season a few days later. St. Mary’s head coach Hollander was making noises about suing if his contract were not paid in full, and the San Francisco Examiner reported that he was planning to subpoena both Andy Smith and Stanford Coach Walter Powell “as witnesses in his behalf regarding his knowledge of the game.” Considering that Hollander’s team had lost to Stanford and California by a combined score of 168-0 on consecutive Saturdays, and that California had piled up 558 yards of offense, compared to 6 for St. Mary’s, it was probably as well for Coach Hollander that his complaints were never taken to trial.
The Match-Up with Nevada
Despite California’s success to date, Andy Smith was never one to relax. Nevada was universally regarded as the first real test on the schedule. In previous years, the Nevada team, known variously as the Sagehens or the Sagebrushers, had not been deemed worthy to play the California Varsity, and had been relegated to competing against the Golden Bear Freshmen. But Nevada came into 1920 with what the Examiner called, “a big ‘rep’.” Stronger than the prior year “in every way,” the boys in Silver and Blue were undefeated coming into the California game. Unusually for that era, they were noted for their passing game. “The forward pass is said to be one of strong points of the team,” according to the Examiner‘s William Unmack. “It is on its ability to work these plays that Nevada has shown up in the fine shape against its opponents so far this season.”
Dick van Horn of the San Francisco Chronicle agreed. He regarded the Sagebrushers as only the second team of the season, after the Olympic Club, to provide California with, “some opposition that will be worth while to both the team and to the spectators.” While he did not anticipate that the Bears would lose, in his view, “the small Nevadans cannot be taken too lightly.” The Nevada quarterback, left-hander James “Rabbit” Bradshaw, was the key to the game. “If little Jimmy Bradshaw gets loose from the California line, he’ll more than make it interesting for the blue and gold backfield.”
Like the Bears, the 4-0 Sagebrushers had not played a very challenging schedule. Their wins included a 20-6 game against their own alumni squad and a 47-7 romp over the San Francisco American Legion. They had beaten the Mare Island Marines 28-0, a far smaller score than California’s 88-0 win over the same team, but still a convincing victory. However, they had struggled against the University Farm in Davis (now U.C. Davis), before managing a 7-3 win.
Excitement in the Sagebrush State
There was enormous excitement in Reno at the prospect of the first-ever match-up against California’s Varsity. The Reno Gazette-Journal called the game the “Biggest Athletic Event of the Season.” and reported that Coach Ray Courtright was holding secret conferences with his players, devising new plays to keep “up their sleeves.” Coach Courtright regarded the game as “the test of the season,” and said Nevada’s only chance of winning was “by the use of sufficient strategy to outwit the California players.” The California players were bigger and heavier than the Nevada men and the Sagebrushers would have to “depend upon open running plays and forward passing.” Proving that “coachspeak” has always been with us, Courtright concluded with the observation, “it will probably be a question of who piles up the greater number of points.”
By Friday morning, at least 20 carloads of rooters had already left Reno to head for Berkeley, and more than 50 students and alumni had departed for the game by train. There was some grumbling at the refusal of Southern Pacific to offer an “excursion rate” for the game, but the railroad told the Gazette-Journal that its policy since the War (World War I) was only to offer such rates for certain specified events. Thus, the travelers from Reno were forced to pay double the rate for the two-day event than what would have been available had they stayed in the Bay Area for at least two weeks. The team itself was to depart Reno by train on Friday night.
In an age not only before television, but even before commercial radio, the University of Nevada devised a means for fans unable to travel to Berkeley to keep up with the game. For a small fee, fans could be present in the University gymnasium for updates, via a miniature field laid out on a bulletin board. The Gazette-Journal explained:
The entire game will be worked out play by play as it occurs which will offer Reno people first hand news of the game…. The bulletin will be in the form of a curtain divided into sections representing different yard lines on the field, on which will be small blocks representing the Nevada and California teams, and the blocks will be moved according to the last play of each team.
The news would to be obtained almost instantaneously via telegrams sent from the press box at the Berkeley stadium to the Western Union office in Reno, which would forward the information on to the University gymnasium. The fee charged to attend would benefit the Injured Athletes Fund.
As game day approached, no one was giving Nevada a realistic chance to win. The question was whether they could at last provide the Bears with some competition. Even Andy Smith was reported to be hoping Nevada would challenge his team sufficiently to require them to play up to their potential. The question everyone was asking was: could Nevada do what no other team had? Could they score? According to the Oakland Tribune‘s Doug Montell, “opinion is about equally divided as to whether Nevada will score against California.” And that, Montell said, “is the story of what is bothering Andy Smith and the California coaching staff.” Their goal for the game was for the Bears to keep their “clean slate” of shutouts. The larger heavier California players might be challenged by the smaller, perhaps faster Sagebrushers, their “shifty quarterback,” and their “open passing game.”
Andy Smith announced that Karl Deeds would start at halfback in place of California star Pesky Sprott who had “not hit his stride yet,” after spending the summer training for the Olympics 800 meter race, then traveling to Antwerp for the competition in late August. Otherwise the California starting lineup was unchanged from the St. Mary’s game.
As the game began, Nevada received the opening kickoff and tried a couple of unsuccessful passing plays from deep in their own territory. On the third play from scrimmage Rabbit Bradshaw fumbled. The ball rolled into the end zone and was recovered by Harold “Brick” Muller for California’s first touchdown. The Chronicle‘s Dick van Horn reported, “the touchdown came so suddenly, that the Nevadans were mystified over what happened.” Undaunted, Bradshaw made some good plays on Nevada’s next possession, including a 30-yard run around Brick Muller’s end. But California finally held on downs at their own 25, and “then started its string of touchdowns.”
The Bears tore through Nevada’s line for large gains on play after play. By consensus the star of the game was Irving “Crip” Toomey who had two long runs of 50 and 55 yards, scored four touchdowns, and kicked a field goal and six extra points – all in the first half! The Chronicle‘s van Horn raved that “Toomey’s play this season has been a revelation” and in the Nevada game, “he went better than ever.” Van Horn added, “after the first half, the score stood 45-0 in favor of California, and the score sheet looked like Toomey was the whole eleven men on the California team.” The Tribune‘s Doug Montell concurred, calling Toomey “the star of the game.” Not to be outdone, Jack James of the Examiner called Toomey, “California’s bright and shining light.”
Nevada was down, but still not out. Quarterback Rabbit Bradshaw was quick and agile, with considerable ability to dodge tackles. Observers agreed he would have been an asset to any of the Pacific Coast Conference teams. But Bradshaw lacked a solid line. In the words of Doug Montell, “for Nevada, the whole shooting match was Bradshaw,” and “his forward passing was spectacular.”
The Bears scored another touchdown early in the third quarter to make their lead 52-0. But then it happened. While returning a Nevada punt, Brick Muller was tackled at the California 40 and fumbled. Nevada’s “Tiny” Fairchild jumped on the ball for the recovery. Sagebrusher quarterback Rabbit Bradshaw quickly completed a 25-yard pass to his left end, Martin, down to the California 15. The Sagebrushers then ran into the line on consecutive plays for no gain. A third down pass was incomplete. On fourth-and-ten Bradshaw finally completed a pass to Eddie Reed on the far right side of the field. Shaking off tacklers, including a desperate effort by Toomey, who was knocked out of the game as a result, Reed carried the ball all the way into the end zone. Nevada had scored. It was 52-6.
Sagebrush center Jack Heward kicked the extra point and it was 52-7. This extra point is of special significance to your author, because Jack Heward would eventually become my own great-uncle. My grandfather Harlan Heward, a Cal alum, was in the stands, with possibly somewhat divided loyalties between his alma mater and his baby brother.
Following this moment of glory for the Sagebrushers, the game reverted to form. California added two more touchdowns in the third quarter and another two in the fourth, and Nevada never threatened to score again. The final score: California 79, Nevada 7.
Despite the game having been a 72-point blow-out, all the conversation after the game was about Nevada’s touchdown. “Nevada First to Score on California” read the headline in the Oakland Tribune. “Sagehens Score in the Third Quarter” blared the Examiner. “Nevada Gets First Score Against California” proclaimed the Reno Evening Gazette. California’s Coach Andy Smith was reported to be unhappy with his team’s defensive effort and planning to require extra practices to ensure that such a disaster would not be repeated the following week against Utah.
As for the Sagebrushers, they felt they had earned considerable respect with their effort, as indeed they had. The Examiner‘s Jack James wrote, “although the University of Nevada staggered back to the home on the hills on the short end of a 79-7 score, the figure seven was among those present instead of the dread goose-egg, and Nevada had won one battle of primary importance – recognition among the elect.”
The Nevada fans who had made the trek from Reno for the game in their delicate 1920 automobiles were rather less fortunate. An unusual mid-October blizzard blocked the treacherous two-lane road over the Sierra. Three days after the game, the Gazette-Journal was reporting that more than 15 automobiles full of Nevada fans were still “at Sierra City, where the snow is about three feet deep with much deeper drifts reported in the pass.” Then there were “six machines [automobiles] held up at Sacramento having decided not to attempt to climb up the mountains during the storm.” In addition, “four other machines have been reported at Placerville.” Other fans had left their cars in Auburn and taken the train home, planning to return for them when the snow melted.
The fact that the Nevada team and fans, and even the Bay Area newspapers, all regarded a 79-7 loss to California as a badge of honor for the Sagebrushers is a testament to just how extraordinary the reputation of the Golden Bears had become. Could they keep it up? Come back next week to find out!
Next Week: Game Five – California vs. Utah