Legendary Football Coach, John Ralston

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By Dave Newhouse, Guest Writer
Posted Nov 6, 2012
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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John Ralston - a Pappy's Boy, now legendary coach

The old coach is 85 now, and retired from coaching for 16 years, but he can't break away from the football field. That bond has too strong a grip.

And so on a chilly Halloween morning, a bundled-up John Ralston stands safely away from the sideline at the San Jose State practice field, intently watching the Spartans move from drill to drill.

"I watch the athletes," he said. "A great pass, a great catch, and I want to run out on the field."

Only Ralston doesn't move the way he did as a Cal linebacker in the late 1940s, when he was one of Pappy's Boys. Thus he keeps his distance from any Spartan coming his way. But he loves the energy that a football field brings, because it invigorates him.

"I wanted to be a football coach from the time I was 10," he said proudly.

And a college football coach he became as a Cal assistant in the late 1950s. Then he moved up to head coach at Utah State in 1959, followed by Stanford in 1963, and the NFL's Denver Broncos in 1972. He finished up coaching the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League in the early 1980s, and San Jose State in the mid-1990s.

That's a 40-year coaching run, which obviously produced some highlights. Does one or two stick out?

"The Rose Bowls," he answered with little hesitation.

Not to mention the 1970 Heisman Trophy winner he coached in Stanford's Jim Plunkett.

But it was those Rose Bowl victories at Stanford during the 1970 and 1971 seasons, when Ralston stunned Ohio State, 27-17, and Michigan, 13-12, that stand alone. Those two shining moments made that long-ago coaching commitment worth all the sacrifice.

Nevertheless, it isn't the victories that Ralston recalls, but, sadly, the defeats.

"You never get over the losses," he said. "They're devastating."

He still thinks about those defeats, even though his college coaching record was 97-81-4, and his professional record 43-45-3.

"I can't think of one particular loss," he said. "I think of them all together. You lost the game, but why? It was terrible."

He agonized over each loss, knowing there was only one remedy.

"To play another game," he said.

And in the autumn of his life, the losses are tattooed to his brain, even though he has so much to look back upon in his coaching career that is decidedly more positive.

Such as Plunkett, the Stanford quarterback who won the Heisman before upsetting Ohio State in Pasadena, and later winning two Super Bowls with the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

"Did you know Jim was an outstanding wrestler?" Ralston said of Plunkett's days at James Lick High School in San Jose. "He was an outstanding athlete.

"I still see him," he added happily.

Coaching was a natural alternative for Ralston, who was a decent player at Cal, though not a starter. He saw more duty as a senior on the Bears team that went to the Rose Bowl for the third consecutive year, and lost for the third straight time.

Though those Cal teams were a combined 29-3-1, the three defeats bothered Ralston deeply.

"Rod Franz and I were devastated after each loss," he said of Cal's three-time All-America guard.

Playing under Lynn O. "Pappy" Waldorf, Ralston was more convinced than ever that coaching was the life for him.

"Waldorf was just a helluva guy," Ralston said, "someone you really respected."

Ralston feels a certain bond, a special fraternity, in being included among Pappy's Boys.

"Certainly so," he said.

He remains invigorated in spite of his aging, slowed-down pace. He works out daily on a trampoline at his home in a gated San Jose residential community. And he feels chipper enough in his trimmed physical condition to pass himself off as 83.

"I do it for balance," he said of the trampoline, "but I do other exercises, too."

He continues to keep an office on the San Jose Sate campus, though he's no longer involved in alumni activities or fund-raising. But his office is near the practice field, which is the perfect trade off.

"It's all volunteer," he said. "I stay on the sideline where they don't run at me."

Perhaps none of Pappy's Boys worked longer into their senior citizen years than Ralston, who coached until he was 69, then was employed into his early 80s as a functioning goodwill ambassador for San Jose State.

In his tiny, cramped office are photographs of his football life. He's pictured with Plunkett and Jeff Garcia, his quarterback at SJSU. There are photos of Ralston with former Stanford assistants Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil and Mike White, and sports information director Bob Murphy, back when Stanford's nickname was the Indians, not the Cardinal.

"Bill's passed away," he said sadly.

So has Don Bunce, Ralston's quarterback in the Rose Bowl win over Michigan.

"Don always thought he was better than Jim," Ralston said, thinking about his Pasadena quarterbacks.

And so have most of Pappy's Boys passed on. Ralston keeps their memory alive as a sideline observer.

Asked specifically about the keys to his victories over Ohio State and Michigan, Ralston deflected praise from himself.

"I had outstanding assistant coaches," he said. "We worked like crazy. Oh, boy."

On another wall, and on his desk, there are family photos. Ralston lost his wife Patty some time ago; he can't remember the year. He is survived by twin daughters, though a son died of AIDS some time ago. The date also escapes him.

Losing his son, a lawyer, was the worst loss Ralston ever suffered. One night, he commiserated with Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who also lost a son to AIDS. "No he didn't," Lasorda told Ralston. "He died of pneumonia."

Many AIDS patients die of pneumonia, but Ralston had accepted his son's lifestyle, and Lasorda hadn't.

"Has my ride arrived yet?" Ralston said suddenly in his office. "I gave up driving a long time ago."

He was assured that his ride, a lady friend, was waiting for him. Otherwise, how would he get to football practice, let alone get home?

"She's a great gal," said Ralston.

Ralston's coaching career could have had another important laurel -- a Super Bowl. But after a 9-5 record in 1976, he was let go in Denver. The Broncos went to the Super Bowl the next year.

"No, I don't think about it," he said. "I just moved on.

"Coaches in trouble? That's life."

The most painful coaching time for Ralston occurred when the Oakland Invaders let him go during the 1984 season. Then he was made to sit at the same table at the press conference when Invaders owners introduced his replacement.

"Devastating," he reflected.

"But I chose the right career. No second thoughts."

There shouldn't be any. He's a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.

"Are you sure my ride hasn't gotten here?" he asked again.

In fact, it had. The eternal coach shook hands cordially and took his leave.

(Longtime Bay Area journalist Dave Newhouse write occasionally about Cal athletics for this website. Check out his two latest books, "Before Boxing Lost Its Punch" and the novel "White Lightning", on amazon.com)

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