SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

He bounces out of his office, descends a long flight of stairs to the parking lot and heads for the Faculty Club, a redwood building below a grassy knoll that is all but hidden by a grove of trees. He nods to passersby, smiling bravely as he plunges onward to commiserate with his boss. An elderly gentleman halts his progress. "I've been here since 1923, Mr. Kapp," the man says, gripping the coach's elbow. "And I just want to tell you how thrilled I am that you're back."

"I'm just as thrilled," says Kapp, patting the man on the arm. The encounter proves to be a restorative. Kapp's step is springier.

"I'm prepared to fight for the right of people like Elton Veals to come to Cal," he says. "People said Joe Kapp couldn't make it, either as a student or a player. I had to start from some place, you know. I was first taken here when I was 14 years old by my junior high homeroom teacher, Palmina Brunelli. I'd never seen anything like it—me, a poor little half-Mexican from Salinas. But there we were in Strawberry Canyon, Memorial Stadium. The Bears came on the field in those dark blue uniforms—they beat Missouri that day—and I was hooked. 'What do you have to do to get here?' I asked Miss Brunelli. I took college preparatory courses from then on. Went to summer school to get the last B I needed. I mean, nobody in my family had been to college before. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I got to meet a man like Glenn Seaborg [the Nobel Prize-winning chemist]. I'd go down to Robbie's for coffee and someone would point out to me that there was a communist sitting over there. I'd go over and talk to the guy. Hell, I'd never met a communist before. They're all here—communists, liberals, conservatives, you name it. I'd get hammered at the stadium on Saturday, then get up aching on Sunday and go lie out on the Berkeley pier watching the sailboats pass, knowing that Jack London sailed on that Bay, went to classes right here. Hey, life here is rich. Rich, I tell you. I want to share that experience with people who've never known it. A young man like Elton is starting from way back. But, as I say, you've got to start from somewhere. It depends on what quarter you want to win. Me, I always wanted to win that last quarter."

Kapp was always tough. Because of football he had too little time left to become more than a reserve in basketball at Cal, even though that was his better sport in high school. But he was the team's enforcer. Newell recalls a game against USC in which Earl Robinson, the Cal captain, who was one of the few blacks then playing basketball in the Pacific" Coast Conference, was deliberately shoved after a play by a USC center. Newell had advised Robinson to behave as his baseball namesake had done 10 years earlier—with restraint in the face of provocation. Kapp seethed on the bench. "At halftime," Newell recalls, "I was prepared to deliver my mumbo jumbo when I noticed that Joe wasn't in the locker room. After a few minutes he showed up. 'There was something I had to do, Coach,' he told me. No other explanation. I was mad as hell. Halftime was almost over and I hadn't even given my speech. Well, the game had been close until then. But we just killed them in the second half. People kept telling me how brilliant I was afterward, asking me what I had said to inspire the team. Then I found out what happened. After the first half ended, Joe had gone over to that center and told him, 'When the fight starts, you better be looking for me because I'm coming for you.' The rest of the USC guys just sort of hung back. They knew about Joe. Somehow, they just weren't ready to play that second half."

Kapp didn't box at Cal, but he worked out with the boxing team, and its coach, Eddie Nemir, said he thought Joe could have become a collegiate heavyweight champion had he worked at it. He reserved his fighting spirit for football, which he played as if it were a Pier Six brawl. As a sophomore, Kapp quarter-backed the 3-7 Bears to a 20-18 upset of Stanford and its All-America quarterback, John Brodie. Waldorf, whom Kapp idolized, resigned after that crowning victory, and with him went Cal's straight T formation. Pete Elliott, a believer in the split T, replaced Waldorf. The split T isn't a passing formation. It requires its quarterbacks to scuttle along the line, either keeping the ball or lateraling it to a trailing back, a forerunner of the wishbone. Kapp ran 92 yards for a touchdown against Oregon in 1958, his senior year, and led the then Pacific Coast Conference in rushing with 616 yards. To everyone's amazement, the 1958 Bears won the conference championship and went to the Rose Bowl. Virtually the same team had finished the previous season with a 1-9 record. This one went to Pasadena principally because of Kapp's ferocious determination.

"Joe could convince you that you could do anything," says Hart, who as a running back was the team's other offensive threat. "When we were playing UCLA we desperately needed a good kick, and our regular punter, Wayne Crow, was hurt, so I had to do the kicking. It wasn't a good situation, but Joe never blinked. 'Jack's gonna kick it down there close,' he said just like that in the huddle. 'So let's cover, O.K.?' Me, kick it close? Well, I'll be damned if I didn't kick the ball out on their one-yard line and we won 20-17."

But the Kapp charisma could carry the thin blue ranks only so far. Iowa, "running a freeway" over Pat Newell (now a successful lawyer, then Cal's starting tackle, though he weighed barely 180) and the Cal line, beat them 38-12 in the Rose Bowl. "I remember it was a beautiful day," says Kapp, "because I spent most of it lying on my back looking up at the blue sky." Willie Fleming, Iowa's star halfback, later Kapp's teammate on the British Columbia Lions in the CFL, remembers the game for something else. "In that Rose Bowl game, I'm in the end zone after scoring and I see this madman running straight at me," he says. "It's Kapp all right. He grabs me by the jersey and says, 'We're gonna kick your ass.' I tell him, 'Hey, there's five minutes left and we're way ahead.' But he said that with such conviction, he had me believing we were in deep trouble."

There was something else significant about that Rose Bowl game: Cal hasn't played in one since.

Kapp made two All-America teams in 1958 and won the Pop Warner and Voit awards as the best football player on the Pacific Coast. But the NFL savants were obviously not impressed with his passing statistics—64 completions in 114 attempts for 775 yards and only three touchdowns—and he wasn't drafted until the 18th round, when the Redskins called out his name. Kapp was stung by the slight, and in his heart he declared war on the NFL. It was a war that lasted somewhat longer than the Napoleonic conflicts and not quite as long as the Thirty Years' War.

Kapp spurned Washington, which never really made an offer anyway, and signed with Calgary of the CFL. He quickly established that his meager college passing stats were misleading by completing a league-leading 196 passes for 2,990 yards and 21 touchdowns in 1959, his rookie year. Kapp passed for 3,060 yards in 1960, and after a contract hassle that would seem insignificant in comparison with future Kapp-employer disagreements he was traded to British Columbia. The Lions were 1-13-2 in Kapp's first year. Two years later he had them in the Grey Cup game for the CFL championship. And in 1964 he led them to the title. Kapp had prospered in Vancouver, investing in real estate, but he had proved himself in Canadian football, and he longed to show the NFL a thing or two. By now, even the most intransigent of NFL scouts seemed convinced that Kapp could quarterback an NFL team.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6