Top 50 Cal Sports Moments -- No. 23: Pappy’s Promise, 1947

Coming from Northwestern, Pappy Waldorf followed through on his vow to awaken a sleeping giant in Berkeley
Cal coach Pappy Waldorf and players
Cal coach Pappy Waldorf and players / Photo courtesy of Cal Athletics

As the Pac-12 Conference era comes to a close after more than a century, we count down the Top 50 moments involving Cal athletics.

THE MOMENT: Cal was coming off a 2-7 season in 1946, after which the school drew sharp nationwide reaction when the student leadership on campus exercised rare authority to fire coach Frack Wickhorst. Well-regarded track coach Brutus Hamilton was assigned to serve as the school’s first athletic director, and Hamilton hired Northwestern’s Lynn O. “Pappy” Waldorf, who announced to reporters that he came to Berkeley “to awaken a sleeping giant.” 

THE STORY: World War II was over and after Cal’s eighth straight non-winning season in 1946, dramatic change came to the Bears’ football program. Forty-two of 44 varsity players signed a petition asking that Frank Wickhorst be fired and the student leadership on campus agreed.

Since 1904, the executive committee of the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) had the power to hire and fire coaches. But when they dumped Wickhorst in December 1946, the college football world was appalled. Some wondered whether any serious coach would risk working at Berkeley.

University president Robert Gordon Sproul responded by promoting track coach Brutus Hamilton to the new position of athletic director. Hamilton, an Olympian who came coach at Cal in 1932, reorganized the athletic department. He first offered the football job to Michigan’s Fritz Crisler, who turned it down.

Hamilton then broached the subject with Waldorf, not expecting he might be interested. Waldorf, who had compiled a record of 90-57-2 in 18 seasons at Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Northwestern, apparently liked the Bay Area and a deal was struck.

Cal gave Waldorf a contract worth $13,500 per year and the authority to hire his own assistant coaches. At an introductory news conference at the Claremont Hotel, Waldorf said his intention was “to awaken a sleeping giant.” 

Not everyone was convinced, including San Francisco Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan. 

"Big, meaty Lynn O. "Pappy" Waldorf is the new head coach at the University of California,” Sullivan wrote. “We realize there is nothing particularly distinctive about that. California's always getting a new football coach. Waldorf is the fourth the school has had in as many years. We hope Waldorf is a man of independent means. The job over there in Berkeley ain't too steady.”

Waldorf was an immediate and immense success. Fielding teams led by grown men returning from battle in Europe and the South Pacific, Waldorf guided the Bears to a 9-1 record in his debut season, with only a loss to USC.

Cal was 29-0-1 in the regular season over the next three years, winning three straight Pacific Coast Conference titles and earning three Rose Bowl bids. The Bears were close in all three, but came away empty handed.

Success waned over the final six years of Waldorf’s reign, but the love and admiration players felt toward him grew stronger over decades. Former players in 1987 formed “Pappy’s Boys,” which gathered to celebrate him every year until disbanding several years ago as their numbers dwindled.

* Top 50 Moment No. 24: McKeever Report

* Top 50 Moment No. 25: Absent Crowd

Only specific acts that occurred while the team or athlete was at Cal were considered for the Top 50 list, and accomplishments spanning a season or a career were not included. 

Leslie Mitchell of the Cal Bears History Twitter site aided in the selection of the top 50 moments.

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo


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Jeff Faraudo

JEFF FARAUDO

Jeff Faraudo was a sports writer for Bay Area daily newspapers since he was 17 years old, and was the Oakland Tribune's Cal beat writer for 24 years. He covered eight Final Fours, four NBA Finals and four Summer Olympics.