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Golden Reviews: Ron Fimrite's 'Golden Bears' - A History of Cal Football

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Note:  After I finished writing this review I learned that Ron Fimrite recently passed away.  Fimrite graduated from Berkeley in 1948 and leaves behind an impressive legacy of work with the San Francisco Chronicle and Sports Illustrated, as well as numerous books.  To buy his book, follow this link .

Mr. Fimrite, long-time sportswriter and Berkeley grad, must truly have a love for the Golden Bears, because he picked a rather small niche for his 500 page tome.  But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Golden Bears: A Celebration of Cal Football’s Triumphs, Heartbreakers, Last-Second Miracles, Legendary Blunders and the Extraordinary People who made it all Possible for those who think they love Cal as much as the author.  Fimrite covers the entire history of Cal football, but the book is at its best chronicling the semi-forgotten years of Cal excellence in the 20s, 30s and 50s.

First, a word of caution:  This book has to cover more than 100 years of football in 500 pages.  That’s a tall task and the inevitable result is that there’s only so much space for each year.  Cal history is full of events (The Play) and figures (Andy Smith, Pappy Waldorf, Jackie Jensen) worthy of their own books.  Fimrite’s history is an excellent introduction to those and other persons critical to Cal’s history, but it can hardly be considered exhaustive.  But there is nothing missing from the book – just plenty of topics that deserve more pages written if the right author finds the time.

Additionally, the reader will gain more out of the book if they enter with some basic knowledge of the history and evolution of the game of football.  The gridiron battles fought in 1899 looked a hell of a lot different than those in 2009, and there just isn’t the space in this book to adequately describe those changes.  For example, football as a collegiate sport was nearly banned in the early 20th century, but Fimrite doesn’t have the time to explain why beyond the game’s ‘violence.’  For a primer on pre-1906, mass momentum football, read this article about the Flying Wedge and the incredible damage it did to collegiate athletes.

What Fimrite does best is adding useful and curious context to the basic nuts and bolts. When you finish you’ll know something about every coach, administrator and star player at Cal.  But in that process we get a good sense of how current events and campus culture that impacted the football team.  If you're curious about how the free speech movement impacted Craig Morton, you'll find it inside. That's just one example of fascinating insight and trivia.  For example, how many of you knew the following tidbits:

-Cal and UCLA were initially so closely tied that the teams weren’t allowed to play each other because they were considered different braches of the same university.
-At one point the ASUC controlled (and used) the power of firing the head coach.
-That legendary football pioneers Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner moved out west to coach various local colleges.
-A last minute coaching coup saved a few important Cal players from attending Stanford.
-That Skip Bayless played a role in the tragedy of Joe Roth, and not surprisingly it sounded pretty shameless.

That's just a teaser of the kind of information contained in this book.  Fimrite also managed to talk to a number of important figures like Roy Riegels and Jeff Tedford, and used his access to Chronicle and Berkeley archives to dig up hundreds of revealing, insightful and funny quotes.  Each section of Cal history is supplemented with rare photos and the book finishes with 'all-era' teams as voted on by those able to see the team play.

For me the book lagged when it described more recent Cal history that I am personally very familiar with.  A five page description of the events of 1923 contained five pages of information I was essentially unfamiliar with.  But a five page description of the events of 1999 contained perhaps one page of new information.  That’s no fault of the author - just a side-effect of having fanatic internet fans as readers.  But the book acted as just another reminder of how remarkably successful Jeff Tedford has been at Berkeley despite the difficulties the Bears have faced over the last few seasons.  These last few years have truly been as close to a perfect storm of coaching, administrative and fan support as you can get in a place like Berkeley.

Interestingly, when I finished I felt like like Cal has two competing truths.  Our football team has a remarkably strong history of excellent play - so strong that at one point Cal stole a coach from Nebraska.  But it is just as true that for nearly 40 years there were very real institutional barriers to team success.  That duality will be a constant struggle to follow, particularly considering the current attitude towards athletic expenses.

Fimrite's work is most valuable as an education for newer Cal fans.  Every Golden Bear should know about the exploits of the Wonder Teams, the camaraderie of Pappy's Boys, the brief but wonderful life of Joe Roth and Joe Kapp's cult of personality.  When I set foot on campus next fall I'll have a different perspective on the various statues and monuments dedicated to the accomplishments of the football team.  It's that shared history that makes being a Cal fan so much more meaningful than yelling at the changing jersey numbers of helmeted young adults.