Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WE CALLED HIM COSMIC RAY




              

            A true warrior fell yesterday.  We called him Cosmic Ray.  Others called him Ray Willsey—the poster child for Loyal Golden Bear.  He was a former Cal Football Coach, quarterback and defensive back under Pappy in the early 50’s.         

Others will write of his coaching achievements, heroic deeds and many accomplishments.  This is simply one man (mostly a young boy’s) personal remembrances. (Shoot me if I have some facts wrong--or better yet, just delete).

            Born in Saskatchewan Canada, he talked like he’d been raised in the south.

            I was one of the least important athletes under his tutelage.  But I hope that by showing you how he treated the least, you may get an idea of why he was one of the best.

No doubt he did this with everyone, but he often commented to me after a specific play—“Just as easy as playing in St. Helena, eh Jeff Warren .”  “That was a fine  (he had a way of drawing out the word “fine”), catch, son.” 

Comedian Bob Sarlatte would have a field day for years to come imitating that accent.

(And my favorite).  “Nice to see some split ends are willing to stick their head in there”—after what we then called a crack back block.

He had this quirk about addressing players by both their first and last names:

“Way to stick ‘em, Mike McCraffrey.”

“Nice block, Bill Laveroni.”

Ray was not cuddly, but he loved Kenny Wiedeman (Did Weed ever reach 165lbs?  yet, he still holds the Cal record of 16 interceptions—in only three years, no less.  Also, who thought back then the words Weideman and PHD would be used in the same sentence?).
  
            Ray was all about toughness.

Ray wanted to punish the opposition.  We were not allowed to tackle runners to the ground.  They were to be “stood up” and held there until 10 other “hats” punished him for carrying the ball.

Ray had lots of sayings:

“Football is played inside the 20’s (meaning where it counts).  The rest of the field is for the statisticians.”

“Stress the kicking game for their thee breaks are made.”

“Football is satisfaction.  Rugby is fun.  If you want to have fun, play Rugby.  If you want Satisfaction, stick with football (Jack Clark always hates it when I repeat that, but when Doc Hudson was coaching—since he was a practicing Dentist, coaching for a buck a year—we only “practiced” three days a week, and rather than do conditioning drills (like a dirty 300) we scrimmaged almost every practice.  It was truly fun—not the hard work it is today.

“I can’t be your friend because I’m going to ask you to do unnatural things.  It is unnatural for a man to block a punt with his face—but that’s what I’m going to ask you to do.  No friend would do that.”

We had some injuries at center one year, and since I could make the deep snap (I’d learned it from my Uncle Bobby who roomed with linebacker coach Meryl Moore when they played for Ted Forbes and Bill Dutton at Davis (how’s that for the small world of football).

So I played some scout team center.  When Ray saw that he just gave that ear to ear grin and said, “Now that’s a football player.”

That week I suited up for the San Jose State game—my first chance to run out of the tunnel.

At the morning meeting where Ray had a ten point cheat sheet we were to all go over (I forget them all now except the one about the kicking game), he lamented playing San Jose State.

Now I apologize to all my SJS friends but Ray only wanted to play the Ohio States and Notre Dames.  He reveled in it and his greatest thrill (he told us years later) was beating #6 Colorado in 1968.  Hence, all my “cracks” about playing Presbyterian and Portland State. 

            Ray didn’t like the forward pass.  A disciple of Texas’ Darryl Royal he would often say “When you throw the ball only three things can happen—and two of them are bad.”  Alas, when he took over for Marv Levy in 1964, Ray inherited Craig Morton as his quarterback.  That posed a problem for Mr. Run First Pass (hopefully) Never.

            But Ray did what he always did—he adapted to the hand he was dealt—just like when he played poker.  So he threw—at least a bit.  Everyone who tried to figure out if he were bluffing or not, said he was not a fellow with which you wanted to play poker.

            Though I had been recruited by Truck and met with Ray and signed a letter of intent--as a 2nd team freshman split end, today, I’m amazed he even knew my name.

            But life has odd twists.  As a 2nd stringer I ended up on the Varsity Scout team (we proudly called ourselves “Green Weenies” in honor of the green vests we wore and got to go against the first team defense, daily).

            Ray was defensive minded so though I was the last thing on his mind, I was in front of him each and every day—running Saturday’s opponent’s offense against the first string defense.  

We established a rapport.

            Ray’s first team (Morton’s senior year) went 3 and 7 but lost almost each game by less than a touchdown.  It could have easily been 7-3.  “We could have beaten anyone had we played in a telephone booth,” he was fond of saying.

I’ve never checked this out, but I heard that no one who played the Bear Minimum 1968 team won the following week.  It may not be true, but there is no doubt about it that Ray produced hitters.


            After my first Spring Ball, Ray bought a keg of beer for the team and we got to drink in the Psi U parking lot (I can still remember Big Ed White, pitcher of beer in one hand—gulping it—and knocking over Crittendon’s Yamaha 90.  With his free hand he simply picked the motor bike up off the pavement—both wheels—and righted it—like I would a fallen aluminum deck chair.  No one was as strong as Big Ed.

            The keg was a thrill because back then very few guys actually drank during spring ball.  Maybe on Saturday night, but unlike today, guys were on “training table” and most watched the beer—or if they didn’t, they hid it well.

            That keg was like a sign that we were adults.  It was a small thing, but I felt so grown up.

            Ray brought his gorgeous wife, Barbara and their girls to the Lair that summer of ‘67.

            When a camper got a bloody nose from a softball, I yelled one of Ray’s favorite expressions—he had dozens-- “There’s a difference between pain and injury here at California!”  You played with pain.  If you were “injured” you didn’t have to play—but better count on sitting out next week.  Like I said, Ray was big on toughness.

            Later that night as I was doing dishes Ray came through the line.  He gave me that smile, and that twinkle in the eye and said, “Thanks, Jeff, for telling the folks the difference between pain and injury here at California.”  Only the “twinkle” could have come from Brando as the God Father and meant “Ever mouth off like that again and you’re dead.”

            My blood ran cold.

            Truck Cullom came to the Lair later that summer.  He took me aside and said “Ray wants you to come down for double days.  We’ve got  13 new black athletes—three from South Carolina. Ray wants to integrate the team to make sure that Black players room with White players.”

            It was sort of a back handed compliment, but I was thrilled.  No one wanted me for my “blazing speed” but maybe I could help out elsewhere.

            So I roomed with Paul Williams (12 other white guys did the same) and Cal was integrated from the “git go.”

            Now this is a longer, more complex story (one for another column) but Ray who’d cut his teeth in the South--was adapting—doing the right thing—once again.

            (Ray  also hired the first Black Coach, since the sainted Walt Gordon had coached in the late 30’s, war hero and amazing Golden Bear, the late John Erby).  Erby (who had lost a leg in Vietnam) was the one who said to Truck--after Truck complained how sore his feet were after a long practice—Truck had had shrapnel projected up his back side in Korea after the man behind him stepped on a land mine).  “Gee, Truck.  I reckon I’m only half as tired as you are.”

            Yes.  We were schooled by great men.

            The 60’s were not an easy time—especially to be a football coach at the University of California—Berkeley as they want to call it today.

            Parents didn’t want to send their kids to a school with a bunch of Commie, pinko, unwashed, hippie freaks who were smoking dope and dropping acid—especially parents of football players who tended to come (in those days) from rural towns—where most folks were conservative  ‘Mericans.

            Once when he called me into his office to take the temperature of the Black athletes, Coach Willsey, talked about the difficulties of coaching at Cal.  “Hell, Jeff, Tommy Prothro called me up to ask how we returned that kick off for a touchdown.  I drew it up for him over the phone.  We all know the same X’s and O’s.   It’s about treating each player differently.  Vince Lombardi is a great coach because he has the ability to treat 43 different athletes 43 different ways.  He’ll kick Jerry Kramer’s ass, and kiss Paul Horning’s.  Cal kids are not like athletes elsewhere.”

On another time in his office he said that to win at the college level, you had to have 22 players who could play at USC or Notre Dame.  “Then,” he said, “You have to have a Gary Beban or OJ Simpson to put you over the top.”  He allowed as how back then we had three to four players who could play at elite institutions—and (I assume) except for me, no Bebans or OJ’s.

He was fascinated by the difference in the three Black athletes that came from a defunct football program in the south, and the 9 or so JC transfers which came in from Laney.  He admired Bobby Smith greatly and was chagrined when the NFL blackballed him for supposedly being a trouble maker.

(He wasn’t, but Harry Edwards had him in front of the Mike when the kids went on strike, so it looked like he was a ring leader.  In fact, he was just the most senior of the Black athletes—this is a story that someone needs to tell).


            His integration plan was working well I had thought.  John McGaffie and (I think) Erby Augustine were elected captains. 

But no one remember s how different it was back then.  Before the coin toss against UCLA one of their players said, “How can you elect a Nigger as captain?” (Sorry to be so impolite—but that’s what was said).

We got through the fall season of ’67 and went 5 and 5.  Next year featured the Bear Minimum defense when we ended the year 7-3 and ranked 16th—after having been ranked as high as 7th.

This was a remarkable feat given the tenor of the times.  Tear gas and anti-war demonstrations were the order of the day.

The late Jack Scott (he was teaching a class on Athletics for Athletes and had brought in Dave Meggyesy who’d written an anti-establishment—anti-NFL book, on campus) terrorized coaches of all sports with threats of boycotts and demonstrations.  Believe it or not, we were good friends.  Harry Edwards was teaching and agitating for action.       
             
(Harry Edwards was to later conspire with Todd Bozeman to bring down Lou Campanelli.  Bozeman ended up disgracing Cal by paying Jelani Gardner’s uncle—but that, too is another column).

There were accusations regarding racism among some of the coaches.   Though not overt, we saw and sensed much of it.

Finally, the Black footballers called a press conference and went on strike.  Ray had me talk to them and try to figure it out.  I brought a couple of six packs and met with Paul Williams and Bernie Keels.

I spoke with both Ray and Chancellor Heynes.  I was sympathetic to my old roomie and his friends.  (Of course like many small town kids who went to Cal originally slightly to the right of George Wallace, I was to matriculate slightly to the left of Eldridge Cleaver—but I digress).

So Ray had to deal with the Black strike, the daily demonstrations, the absolute put down and hatred of football by the radical left and the deterioration of all long standing school traditions from fraternities, to Cheerleaders, to Yell Leaders, to Big Game Rallies, to campus clubs—anything that was traditional was so “yesterday.” 

It was “Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.  We hate to shut it down, but we must, we must.”

Somehow Ray navigated the waters.  As Ackey-Boy says, “If it weren’t for Ray Willsey, there would be no football at Cal today.”

By 1969 the Alumni were split on Ray. 

Here it gets murky and is best left to the dead past.  But when John Ralston left Stanford for the Broncos head coaching job, several influential alumni went to Chancellor Bowker and said now’s our chance to get Mike White.  “If we don’t do it now, he’ll get the head job at Stanford.”

Maggard had also been appointed AD, (a job Ray coveted) and Ray didn’t want to work for him.

Plus there was the Isaac Curtis scandal.  Some transcripts or SAT scores had been altered and some coaches were implicated.

Ray was unceremoniously let go and a couple of years ago (at 1:30 in the morning after a few scotches) he told Forbes and me that he always felt his old friend Arleigh Williams (Dean of students at the time) had let him down.  Ray never got over that.

(Arleigh had wanted to fire the coaches connected to the scandal and Ray said, “Fire them and you fire me.”  He was nothing if not loyal).

The night after Ray reviewed with Brian and I what happened back then, we took him in a cab over the Men’s Big Game Lunch where he was to speak.
 
Afterwards, Forbes, Ray, Kapp and I were sitting in the WashBag and I was opining to Ray and Joe about how much better football would be if we made the ball bigger (it is smaller than it was in the ’50’s).  Brian loves to tell the story about how Ray  gave me the “look” which said “that is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.”  Or maybe he said it out loud.  I forget.

He could put you in your place when he wanted.

Cosmic Ray was a good man.  He was honest.  He commanded respect.  It is true, he wasn’t the best communicator in the world (Volker loves to tell the story about he came to Cal as a fullback and while standing next to Ray at the men’s urinal Ray turned and said to him,

 “You’re gonna be a wonderful offensive guard.”  It was the first Ray had heard he wouldn’t be vying for the Heisman as a smash mouth fullback).

            But that was Ray.  He had faults—but being a “man” wasn’t one of them. 

He truly cared about his kids (Dzura just e-mailed me that Ray gave him $400 to buy an old jeep when he was discharged from the hospital.  Not sure how the NCAA would view that today).

 And when he treats a kid like me who was a nothing--as he did--imagine how he treated a kid who was something.  Every once in a while, know you are in the presence of greatness.

            Those of us who were lucky enough to have been in his orbit were blessed.  We are and always will be in his debt.  Our prayers go out to his family.

Go Bears,
Jeffrey Earl Warren ‘70

P.S. If you want to hoist one in Cosmic Ray’s honor we’ve got plenty of Cab up this way if you can make it.