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Surprise Marriage Of The Year: Joe Kapp And Cal
Ron Fimrite
September 01, 1982
The Golden Bears' rookie head coach has been a brawler and a litigious sort, and he had never coached at any level, but his mastery of the game as a Viking and his love of Cal, which he had taken to a Rose Bowl in 1959, made him an astute choice
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September 01, 1982

Surprise Marriage Of The Year: Joe Kapp And Cal

The Golden Bears' rookie head coach has been a brawler and a litigious sort, and he had never coached at any level, but his mastery of the game as a Viking and his love of Cal, which he had taken to a Rose Bowl in 1959, made him an astute choice

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Indeed, it's probably time for Kapp and Cal to be reunited. The public response to the football team in recent years has been tepid at best. Cal grads, like their cross-Bay nemeses from Stanford, tend to spend more time boasting of their school's academic standing—10 Nobel Prize winners on the Berkeley faculty, the highest-rated graduate school, according to the American Council of Education—than of its prowess on the gridiron. Berkeleyans are much more proud than embarrassed that the student revolution of the '60s began (with the Free Speech Movement of 1964) on their campus. There is much less talk among Cal people than Stanfordites of spirit and mystique, but the bonds to alma mater are just as strong. And the campus, which rolls down from the Berkeley hills almost to the Bay, is beautiful, with its stands of redwood and eucalyptus and rippling Strawberry Creek. Cal people may be cool, but they care. Joe Kapp fits in.

Kapp is a tall (6'2½") man with long limbs and large hands. His once coal-black hair is silver now, and his speech is husky, precise, almost like that of someone whose second language is English. He has a bit of Anthony Quinn's Zorba the Greek in him, although the resemblance isn't quite as strong as some would have it. Kapp's face is fuller, his features smaller, save for the luminous hazel eyes and the paintbrush-black eyebrows. His mother, Florence, is Mexican; his father, Robert, is German. The ethnic mix, Kapp feels, has much to do with the soft-hard duality of his nature. "When I wake up in the morning," he says, "the German in me shouts, 'Achtung!, let's get going!' Then the Mexican in me says, 'Mañana'...and I roll over and go back to sleep."

In truth, the Mexican mother was the German in the family. The father, an alcoholic (since recovered), was "the free spirit in every sense." Kapp was born on March 19, 1938 in Santa Fe, N. Mex., but the family moved two years later to the San Fernando Valley, then to Salinas, "Steinbeck country," a hundred or so miles south of San Francisco, and finally to Newhall in Southern California, where Kapp went to high school. Joe was the oldest of five children. In high school he was a star in both basketball and football, but he entered Cal, in 1955, on a basketball scholarship. "I had a scholarship left," says Newell. "And Pappy didn't. If he had had one and I hadn't, he would have given him one. We both wanted him."

Kapp's offices are in temporary quarters above the weight room at Memorial Stadium. He will move to a more spacious suite down the hall when renovation of the 59-year-old stadium is nearer completion. Kapp's office walls aren't decorated with photographs of himself in action, but with pictures of the Rose Bowl and with Rose Bowl memorabilia, reminders to players and visitors alike that his team has a goal.

On this day he is fingering a dark blue helmet on his desk, part of a proposed new uniform. On the helmet is pasted a bear claw in gold that is similar in design to the horns that adorn the Minnesota Vikings' headgear.

"I'm not so sure about the claw," says Kapp (the bear claw logo will eventually be discarded), "but I know one thing: Our uniforms are going back to the old Pappy Waldorf navy blue—Cal blue, not that pussyfoot blue they've been using here the past few years. It's a matter of presenting a strong image." He laughs at the mention of the fateful word, image. "Oh yes, my image? Well, what can I do about it? I think it's an honest image, although stories do get embellished. Somewhere therein, as they say, lies the truth. But you've got to have a sense of humor about these things. What can I tell you? I live my life honestly and straight ahead. I just keep coming."

Jennifer Adams, Kapp's secretary, calls out to him from an adjoining office. "Dave's on the phone." "Dave who?" asks Kapp facetiously. He leans back in his chair and cradles the phone between his neck and shoulder while he bounces the helmet on his lap. "David, what's up? Yes, I know all about it. Meet you at lunch." There is a crisis Maggard and Kapp must discuss, although it's pretty much out of their control now. Kapp had adopted as a virtual protégé a black junior college tailback named Elton Veals, who had signed a letter of intent to enter Cal. But Veals's grades hadn't been good enough. Kapp persuaded him to change junior colleges and switch to a solid academic course so that "even if he can't make it in here, he'll at least have gotten himself some kind of an education."

To his gratification, Veals had done well in his new school, well enough so that by attending summer school he might yet be able to crack Cal's difficult admission requirements as a "special action student." Kapp had written an impassioned letter on Veals's behalf to the Special Action Committee, which is composed in part of faculty members with little interest in football. "We can build on his sense of responsibility," Kapp wrote. "We can enhance his chances of becoming a whole person—educated, open, worldly and giving." Veals's own letter to the committee nearly brought tears to Kapp's eyes. "I know I will have to work extra hard," Veals had written, "but I want to make Cal proud of me by getting a degree." Neither letter said much of anything about football.

"Joe has approached this whole Veals thing with a missionary zeal," says Bill Cooper, a new Kapp assistant and former Cal teammate who had been a coach, a teacher and an administrator in high school for the past 22 years. "I know that cynics will find it hard to believe that he means what he says about helping a smart, disadvantaged kid to get the kind of education we offer here. After all, Elton is a fine football player [3,054 yards rushing in two jaycee seasons] who can help us. But you have to know Joe and where he came from to know that he wanted that young man to experience this place. He knows what that means. So do I. I'm back here mostly because of Joe, but I'm also here to pay this university back for my athletic scholarship."

Kapp had learned that very morning that the heavily recruited Veals, whose family lives in Baton Rouge, La., had decided to forgo summer school and enter Tulane, closer to home, in the fall. The Cal letter of intent wasn't binding, it seems, because Veals had not yet enrolled or even been accepted at Berkeley. There remained, in fact, the chance that he wouldn't be admitted despite Kapp's efforts on his behalf. Kapp was deeply disturbed, but he has confronted enough adversity in his own roller coaster career to accept this latest setback.

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