This Saturday will mark the first-ever conference game between the University of California Golden Bears and the University of Utah Utes. What more fitting way to honor this momentus occasion and to welcome our new Pac-12 brothers and sisters into the fold, than by remembering the first and greatest game ever played between our two fine universities, almost exactly 91 years ago. No doubt every Utah fan will join us in celebrating Cal's 63-0 victory, and take pleasure in the knowledge that it was this game which gave rise to the revered nickname "the Wonder Team," for the unbeaten, Pacific Coast Conference Champion, Rose Bowl Champion, and National Champion, 1920 Golden Bears.
Cal's Brick Muller and Karl Deeds punch a hole in Utah's line, for Crip Toomey to waltz into the end zone at old California Field in Berkeley
1920 was the greatest season in California football history. The Bears were 4-0 heading into the Utah game, having notched victories of 21-0 over the Olympic Club, 88-0 over the Mare Island Marines, 127-0 over St. Mary's (which is still Cal's biggest win ever, and which caused the demoralized Gaels to cancel the rest of their football season), and 79-7 against Nevada. Despite these overwhelming victories, Cal's head coach, Andy Smith, was perturbed that his team had allowed Nevada to score a touchdown, and he increased the defensive drills the following week in preparation for the Utah game.
California's greatest football coach, Andy Smith, had a career record in Berkeley of 74-16-7, and led the Bears to five consecutive unbeaten seasons and four consecutive national championships (for more on the life and career of Andy Smith, click here)
Utah was an unknown quantity coming into the Cal game. 1920 was Coach Thomas Fitzpatrick's second year at Utah, and he had led the Utes to a successful 5-2 season in 1919, with one of those losses having come in a hard-fought 20-7 road game against a strong USC team. The 1920 Utes had only played one game before their trip to Berkeley, a 20-2 defeat on the road at the hands of Colorado College. While the Bears were naturally the favorite, Utah fans believed that their team had a chance at the big upset. In fact, according to the Blue and Gold Yearbook account of the game, "Utah had been heralded as a dangerous stumbling block in California's road to championship, but the first Bruin offense swept away all fears of even a close game." (Yes, UCLA did copy the nickname "Bruin" from Cal.)
Thomas Fitzpatrick compiled a 23-17-3 record as Utah's head coach from 1919-1924, and won the Rocky Mountain Conference Championship in 1922
The game kicked off at California Field on October 23, 1920. The Bears received the opening kickoff, and took the ball on a long drive. The Utes' defense was stout during that first drive, but the Bears were relentless. A short-yardage plunge into the end zone by Albert "Pesky" Sprott put California up 7-0. The Blue and Gold described that first drive this way:
Receiving the ball on the first kickoff, the Varsity settled down for a systematic bucking march down the center of the field. At first the opposition was strong and stubborn, causing the Varsity to resort to open work and end-runs to make yardages. Finally the persistent plunging was too much for the men of the Bee Hive State and they slowly began to give way before the Bruin hammering. Within striking distance, Sprott was given the ball and was sent through a large hole for the first touchdown.
Utah held California to that one score in the first quarter, which was a notable feat against the powerful 1920 Bears. But by the second quarter, the Utes had been worn down and everything fell apart for them. Cal went on a drive early in the second quarter which ended with Archie Nisbet carrying the ball into the end zone. Then Sprott scored his second touchdown. Jesse "Duke" Morrision and Irving "Crip" Toomey added scores, and by halftime the Bears' lead was 35-0.
A large crowd takes in the 1920 California-Utah game at California Field on the Berkeley campus. The players appear to be doing something on the field.
Andy Smith pulled all his starters out in the third quarter, something which was quite unusual at a time when players were generally left on the field for the entire 60 minutes of the game. Smith even put in several third-string players in the fourth quarter. But this was of no help to the demoralized Utes. California's second-string players scored two touchdowns in the third quarter, and the third-string players added an additional two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, pushing the score to 63-0. Meanwhile, Utah never came close to scoring.
Late in the game, the desperate Utes finally tried some of those rare plays known as "forward passes," and actually had some success. According to The Ogden Standard-Examiner:
California made yardage consistently on practically every style of play, from straight line bucking to forward passes. Utah did not try forward passes until the last five minutes of the last quarter, when some successful ones were made, but too late to score against California.
A Salt Lake City newspaper, The Deseret News, summed the Ute's effort up this way, "Fighting gamely to the last whistle, but outclassed and out weighed, the University of Utah gridiron eleven went down to defeat before the onslaught of the husky California Bruins . . . ." Cal's own Blue and Gold also gave credit to the fighting spirit of the Utes, but added a jab:
The Mormon morale was threatened, but the defeated eleven was plugging away with all the fight that was left. Fight without ability, however, could not faze Andy's team.
Two days after Cal's big win over Utah, San Francisco newspaper columnist and former Cal player Clinton "Brick" Morse, wrote in his column that the California Golden Bears were a "Wonder Team." Andy Smith was irate, because he did not want his players to become overconfident or his opponents to become fired up. But Morse just laughed at Smith's complaints, telling him, "Why don't you break down and admit it, Andy, for you know as well as I that it is a real Wonder Team." In the true style of a college coach, Smith insisted "they're overrated." But the nickname stuck, and ever since, Andy Smith's great teams from the 1920s have been known as "the Wonder Teams." (For more on the career of Brick Morse, click here.)
The starting eleven for the 1920 Golden Bears. From left: Harold "Brick" Muller, Bob Berkey, Jesse "Duke" Morrison, Charley Erb, Albert "Pesky" Sprott, Irving "Crip" Toomey, Dan McMillan, Stan Barnes, Lee Cramer, George "Fat" Latham, and Cort Majors.
In fairness to Utah, no one had success against those 1920 Bears. Their final record was 9-0, including a 28-0 drubbing of favored Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Even more remarkably, they outscored their opponents by a total of 510-14. They were also national champions. And 40 years later, in 1960, the Helms Athletic Foundation declared the 1920 Golden Bears: "The Greatest College Football Team of All Time." In a July 2011 article, the sports blog Script Utah informed Ute fans that the 1920 California team was "the greatest Pac-12 team ever played by Utah."
In the spirit of conference solidarity and good sportsmanship, all Cal fans should join in wishing the University of Utah just as warm a welcome and just as pleasant an experience in their first Pac-12 game against California as they had in that very first meeting between our schools 91 years ago!
Anonymous, 1922 Blue and Gold, A Record of the College Year 1920-1921, The H.S. Crocker Co, Inc., Berkeley, CA (1922)
Anonymous, "Utah U. Overwhelmed by California," The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, UT (Oct. 24, 1920)
Anonymous, "The Utah Utes Under Thomas Fitzpatrick," Wikipedia (2011)
Brodie, S. Dan, 66 Years on the California Gridiron, Fontes Printing Co., Oakland, CA (1949)
Fimrite, Ron, Golden Bears, MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco (2009)
Morse, Clinton R. "Brick," California Football History, The Gillick Press, Berkeley, CA (1937)