At the March 16 press conference held to introduce him as the new football coach at San Jose State University, John Ralston spotted what he considered a serious omission in the news release distributed to the media. All the particulars of a coaching career spanning more than 40 years were there—his back-to-back Rose Bowl victories with Stanford in the early 1970s, his leading the NFL's Denver Broncos to the first three winning seasons in franchise history, his election last year to the college football Hall of Fame. But something was missing from the last paragraph: "He and his wife, Patty, reside in Menlo Park, Calif.," it read. "They have adult twin daughters, Sherry Brown and Terry Zaffonato, and five grandchildren."
Ralston is not a large man. From 1947 to '50, he played linebacker for Pappy Waldorf at the University of California while weighing no more than 178 pounds. And he may not weigh that much now. He has an open and friendly face. He laughs easily. But there is a burning intensity in his large blue eyes, and his voice is robust, commanding, an altogether impressive instrument. He stepped to the rostrum determined to make amends for the oversight. "My family is larger than it says here," he began evenly. "Patty and I had a son, Larry, and I know he would have loved being here today. But he died on New Year's Eve in 1991. Of AIDS."
Ralston stepped back for a moment to gather himself. "I wasn't sure he was going to make it," says Lawrence Fan, San Jose's sports information director. "I almost stepped in myself. It was a very, very emotional moment." But Ralston recovered his composure and finished the press conference, bantering wittily with the reporters and television crews. He had said what he needed to say, for the death of his son had become the defining moment in his life. And, chances are, he would have never returned to college coaching had it not been for that devastating loss.
"Larry's death pulled everything together for me, all my thoughts and emotions," he says. "I'd spent most of 1991 in Europe, scouting potential players for the World League of American Football. I'd coached before that in Holland and in the Soviet Union. I'd campaigned to make American football an Olympic sport. But, Jesus, you lose a son and you say to yourself, What on earth am I doing? So I sat down with Patty and said, 'I want to coach college football again. I want to be with young people. I want to affect their lives, teach them not just about football but about life.' "
So when Ron Turner, the third head coach in four years to leave San Jose for another job, quit after one season to join the Chicago Bears as offensive coordinator, Ralston immediately applied to replace him, knowing, he says, that at 66 and having been away from the college game for more than 20 years, "I hardly fit the profile." Turns out the profile fit him. San Jose had a recent unfortunate history of hiring, in the words of athletic director Tom Brennan, "up-and-coming 'coordinator types' who have utilized their experience here to advance their careers. We had become a stepping-stone. And this rapid turnover had seriously affected our recruiting. We needed someone who would stay around and build our program. We needed stability."
At his age, and with his vast experience, Ralston scarcely figured to use the San Jose job as a stepping-stone into bigger ponds. He also fit some other criteria Brennan had established: Ralston is a proven winner, and he is well connected in both the athletic and business communities in the Bay Area and beyond. Ralston had been general manager and coach of the old USFL Oakland Invaders and vice-president of the San Francisco 49ers. He is both a fund-raiser and a public-relations man for a new football league he began trying to establish last year for non-college inner-city youths. And he is such a compelling public speaker that Brennan envisions him rousing long-dormant alumni and San Jose businessmen to a gift-giving frenzy. Ralston should also be able to bring more big-time teams onto San Jose's future schedules.
But Ralston brings much more to the party. "I don't care whether John's 20 or 60," says the 41-year-old Brennan. "He's a tremendous communicator. I've never been a coach myself, so I don't belong to any old-boy network. I like to deal with things unemotionally and as systematically and objectively as possible, but the joy John expressed in being an educator again was, I must say, very convincing."
John Ralston has never wanted to be anything but a football coach. He was born in Oakland on April 26, 1927, but in 1935, several years after his parents had divorced, he moved with his mother to the northern Michigan town of Norway. There, sitting by the window of his grandparents' home, he watched the coach of the Norway High School team slog faithfully through the snow to work. It seemed to the boy that there must be something honorable and important about such a job. And when he went to a Green Bay Packer-Cleveland Ram game in 1940, he was hooked. "There they were," he recalls, "Don Hutson and Cecil Isbell and Buckets Goldenberg. My heroes."
Ralston joined the Marine Corps upon graduating from high school in 1944. After the war he returned to the Bay Area, where he enrolled at Cal and played for Waldorf in 1947, the Cal coaching legend's first year at Berkeley. Waldorf took what he himself called a "sleeping giant" to three consecutive Rose Bowls in his first four years. It has been 37 years since Waldorf coached at Cal and 12 since his death, but he lives on in the hearts of his former players, men now mostly in their 60's, through an organization founded to perpetuate his name: Pappy's Boys.
Ralston, a charter Pappy's Boy, was among the first to fall under the great man's spell. "I was a lousy player," he says. "The only reason I played was so I could coach someday. Pappy knew that, and he encouraged me. Oh, what an influence that man had on my life! Everything I've ever done. I've thought of him. How often do I say to myself, Now, I wonder what Pappy would do here?"