The California Institute of Technology's Battling Beavers are the product of a typical football factory. They would have to be to have lost only one game in the last two seasons (17-1), five in the past four seasons.
Caltech has a standard roster: 1 potential Nobel laureate, 8 grad students, 24 undergrads and 16 nonacademic members—custodians, gardeners and others—who work around the Pasadena campus or at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The Beavers also have a couple of 50-year-olds and students from France, Wales, Japan and Pakistan, some of whom carry pocket versions of the rules. The player from Wales watched his first football game through his own face mask as he kicked extra points and field goals.
There are the customary concerns around campus about the warped priorities of big-time football: A professor fears losing a student to athletic injury more than the coach worries about losing a player to academic ineligibility. The mean combined SAT score of incoming freshmen at Caltech is 1,410, just about double the scores the NCAA requires for academic eligibility.
The coach worries about the usual things: Some of the alumni think he's winning too much. The Caltech view of athletics, according to athletic director Warren Emery, is that it's "something to do while the student is here."
Caltech players do everything they can to dispel the stereotype that they are illiterate, steroid-fed behemoths: "We take the game seriously. And the teams we play take it goddam seriously," says linebacker/cell biologist Dr. Eric Davidson. "There's a lot of pride involved. We like to hold our ground and keep them from moving the ball on us. And we like to ram the ball down their throats. Our culture has this image of eggheads that this is inconsistent with."
Caltech has the quietest campus to be associated with a winning football team in the country. Seldom, if ever, are speakers propped in the dorm windows. To most of the students, heavy metal is osmium. The serenity of a walk through the campus, amid olive trees and low mission-style buildings, belies the complexities of what goes on behind the stucco walls. Far from your mind is the thought that you're at the home of 21 Nobel Prizes. Even further from your mind is football.
The closest most people at Caltech come to football is the Rose Bowl, which is three miles away and where Caltech made perhaps its biggest splash in the game. On Jan. 2, 1961, Caltech students switched the instructions to Washington fans on which cards to hold up at what time for their card display so that at halftime the Huskies spelled out C-A-L-T-E-C-H across one side of the stadium. During the 1984 Rose Bowl game, Caltech students rigged the scoreboard so that ILLINOIS and UCLA were replaced with CALTECH and MIT.
Until four years ago, any distraction from the Caltech performance on the field was welcome. The Battling Beavers had just three winning seasons from 1932 to 1981, and over one stretch lost 35 straight games. In 1977 the football program was suspended when only 15 students tried out for the team. The next year, Caltech made football a club sport—not governed by NCAA rules—which allowed the Beavers to include graduate students and faculty on the team, and to play junior college, semipro and junior-varsity college teams.
Even with every single body on campus eligible to play and even after the success the football team has had in the past few seasons, turnout at practice still hovers between 15 and 30. Attendance for home games rarely exceeds 100. But how much Beaver fever can be expected at a school where the students are so unfamiliar with football that flyers announcing each game herald FULL CONTACT/TACKLE football?
Despite the billing, many Caltech players aren't prepared for the contact either. The equipment man has had to teach some of them how to dress. Coach Lin Parker remembers the time a player from Pakistan put his hip pads on backward: "He put the tailbone protector in front. It made more sense to him."