January 4, 2013 saw the passing of Peter R. Elliott, the coach who led the University of California Golden Bears to the 1959 Rose Bowl. Elliott had a rather odd record in the three seasons he spent in Berkeley. His first year the Bears were 1-9. His second year they went to the Rose Bowl. In his final year the Bears were back to 2-8. And then Elliott left for greener pastures at Illinois.
Elliott's career was noteworthy in many ways. He was an All-American quarterback and won a national championship at Michigan. He became an NCAA head coach at the tender age of 29. He coached teams from both the Pacific Coast Conference and the Big Ten to the Rose Bowl. He was the Athletic Director at Miami, coached in the NFL, and spent 17 years as the Executive Director of the NFL Hall of Fame. But among Cal fans, Pete Elliott will always be remembered for one thing: he is the coach who led the Bears to our most recent Rose Bowl.
Pete Elliott as the Coach of the 1958 Golden Bears
Pete Elliott was born in Bloomington, Illinois, on September 29, 1926. He came from a remarkably athletic family. His father, Dr. J. Norman Elliott, played football, basketball, and baseball at Illinois Wesleyan University, and served as both head basketball coach and an assistant football coach at Northwestern University -- at the same time he was going to medical school. Dr. Elliott was also the head football coach at Illinois Wesleyan from 1929 to 1935.
Pete Elliott was a star football, basketball, and baseball player in high school, earning All-State honors as Bloomington High School's quarterback in 1943. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Navy, where he was trained as a pilot. Discharged from the Navy in 1945, at the end of World War II, Elliott enrolled at the University of Michigan, along with his older brother, Chalmers "Bump" Elliott. The Elliott brothers became the core of the outstanding Michigan team of the late 1940s, with Pete at quarterback and Bump at halfback. They led the Wolverines to an undefeated season and a national championship in 1948, including a 49-0 shellacking of USC in the 1948 Rose Bowl. Pete also played on the Big Ten champion Michigan basketball team in 1948, when he was first team All-Big Ten and the team MVP. He also played golf for Michigan. He lettered in all three sports during all four years he was in college, making him the only Michigan athlete ever to win 12 letters in varsity sports. And while doing all this, he also managed to graduate with a degree in history, conferred with high honors.
Celebrating a Big Ten Championship: Bump Elliott (#18), Pete Elliott (#45), Michigan coach Fritz Crisler, and Bruce Hilkene (#75).
As soon as he graduated from Michigan, Elliott was offered a job as an assistant coach by Oregon State, and he coached for the Beavers in 1949 and 1950. The next year he was hired as an assistant by Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma. Elliott helped refine Oklahoma's split-T offense, and was part of the 1955 national championship there. Then, in 1956, he was offered the job of head coach at Nebraska, at the age of 29. Nebraska was mired in mediocrity in that era (they had only three winning seasons between 1941 and 1961), so Elliott's 4-6 record in 1956 was considered quite respectable.
In the meantime, the University of California was also struggling. After the dazzling early years of the Pappy Waldorf era, the team had fallen on hard times in the mid-1950s. After consecutive 2-7-1 and 3-7 seasons, Waldorf offered his resignation at the end of 1956, and the Bears were looking for a new coach.
Cal first approached Oklahoma's Bud Wilkinson, who had just won his second straight national championship. He considered the offer, until Oklahoma offered him a substantial raise. Then Wilkinson strongly recommended his former assistant, Pete Elliott. With Chancellor Clark Kerr out of the country, the hiring decision fell to faculty athletic adviser and Nobel laureate, Glenn Seaborg. Seaborg said he was so "favorably impressed" by Elliott's interview that he immediately authorized his hiring. Elliott later recalled, "Cal had such a wonderful reputation and such great tradition. I was thrilled." Elliott had also been very friendly with Pappy Waldorf (as was just about everybody in college football), and Waldorf was very supportive of his hire. So 30-year-old Pete Elliott, his wife Joan, and their two young sons, Bruce, 6, and David, 5, moved to Berkeley.
Elliott was the Bears' youngest head coach of the modern era (the youngest of all time being 22-year-old Garrett Cochran, who was hired in 1898). He hired an equally youthful staff, ranging from 25-year-old Bill Taylor to the "old man" of the group, 36-year-old Gene Stauber.
The 1958 Cal coaching staff. Front row: Dee Andros, Pete Elliott, Gene Stauber. Back row: Bob Herndon, Buck McPhail, John Ralston, Bill Taylor.
Elliott brought with him a new offense, the split-T. In the basic T formation, three running backs lined up behind the quarterback, and the offensive line would form a tight group in front of them. In the split-T, the offensive line was spread out twice as wide, forcing the defensive line to widen, and creating gaps for the offense. It was very much a running offense, and in Elliott's version the quarterback was essentially left to toss laterals, with only a very occasional pass to keep the defense honest.
The 1957 season proved to be a disaster. The Bears struggled to master the split-T, with the offensive linemen having trouble adjusting to the need for speed and agility, and junior quarterback Joe Kapp given little opportunity to pass or even to run, as he had done in Cal's upset win in the 1956 Big Game. The Bears were 1-9 in 1957, the worst season in their history until the Tom Holmoe era. One bright spot was their 12-0 win over USC, which was also suffering the worst season in its history (1-9), and had eight players barred from the Cal game by the conference, due to eligibility violations. Another hopeful sign in 1957 was that most of the Bears' losses came in very close games, including a 16-14 loss to UCLA, a 21-19 loss to Oregon State, and a 14-12 loss to Stanford. Nevertheless, the fans were extremely unhappy, and a "Bring Back Pappy" movement was begun.
Elliott made some changes to his offense in spring practice. He recognized that quarterback Joe Kapp, "was the best we had." So he added some pass-run option plays and some roll-out pass plays, to allow Kapp to use his skills. Nevertheless, the season began badly, with a 24-20 home loss to the College of the Pacific, followed by a 32-12 road loss to Michigan State. But then things began to turn around.
In the conference opener against highly regarded Washington State (who would finish second in the conference), the Bears finally seemed to get the hang of the split-T, gaining 241 yards on the ground, to go along with 75 yards passing. The Bears pulled off a convincing 34-14 win. Elliott said that his players "wanted to win so badly that every one of them played up to his potential and some surpassed it." The next week the Bears rushed for 299 yards, building a 36-8 lead against Utah, before Ute quarterback (and later Cal broadcaster) Lee Grosscup rallied his team to make the final score a more respectable 36-21.
Next up was USC, with the 2-point conversion playing a key role in the outcome. 1958 was the first year that the option of going for 2 points after a touchdown was permitted in modern college football. Pete Elliott liked the idea so much that the Bears went for 2 points after 27 of their 28 touchdowns that year. The results were mixed, with the Bears making 13 conversions and missing 14. Against USC, the Bears missed their first conversion, but made the second, giving them 14 points. The Trojans also went for the 2-point conversion after both of their touchdowns, but failed both times. The result: a 14-12 Cal victory.
The Bears beat Oregon handily, 23-6, but then lost to Oregon State at Corvallis, with all the Beavers' scoring resulting from Cal errors. The Beavers picked up a fumbled lateral by Joe Kapp and ran it back for one touchdown. Their other touchdown was set up when they intercepted a Kapp pass. Although the Bears outgained the Beavers 290-135, the final score was Oregon State 14, California 8. But the Bears bounced back with wins of 20-17 over UCLA and 12-7 over Washington.
Going into the Big Game, the Bears were 6-3, but had only one conference loss. Washington State, USC, and Oregon State were all right behind them with two conference losses each. The Bears needed to beat Stanford to guarantee a Rose Bowl berth. The 2-8 Indians were 14-point underdogs, and seemed unlikely to pose much of a problem. But they did.
It turned out to be one of the most exciting Big Games ever. The Bears scored first, with a 62-yard touchdown drive (50 of those yards on the ground) and a 2-point conversion in the first quarter. Stanford responded with its own touchdown on the next drive, the key play being a 39-yard gain on a double reverse pass. The Indians' 2-point conversion try would lead to enormous controversy. The pass thrown by Stanford quarterback Dick Norman bounced off the receiver's hands, but appeared to be caught by another Stanford player, Irv Nikolai. But the back judge ruled that Nikolai had gone out of bounds before he gained full possession of the ball. The conversion failed, and the score remained 8-6 Bears. But Stanford did make a field goal in the second quarter, to take a 9-8 lead into halftime.
#22 Joe Kapp hurdles Stanford players to gain more yardage in the 1958 Big Game.
To start the second half, Stanford moved the ball down to the Cal 21-yard-line. But instead of trying another field goal, they went for it on fourth down, and did not make it. On the ensuing drive the Bears marched down the field on 16 straight running plays to score a touchdown. And they made another 2-point conversion to re-take the lead, 16-9. The Bears missed a field goal in the fourth quarter that would have put the game away. Stanford then went on a 78-yard touchdown drive, scoring with just over a minute left in the game, cutting Cal's lead to 16-15. A tie would have sent the Bears to the Rose Bowl, so Stanford decided to go for 2 points and the win. The Stanford rusher, Skip Face, was stopped inside the one-yard line by Cal's Billy Patton to preserve the Cal lead. The Stanford onside kick failed, and the Bears won the game . . . and a trip to Pasadena. Oddly, Stanford scored two touchdowns and a field goal, while California scored only two touchdowns. But the Bears won the game because they made two 2-point conversions, while Stanford failed on both of theirs.
The 1959 Rose Bowl program.
The 1958 Bears were an undersized, overachieving group. There were starting tackles and guards who weighed 180 pounds -- close to what such players had weighed in the 1890s. But they did have inspirational leaders like Joe Kapp and halfback Jack Hart. As Hart explained many years later, "We had no Jensens, no Olszewskis, Schabarums, or Monachinos to get us those long gainers. Instead we had guys like Hart. But we did have the ability, with our long possessions, to keep the ball out of the other team's hands. We'd just frustrate them four yards or so at a time." Pete Elliott explained: "That team had a wonderful attitude. And great leadership with Kapp and Hart. . . . I didn't really change things very much between seasons. The players just got better. They had the talent and they executed more efficiently. They had the tenacity."
The unranked Bears were to face #2 Iowa in the Rose Bowl. Iowa led the nation in total offense, and it was widely believed that Cal would be unable to compete with the bigger, stronger, and more talented Hawkeyes. And this proved to be true. Iowa scored early and often, taking a 20-0 lead into halftime. But the scrappy Bears never gave up. Years later, Iowa running back Willie Fleming remembered standing in the end zone after he scored late in the fourth quarter, and seeing Joe Kapp charging toward him. Kapp grabbed his jersey and yelled, "we're going to kick your ass!" Fleming said that even though the Hawkeyes had a big lead and there were only five minutes left, Kapp "said that with such conviction, he had me believing we were in deep trouble." Sadly, attitude was not enough, and the final score was Iowa 38, California 12.
1959 Rose Bowl: Cal halfback Jack Hart makes a catch inside the Iowa 5 yard line. The Cal player in the end zone is #25 Tom Bates, currently Mayor of Berkeley.
Joe Kapp and Jack Hart both graduated in the spring of 1959, and the Bears had no one to replace their talent or their leadership. Without them, the magic of the 1958 season came to a crashing halt in 1959. The Bears started out with a 20-6 win over Washington State, but then lost eight straight, including blowout losses to Iowa (42-12), Texas (33-0), and Notre Dame (28-6). California was 1-8 heading into the Big Game, and Pete Elliott announced his resignation to accept the head coach job at Illinois. But before he left Berkeley, he had one game left to play.
Although Stanford did not have much to celebrate in 1959, their 3-6 record was better than Cal's, and they were expected to win the Big Game. And the Bears could not stop Stanford's passing game. Indian quarterback Dick Norman completed 34 of 39 passes for 401 yards. His completion percentage of .872 was an NCAA record. Stanford set six new Big Game records: individual records in total offense, passes attempted, and passes completed for Norman; and team records for passing yardage, passes completed, and first downs gained by pass. Meanwhile, the only record the Bears broke was for the most yards penalized: 110. But, incredibly, the Bears won the game. Cal quarterback Wayne Crow had by far his best game of the season, completing 9 of 14 passes for 158 yards, to go with 202 yards rushing for the Bears. The Bears managed a 20-17 victory, with the game not decided until the final play, when time ran out on the Indians as they tried to line up for what would have been a tying field goal.
1959 Big Game: #15 Grover Garvin carries the ball, as #22 Wayne Crow, #30 Walt Arnold, and #64 Doug Graham block for him.
Exactly why did Pete Elliott decide to leave Cal one year after taking the team to the Rose Bowl? Certainly 1959 had been a miserable season. And there did not appear to be many talented prospects interested in coming to Cal. There were rumors that Cal and Stanford were considering down-grading football to Ivy League status. Elliott may also have regarded Illinois, a Big Ten school, as more amenable to the kind of football he wanted to coach. Certainly it was geographically closer to his home and extended family. What's more, his older brother, Chalmers "Bump" Elliott had become the head coach of their alma mater, Michigan, in 1959. The Illinois job would allow him to coach against his brother every year. Whatever his reasons, Elliott left Berkeley at the end of the 1959 season with an overall record of 10-21 in three seasons.
In 1961, the brothers and rival football coaches Pete and Bump Elliott appeared on a popular quiz show called "What's My Line?" in which the panelists were supposed to guess the occupation of the guests.
Pete Elliott's record at Illinois would be almost as up-and-down as at Cal, ranging from an 0-9 season in 1961 to an 8-1-1 season and another trip to the Rose Bowl in 1963. And this time his team would post a 17-7 Rose Bowl victory over Washington. However, in 1966 Elliott was caught up in a scandal involving a slush fund used to provide benefits to Illinois players. Although the University denied any wrong-doing, the Big Ten conference demanded that Elliott and the Illinois head basketball coach be fired, or the University of Illinois would be expelled from the conference. Elliott duly submitted his resignation, leaving with an overall record of 31-34-1.
Seven years later Elliott was coaching again, this time as the head coach at the University of Miami. In two years at Miami, 1973-74, his record was 11-11. While he was still coaching, he also became the Miami Athletic Director, and he remained in that job until 1978. In that year, his old boss from Oklahoma, Bud Wilkinson, asked him to became an assistant coach for the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals. The NFL coaching experience turned out not to appeal to Elliott and he resigned in 1979 to take the job as the Executive Director of the NFL Hall of Fame, where he remained until his retirement in 1995, at the age of 69. He remained a member of the Hall of Fame's Board of Trustees until his death.
Both of Elliott's sons, Bruce and David, played football at Michigan. Bruce has also been a college assistant coach. In 1994 Pete Elliott was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, where he joined his brother Bump, who had been inducted in 1989. Pete Elliott's wife, Joan, passed away in 2008, after 58 years of marriage. He is survived by his sons, four granddaughters, and two of his brothers, including Bump.
Pete Elliott's career at Cal was improbable, to say the least. But all Golden Bears can join in saluting the memory of the coach who took us to that 1959 Rose Bowl.
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