Reflecting on Opening Day at Memorial Stadium

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By Dave Newhouse, Guest Contributor
Posted Sep 5, 2012
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Editor's note: Dave Newhouse, for forty five years a sports writer for the Oakland Tribune - who spent years covering Cal - weighs in here with some reminiscences and commentary on Cal's opening day at the renovated Memorial Stadium.

Newhouse: "Welcome home," the young lady ticket-checker in the yellow coat said as my wife and I passed through an entrance into Memorial Stadium last Saturday.

"Welcome back," a young man clad in the same security yellow said moments later as he pointed us in the direction of our seats for the Cal-Nevada football game.

It was a homecoming atmosphere Sept, 1, 2012, because the occasion truly was about home -- the home of Cal football: Lovely, picturesque, historic Memorial Stadium.

Twenty-one months had passed since the Golden Bears played their last game in Memorial Stadium, as they were re-routed to AT&T Park in San Francisco for "home" games while their antique stadium was getting a $321-million seismic facelift.

Now they were home again, right there in Strawberry Canyon, in one of the most scenic settings for a football stadium in America.

Only Husky Stadium on the banks of Lake Washington in Seattle, or the Rose Bowl nestled cozily in a Pasdena valley, or West Point's stadium abutting the Hudson River in upstate New York comes close to rivaling Berkeley's Memorial Stadium for ambience.

And though Memorial Stadium doesn't quite look the same -- imagine one section of seat-back chairs instead of those time-rotted wooden benches -- the old girl's cosmetic makeover would make even Joan Rivers envious.

But the stadium looks so much better overall, including the enlarged press box that is the perfect size for the next United Nations summit. OK, so there weren't porta potties on the East Side upper level for the capacity crowd of 63,186, but why get picky?

Everything was ideal for Cal fans, except the game's outcome. More on that later; let's not spoil the party.

Kickoff was scheduled for noon, but Cal and Nevada fans showed up three hours early for alumni parties at the Faculty Lodge, yet another architectural masterpiece of log cabin design that would do Abraham Lincoln proud.

There were Old Blues everywhere -- Cal alums in the lodge and Nevada alums partying outside on the grass. The Beach Boys were singing "California Girls" as my wife and I joined the Nevada group. Patsy is a Nevada alum, and my marriage was at stake.

But Cal and Nevada alums (their teams both wear blue) mixed easily and graciously before the game, and even afterward, which brings up the crucial difference between college and professional crowds: Courtesy, not calamity.

Pro fans are committed to an idea; college fans are committed to their universities. There is no University of Al Davis or a DeBartolo Technology Institute. So pro fans have no attachment to their teams other than loyalty, and overpriced tickets. Anybody can be a pro fan, which is the problem. Some stadiums range between a zoo and a cell unit.

But a college game means tradition. The marching band is made up of students, and so is the cheerleading corps. College fans are tamer, as a rule, and get along better on football weekends than do pro fans. There's simply more decorum in a campus atmosphere, although Auburn and Alabama may be an exception.

And Cal's homecoming at Memorial Stadium was beautifully scripted, except for the outcome. But more on that later. Nevertheless, there were signs posted -- a new addition -- around the stadium instructing spectators which entrance to use to get to their seats.

There were also trees, and no tree-sitters. Hallelujah! A number of new trees were planted in front of those trusty old oaks that were there when Brick Muller, Pesky Sprott and Cal's Wonder Teams of the 1920s were winning national championships.

I spent that entire morning reliving my Cal memories. I didn't attend Berkeley; my San Jose State Spartans almost upset Stanford the night before the Cal-Nevada game. But even while growing up next to Stanford in Menlo Park, and attending my first college game in 1948, I rooted for both Cal and Stanford.

I've never found that strange, though others have chosen loyalty to one school or the other. Here we have two of the greatest universities within an hour's drive of each other. Cal is, perennially, the nation's No. 1 public university, while Stanford is among the five most esteemed private universities. So shoot me!

But while watching Stanford as a boy, I heard Cal games on the radio, listening to the exploits of the legendary Jackie Jensen, Pete Schabarum, Jim Monachino and Johnny Olszewski, the great Johnny O. I know as much about Cal's sports history as Stanford's.

I saw my first game at Memorial Stadium in 1963 as Craig Morton and Jack Schraub carved up my Spartans, 34-13. I began covering Cal football in 1966 as a reporter for the Oakland Tribune, and I've seen some amazing things at Memorial Stadium, including The Play and Russell White jumping six feet in the air -- honest! -- over a Purdue tackler.

Perhaps I should save some of my more favorite Memorial Stadium stories for further exploration for you Bear Insiders at a later date, but while sitting last Saturday among Nevada Wolf Packers, I reminisced silently how this beautiful structure came to be.

Cal began playing football in 1882, but didn't have its first home field until West Field in 1885. Sitting where the Valley Life Sciences Building now is located on campus, West Field had a capacity of 5,000.

The Bears outgrew that stadium as their popularity grew, and moved into California Field, with a capacity of 20,000, in 1904. That stadium site now is occupied by Hearst Gymnasium. Cal's wonder team which didn't lose a game for five seasons, 1920 to 1924, and won three national championships during that time frame, played there.

By 1921, however, university administration decided California Field was too small to house a national powerhouse. So a new stadium was proposed that year just south of Strawberry Creek. Assistant comptroller (and future UC Berkeley president) Robert Gordon Sproul called the stadium a "prime necessity," and envisioned it as an "architectural monument ranking with the great stadiums of all time." And so it was designed, naturally, after the Colosseum in Rome.

The four stadium architects were all Cal graduates -- Walter Ratcliff (1903), Henry H. Gutterson (1905) and Williams G. Corlett and Walter T. Steilberg (both 1910). The plan was for a 75,000-seat stadium at a cost of $1,437,982.

How was it financed? By alumni, faculty and even students. For $100 dollars donated, the donor would receive script worth $10 per year for ten years toward the purchase of tickets to football games. No luxury boxes, but costly, regardless, for the times.

Memorial Stadium construction began in November 1922, and was completed one year later in November 1923. But because it's Berkeley, there was opposition to the stadium then, too. No tree sitters, but bird-watchers, nature-walkers and contemplative types who weren't stimulated by football. Additional opponents included other architects (perhaps jealous?), the California Academy of Sciences and the Greek Theater.

The stadium was completed just in time for the 1923 Big Game, a 9-0 Cal victory. Memorial Stadium isn't the oldest existing Bay Area stadium. Stanford Stadium was built in 1921. And Kezar Stadium, first home of the San Francisco 49ers in 1946, still is around, but has been scaled down from 59,942 capacity to a high school field of 9,044.

So there was all that history and tradition, not to mention the retrofitted, renovated stadium and the anticipated homecoming, in the Golden Bears favor as they anticipated a ribbon-cutting victory to make the day complete.

To celebrate the re-opening day, the Bears dressed ugly for the occasion. The school colors are blue and gold, but the only gold seen Saturday was the uniform numbers. Ghastly white helmets and white pants accompanied the blue jerseys. Coach Jeff Tedford has turned the uniform selections, game by game, over to his players in recent years, and the end result is a sartorial nightmare, University of Oregon South.

Standard uniforms are in place at USC, Oklahoma, Texas LSU, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, etc. You pick the school, you pick its uniform as well. A football scholarship doesn't include tailoring duties.

Tedford seems more insecure these days, and he has reason to be nervous. He got his improved stadium, his new athletic performance center, and a yearly salary at $2 million-plus. But his program has descended into second-tier status, and Cal alums are now at the upset stage. Tedford graduates his players, he's a good family man, but his Rose Bowl dreams are lower than they've been since he arrived in Berkeley in 2002.

He needed to beat Nevada because Cal plays at Ohio State and at USC in weeks three and four. So what happened? Nevada won 31-24. Cal never even led. It took the Bears nearly four quarters to tie the score, then Nevada put the game away at the end.

The difference for Cal, once again, was at quarterback. Not only did Nevada -- which showed up in its customary blue-and-silver colors -- have the better quarterback in sophomore Cory Fajardo, Cal doesn't even have a leader in its quarterback, senior Zach Maynard.

He was benched for the start of the game for having missed a summer study session. If your supposed leader lets the team down, what kind of leader is he? Give Tedford credit for having rules, but Maynard is an erratic thrower and fumbler. Quarterback is the most important player on the field, and Tedford hasn't had a big-time thrower since Aaron Rodgers in 2004. Thus Saturday's Southern Utah game should be used as a quarterback tryout, because the road then gets even tougher for Cal.

Nevada was hardly shocked by its win, having thrashed Cal in Reno two years before, 52-31. The most shocking Cal-Nevada outcome took place in 1923, when the Wolf Pack came to Berkeley and held the Wonder Team to a 0-0 tie. Or was it the other way around as Nevada had the edge in first downs, 10 to 6, and had the most forced fumbles, six to three. If Bill Gutteron hadn't missed two drop-kicked field goals of 25 and 30 yards, the Wolf Pack, just 1-3-1 that season, would have beaten the 9-0-1 Bears at California Field.

Adding further insult, Cal coach Andy Smith wasn't even at the game. Thinking so little of Nevada, he took three of his players -- Babe Horrell, Don Nichols and Spud Spaulding -- with him to Palo Alto to scout Stanford, Cal's opponent three weeks later.

This last Saturday's homecoming felt more familiar to Nevada than to Cal.

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