Last Dec. 5, University of California Athletic Director Dave Maggard, a man of exemplary personal habits who is, by all accounts, as sane as the next college administrator, hired Joe Kapp as the new football coach at Berkeley. No one had faulted Maggard for cashiering the mild-mannered Roger Theder, Kapp's predecessor, not quite 48 hours after the Golden Bears were thrashed 42-21 in their annual Big Game with Stanford. The loss to Stanford—always intolerable—left Theder's team with a 2-9 record for the '81 season, the worst in 19 years for a school that had scarcely distinguished itself on the gridiron the past quarter century. No, it was sadly apparent that Theder, a fine gentleman who had hewed scrupulously to the student-athlete line espoused at Berkeley, had to go. But Joe Kapp? The old Minnesota Vikings quarterback? Kapp, the brawling roughneck whose only football experience over the past dozen years had been in the courtroom? Kapp, who had never coached the game at any level—high school, college or pro? Kapp? What on earth did he stand for? Tequila, that's what. And a punch in the snoot. Some inspiration for young men—students at one of the country's finest universities—who might well represent the future of their beleaguered generation and ours as well.
The coaching community was predictably outraged by Maggard's decision. And it was quick to inform him so. "To some coaches, it was simply heresy," says Maggard. "One called me and gave me a lengthy recitation of his personal credentials—graduate assistant coach, high school assistant, high school head coach, college assistant, college head coach and so on. 'And you,' he finally shouted at me, 'you go out and hire a guy who hasn't coached a down!' " That's not entirely true. Kapp did coach a pickup alumni team to a 68-7 loss to the Cal varsity six years ago, even taking the field himself in Levi's and tennis shoes for a series at quarterback (he completed a pass, handed off once and was sacked). And he had helped out as a volunteer from time to time at both Cal and Laney College, a two-year school in Oakland where many of his old friends teach and coach.
Nevertheless, Maggard was obviously breaking all the rules. For a man to become head coach at a major university, even at one whose football team would have trouble staying out of the Ivy League cellar, he must first pay his dues. He must serve time in a darkened cell with a film projector, ruminating on post patterns. Cowboy defenses and the like; he has to hit the recruiting circuit, humbling himself in the company of arrogant teen-agers and grasping parents; he must suffer in servile silence as an aide to some nincompoop who doesn't know an X from an O before he finally gets to have a blackboard of his own, maybe some 15 or 20 years after his first coaching job. Take Bill Walsh. Now he paid his dues. He had coached for 20 years, beginning at the high school level, and was in his mid-405 before he ever became a college head coach (at Stanford), and he was 47 when he finally became head man of the 49ers in the NFL. Who can begrudge Bill Walsh a Super Bowl victory? The other coaches don't much care for his being a genius, but they have to admit, dammit, that he paid his dues. All Kapp has paid lately is his attorney.
The image was all wrong, too. A Cal coach must at least seem professorial, the sort of guy who can trade Hegelian dialectic with the best of them at the Faculty Club, even if he hasn't a clue what he's talking about. The late Pappy Waldorf was the perfect Cal coach. In his time (1947-56), he was called the Wise Walrus, partly because of his impressive bulk and partly because he sounded as if he could put the kids in Philosophy 6A to sleep as quickly as any of the tenured pipe smokers. Actually, Pappy was a spellbinder, a basso profundo of sesquipedalian speech who could make a game with Oregon State sound like a Punic War. And Pappy took the Bears to three straight Rose Bowls, a feat comparable in Berkeley now to transforming funky Telegraph Avenue into a suburban shopping mall. That the Wise Walrus could drink any sportswriter extant under the Holiday Inn piano bar was discreetly ignored. Pappy was perfect. Kapp? Well, what do you do with someone who defines the exquisite art of passing as "grabbing the old seed and flinging it."
But Maggard didn't waver from his resolve. To accusations that he had lost his marbles, he patiently replied, "Wait and see." Maggard, who went to Cal with Kapp in the late '50s, knows his man. "Certainly Joe doesn't fit the image of the big-time coach," he says. Joe doesn't even fit his own image. People who think of him as a wild man don't know the compassionate, intelligent, sensitive person he is. Sometimes it takes the unusual guy to get something done. And Joe definitely has a unique quality about him."
Kapp, for his part, simply tuned out all the catty crepehangers, donned his 25-year-old Cal letter jacket (it still fit), his sweat pants and cleats and started working 18-hour days. He put life into spring practice and did his level best to instill confidence in players who associated putting on their shoulder pads with losing. Cal football players were no longer "kids," they were "young men." That's what Pappy used to call them. If Kapp's experience was in question, he answered with his enthusiasm, which is boundless, exhausting. He doesn't oversee his players from the remoteness of a tower; he's with them—a head popping into a huddle, a pair of hands reaching in behind the center, another pair of cleated feet clattering along cement walkways to the practice fields.
Maggard is right. Kapp is unique. And he isn't what he has always seemed to be. The brawler is an eager learner who reads Jack London and Hemingway and Steinbeck and treasures his degree from Cal more than any championship ring. The free-lancing quarterback is a canny theorist who has built his own reference library of playbooks and coaching principles gathered in Canada and the NFL. The litigant is a man of unshakable principle. The nomadic warrior is more loyal to his alma mater than the daffiest pennant-waving Old Blue. The tough guy is an incurable softy. The pub crawler is a stickler for detail. And no one could possibly have more loyal friends.
"Joe Kapp is the most extraordinary person I've ever met in sports," says Bob Steiner, who was the sports information director at Cal for 11 years and is now director of public relations for the Los Angeles Forum. "I don't know anyone whom people respond to the way they respond to Kapp. Maybe the university should be as proud of him as it is of any nuclear scientist. With him, they took a guy who was willing to learn—who had no educational background to speak of—and they made him into an educated person, someone who goes well beyond sports in his range of interests. I think what we have here is the best of the university returning to the university."
"There's not a phony bone in Joe's body," says his former Cal teammate. Jack Hart, now a vice-president of Levi Strauss & Co. in San Francisco. "His enormous love for Cal is genuine. This is more than a job to him. He's multidimensional. He goes into things to experience them totally. He's completely involved. If I were ever to have brain surgery, I would hope that the surgeon would have the same sort of dedication to his job that Joe has to his. My oldest son is named Joe. What does that tell you?"
"I've never known a more team-oriented man than Joe," says Pete Newell, Kapp's basketball coach at Cal and now a talent consultant for the Golden State Warriors. "There is nothing synthetic or plastic about him. It's hard to put into words the magnitude of his leadership."