As a shattered Paul Wiggin, the Standford coach, walked off the field a year ago after his team had lost to California in the last four seconds on The Play—the now-legendary, five-lateral kickoff return—he turned to his weeping wife, Carolynn, and muttered, "The ramifications of this are far beyond what you realize now." Last Saturday, Wiggin walked out of Stanford Stadium for the last time as coach of the Cardinal, the ramifications having inevitably come home to roost. A completely overmatched Stanford had lost to Cal again in their Big Game, 27-18. Wiggin was leaving his alma mater—he was an All-America tackle there in 1955 and '56—a loser, but his dignity was intact. "He's such a proud man," said Stanford Guard Steve Aimonetti. "That's what makes it so tough."
Wiggin had been asked to resign after the Cardinal's 32-15 loss to Washington on Oct. 15; that was Stanford's sixth straight defeat this season and ninth in a row. Those streaks would end the next week when the Cardinal got its only 1983 victory, 31-22 over Arizona. Wiggin complied with the resignation request on Nov. 10; he also advised his players that he'd been dismissed, that he hadn't quit. Two days later, Stanford lost to Oregon, 16-7.
There's little question in Wiggin's mind that The Play set the forces against him in motion. If the Cardinal had won the 1982 Big Game, it would have finished the season with a 6-5 record, including dramatic wins over highly ranked Ohio State and Washington. With the sensational John Elway at quarterback, Stanford then would have been in line for a bowl invitation that might have salvaged what, all in all, had been a disappointing year. "There's a magic about a bowl game," Wiggin said last week. "If we'd been able to go to one, it might've put this season into some perspective. This had to be a rebuilding year for us. We'd lost a lot of star players, and we were playing a difficult schedule. We might have survived it if we'd won the Big Game a year ago and gone on to a bowl."
In his last week as coach, Wiggin encountered reviews and re-viewings of The Play as it was endlessly rehashed in print and replayed on local television. In addition, two of The Play's four mad lateralers, Richard Rodgers and Dwight Garner, would play for the Bears in the 1983 Big Game, and the other two, Mariet Ford and Kevin Moen, would be in the stadium as spectators. Moen, who took the final pitch from Ford and scored the winning TD after racing through the Stanford band, was hailed as a returning hero and obviously reveled in his celebrity. So did Gary Tyrrell, the Stanford trombone player Moen collided with in the end zone. "It was Moen-Rodgers-Garner-Rodgers-Ford-Moen," goes the Ballad of the Big Game. "The only thing that slowed them was Tyrrell on trombone." Tyrrell was the star of the Stanford band's halftime show at Saturday's game.
November 28, 1983
Many irate Stanford alums still blame the musicians for being prematurely on the field and thereby forming impromptu interference for Moen's historic dash. The band indicated in its pregame program Saturday that it was prepared to take responsibility for almost everything, including the San Andreas Fault and the fall of Rome, but not The Play. Then at halftime the band concluded its show by having three of its members, dressed in Cal jerseys, reenact the laterals. As one of them approached the 15-yard line, where Tyrrell sat in a wheelchair nursing feigned injuries, Tyrrell, living out a fantasy, leaped from his chair, made the tackle, forced a fumble and carried the ball through the band and on to supposed glory. It was The Play turned inside out.
Nothing, of course, could reverse the likable Wiggin's fate, though he seemed to achieve a new level of popularity simply by losing his job. At one luncheon, he received three standing ovations. And the players rallied 'round him. "He taught us to never be a quitter, to always try," said Defensive Tackle Mike Wyman. "This year he did everything but put on a uniform."
But popularity could not compensate for the Cardinal's fundamental weaknesses, its lack of depth and its plenitude of offensive inexperience. For the Big Game, Stanford started an all-freshman backfield, and much of the year Wiggin used freshman John Paye as his starting quarterback. "He'll be a poster athlete someday," Wiggin said, "but he's only 18 now, and I know when I was 18 I was blowing the wrappers off straws in drive-in restaurants."
Stanford and Cal usually play each other to a standstill. Last year's Big Game was the fourth in the last 10 years to be decided within the final two minutes. And upsets are so common that the underdog might as well be considered the favorite. The Cardinal, despite a 1-9 record entering Saturday's game, had several overwhelming emotional advantages over the 4-5-1 Bears. There was the win-one-for-the-Wigger factor. But an even stronger motivation was revenge for last year. The Stanford players bristled at what they considered Cal's tasteless gloating over the improbable victory. And ironically, Garner, who Cardinal fans insist was stopped before he made the third of The Play's five laterals, received the opening kickoff Saturday. This time he was brought down after only a 12-yard return. But for Stanford, it was mostly uphill after that.
Cal Quarterback Gale Gilbert picked the Cardinal secondary to pieces with play action passes, throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Paye likewise threw for two scores, but he was rushed so furiously all day by Cal's brilliant outside linebacker, Ron Rivera, that he also threw four interceptions, one of them by Rodgers. Stanford trailed 27-9 with 43 seconds left in the game and then got a field goal from Harmon and a 53-yard TD pass from Paye to Eric Mullins to bring the Cardinal close enough to hope for a socko finish of its own. But Paye misfired on a two-point conversion attempt after the Mullins score, and a final onside kick went to the Bears. It was all over for Stanford—and Wiggin.
After the game, Cal Coach Joe Kapp rushed across the rain-soaked field to wish his ex-rival well. Wiggin was disappointed at this last loss, but he was hardly downcast. "There was never a time when I didn't feel good about our kids," he said after the game. "I don't feel totally a failure here. I walked off that field out front, holding my head high."