Cal's Greatest Football Coaches: # 8 Mike White

  Note: This is the first in a series by Ohio Bear and CalBear81 about the eight greatest football coaches in Cal history.  Today's installment features Mike White, who coached the Bears from 1972 to 1977 and led Cal to a share of the Pac-8 championship in 1975.  Keep watching for later posts as we count down to our choice for the greatest Cal football coach EVAIR!   


Coach White with legendary Cal QB Joe Roth


Mike White was Cal's head football coach from the 1972 through 1977 seasons.  During that time, Coach White's teams went 34-31-1 (for a .523 winning percentage) and tied for the Pac-8 championship in 1975.  The 1975 conference co-championship was Cal's first share of a conference title since winning the Pacific Coast Conference and going to the Rose Bowl behind quarterback Joe Kapp in the 1958 season.  When he left Cal following the 1977 season, White became the first coach since Pappy Waldorf in 1956 to step down with a Cal coaching record over .500.   

No retrospective of Coach White is complete without covering what he did before he took the helm as Cal's head coach in 1972.  Coach White is a Cal man through and through: he is a graduate of Cal's business school and was a four-sport athlete at Cal.  During his time in Berkeley, White was a member of the football, basketball, rugby, and track-and-field teams, meaning he played for four legendary Cal coaches: Pappy Waldorf (football), Pete Newell (basketball), Doc Hudson (rugby), and Brutus Hamilton (track).   White was inducted to the Cal athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, honoring him for being both an athlete and a coach for the Golden Bears. 


Mike White, circa 1975


After graduating from Cal, White pursued a career in college football coaching, starting as an assistant at Cal in 1958.  White worked on the Cal staffs of head coaches Pete Elliott and Marv Levy from 1958 to 1963, which included being an assistant coach on Cal's last Rose Bowl team.  In 1964, however, White left Berkeley for a foray to Bear Territory South: he was an assistant under another Cal alum, John Ralston, at Stanfurd from 1964 to 1971.  White was part of a coaching staff that led the Cardinal Cardinals Indians to Pac-8 championships and back-to-back Rose Bowl victories in the 1970 and 1971 seasons.  While working together, Ralston and White also went 6-2 in Big Games.   (Interesting how Stanfurd had some of its best years in the program's history when being led by Cal alumni.  Coincidence?  I think not.  But I digress.) 


Coach White with Cal offensive tackle Ted Albrecht (left) and quarterback Joe Roth in 1976


In 1972, both the Cal and Stanfurd head coaching jobs came open:  Ray Willsey stepped down after eight years as Cal head coach (going 40-42-1 in that time) and Ralston left Stanfurd to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos.  White was offered both the Cal and Stanfurd head coaching jobs.  White chose the Cal job, electing to return to his alma mater and try to bring back the glory of the Pappy Waldorf years. 

White's first two years as Cal coach were not particularly impressive -- the Bears went 3-8 in 1972 and 4-7 in 1973 and suffered ignominious defeats along the way.  (For example Cal gave up 50 or more points in three of its losses in 1973: Cal lost 66-0 to Alabama, 61-21 to Ucla in 1973, and 50-14 to USC.  Ouch!)  The bright spot of White's first two seasons as Cal's coach was, by far, the 1972 Big Game, White's first Big Game as Cal head coach.  The 2-8 Bears came into the game as an 8-point underdog to the 5-4 "Cardinal" (Stanfurd had that year dumped "Indians" in favor of "Cardinal"), which boasted the nation's fourth leading passer in Mike Boryla.  But behind freshman quarterback Vince Ferragamo, Cal found itself in a position to upset Stanfurd on a muddy Memorial Stadium field.  And, with a gutsy decision by Coach White, Cal pulled off what CalBear 81 calls one of the Bears' top 10 Big Game triumphs of all time:

All seemed lost for the Bears when, with only 2:28 left, Ferragamo threw his fourth interception of the day.  Amazingly, the Bears got the ball back through a strong defensive stand, resulting in a Cal interception on third down. The Bears had the ball on their own 38-yard line with 1:13 remaining.  With the help of two pass interference calls, Ferragamo drove the Bears down the the Stanford 8-yard line, with :03 left.

The Bears now had a choice to make: send out their outstanding kicker, Wersching, to attempt a virtually certain 25-yard field goal for the tie, or take one final shot at the win.  With only :03 left, either choice would be the last play of the game.  Rookie head coach Mike White decided to roll the dice and sent Ferragamo back out on the field. Cal's star wide receiver, Steve Sweeney, was sent out to line up at tight end. Sweeney collided with Stanford defender Jim Ferguson when he made his cut, and Ferguson fell down. Ferragamo threw to the corner of the end zone. Sweeney stumbled and dived for the ball, holding on even after he fell face down into the mud. 

Mike White's gamble had paid off, and the underdog 2-8 Bears won the Big Game. Freshman Vince Ferragamo would ultimately lose the starting job to Steve Bartkowski, and would transfer to Nebraska. Senior Steve Sweeney ended his Cal career that day as Cal's all-time leading receiver both for his career and for a single season. But Sweeney said that catching that pass to win the Big Game meant more to him than any record.

Other than that epic Big Game win in 1972, however, Coach White did not turn around the Bears' football fortunes during his first two seasons.  But in 1974, the team finally showed signs of life under Coach White's tutelage.  That year, Cal battled eventual national champion USC to a 15-15 tie, serving notice that these Bears were not the pushover Bears of the 1960s.  Cal went on to finish 7-3-1 in 1974, which was the Bears' best record since 1952--even better than the record of the 1958 team that went to the Rose Bowl.  Cal might have even finished in the top 20 in 1974 had it not been for Mike Langford's legendary (for the Stanfurd fan) 50-yard field goal as time expired, which gave Stanfurd a 22-20 win over 19th-ranked Cal in the 1974 Big Game

Not only was 1974 a breakout year for the Cal Bears on the field, but it also thrust Coach White into national renown as a football coach.  Already known as an innovative offensive coach from his days as a Stanfurd assistant, White only solidified that reputation as Cal's head coach.  Steve Bartkowski, Cal's quarterback in the 1974 season, led the nation with 2,580 yards passing and was an Associated Press first-team All-American.  Bartkowski became the first player taken overall in the 1975 NFL Draft and (thanks to the San Francisco 49ers' blowing it on Draft Day 2005) remains the only Cal player ever to achieve that feat.  Coach White also assembled a coaching staff with assistants who would later become head coaches at either the college or NFL level.  This list included Paul Hackett, Walt Harris, Gunther Cunningham, Al Saunders, and Roger Theder. 

White’s growing reputation was not limited to the West Coast.  In 1975, for example, White appeared as the guest speaker at a coaches convention in Ohio, where he was introduced by legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes.  Hayes said to the crowd of coaches:  "It is now my pleasure to introduce what could be our next opponent in the Rose Bowl."

Hayes almost had it right.  White's 1975 Cal team entered the season with high expectations, albeit tempered by the fact that Cal needed to replace Bartkowski at quarterback.  The reasons for optimism centered around the impressive array of weapons that Cal had at the skill positions.  Running back Chuck Muncie, returning All-American wide receiver Steve Rivera, and speedy wide receiver Wesley Walker gave Cal formidable skill players at the running back and receiver positions.  (For the younger set at CGB: a good analogy might be if we had Jahvid Best, Geoff MacArthur, and DeSean Jackson on the field -- in their college prime -- at the same time; the 2006 triumvurate of Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson, and Lavelle Hawkins might be the nearest actual comparison from the Jeff Tedford era.)  If Cal could replace Bartkowski, 1975 had the makings of a special year.   

As it turned out, White had an ace in the hole for his quarterback that year.  The previous winter, White recruited a junior college quarterback by the name of Joe Roth.   Though Fred Besana won the starting quarterback job out of training camp, Roth quickly supplanted him after the Bears started the 1975 season 0-2 with nonconference losses to Colorado and West Virginia, two quality opponents that would each win 9 games in 1975 and appear in bowl games.  (Except for the 0-2 start, it sounds 2003 Aaron Rodgers-Reggie Robertson-esque, doesn't it?)  Behind Roth, the Bears beat Washington State in the third week of the season and then beat an excellent San Jose State team 27-24 with a late fourth quarter rally engineereed by Roth.  The two wins proved to be the beginning of a season turnaround of epic proportions.  Cal won 8 of its last 9 games, losing only to Ucla in late October.  The signature win of the season came on November 1, 1975, when Cal defeated third-ranked and heavily favored USC 28-14 at Memorial Stadium.  The win catapulted Cal in the national rankings and ignited Rose Bowl hopes. 

Cal was 7-3 overall (5-1 in conference play) and ranked 13th nationally entering the season finale -- the Big Game at Stanfurd.  A Cal win and a USC win over Ucla six days later would have sent Cal to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1958 season. 

Cal took care of its business -- and how.  Behind one of the all-time great performances in Big Game history by Muncie, the Bears throttled Stanfurd 48-15 to claim the Axe.  Muncie rushed for 169 yards and three touchdowns, caught a pass for another touchdown, and threw a touchdown pass for yet another score.  The victory ended the Bears' regular season at 8-3, 6-1 in conference play.  Cal had its sights set on the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1976. 


One of Mike White's most potent weapons was Chuck Muncie, who finished 2nd in the 1975 Heisman Trophy voting, was the 3rd overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft, and made this cover of Sports Illustrated. 


Unfortunately for Cal, the loss to Ucla came back to bite the Bears in the rear.   Six days after Cal's Big Game win, Ucla defeated USC, 25-22, to finish 6-1 in conference play and wrest the Rose Bowl bid by virtue of its regular season win over Cal.  Not only did the Bears lose out on the Rose Bowl, they lost out on any bowl whatsoever.  Despite their cadre of offensive stars, including the man who finished 2nd in the Heisman Trophy voting (Muncie), a future Heisman Trophy candidate (Roth), and a high-powered offense that led the nation in total offense, the Bears were passed over for postseason play because the other bowls refused to wait until after the USC/Ucla game was played to fill their slots.  Thus, USC -- whom the Bears had beaten in the regular season --  went to the Liberty Bowl over Cal, despite finishing 3-4 in Pac-8 play.  Even though Cal's season ended without a bowl, the Bears finished 14th (AP) and 15th (UPI) in the final polls.       

Still, Coach White's star was on the rise.  The 1975 season only solidified his reputation as a coaching star in the making, especially on the offensive side of the ball.  Cal led the nation in total offense in 1975 and did so in notable fashion: the 1975 Bears were the epitome of balance, gaining (incredibly) the same number of yards rushing as passing (2,522 yards in each category).  Cal hoped that the success of the 1975 season would be a springboard to the 1976 season and beyond.  Despite losing Muncie to graduation (Muncie would be the 3rd overall pick in the 1976 NFL Draft), the Bears had a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate in Roth returning at quarterback.  Cal entered the 1976 season ranked in the preseason top 20 and it seemed the momentum was in place for Coach White to return the Bears to the glory days of his mentor, Pappy Waldorf. 

Even before the successful 1975 season began, Coach White thought that momentum for a Cal football renaissance was in place.  Upon recruiting Roth, whom White considered "the best JC quarterback in the nation," White said that "by getting Joe I think it'll help our entire program in recruiting other kids."  By saying this, White actually may have been selling himself short.  Consider this story from Cal alumnus Mike O'Brien, who played for White before later becoming a successful automobile dealership owner in Washington state---

O'Brien verbally committed to Stanford [sic], and was driving to Palo Alto to visit the campus after Christmas when he stopped at Berkeley for gas. He wound up calling Cal head coach Mike White, who had recruited him.

"I told him I was going to Stanford [sic], but he said, 'No problem, come on over and we'll go to dinner.' I ended up hanging out all night with Cal players, partying, and never got off campus. When I see Mike now, I tell him he should go into the car business."

Recruiting good players was something that White (and his staff) knew how to do.  Among those who played for White at Cal who went on to lengthy professional football careers were Muncie (New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers), Bartkowski (longtime Atlanta Falcon), Ferragamo (who quarterbacked the L.A. Rams in Super Bowl XIV), OT Ted Albrecht (longtime Chicago Bear), DB Herman Edwards (longtime Philadelphia Eagle), WR Wesley Walker (longtime and beloved New York Jet), LB Jeff Barnes (a longtime Oakland/L.A. Raider), FB Tom "Nasty" Newton (six-year career with the NY Jets), and K Jim Breech (longtime Cincinnati Bengal who kicked in two Super Bowls).  Many others had shorter stints in professional football.   Even Besana, who lost the starting quarterback job to Roth, spent two seasons as a backup QB in the NFL and was later the first starting quarterback of the USFL's Oakland Invaders. 

Despite the optimism that Cal had following the 1975 season, White's teams never did deliver Cal to the Pasadena promised land.  Cal was a preseason top-20 team in 1976, but could not match the magic of 1975.   Roth passed for 1,789 yards in 1976, but lost some playing time due to a knee injury.  Roth also played nearly all of that season despite knowing that he had cancer and could die at any time.  (Roth's family is convinced that the cancer affected his play during the season.)  The Bears opened the 1976 season with losses to Georgia and Oklahoma, suffered through a three-game losing streak in the middle of Pac-8 play, and stumbled to a disappointing 5-6 finish.  A pall was then cast over the program during the following offseason when Roth succumbed to cancer.  Roth died on February 19, 1977 at the age of 22, surrounded by his parents, his brothers, several Cal teammates, and Coach White.  Roth's death came just weeks after playing for the West team (coached by White) in the Japan Bowl college all-star game.   

Coach White arguably turned the Bears' fortunes around in 1977 after the disappointing 1976 season.  Cal won its first four games in 1977 on its way to a 6-2 start, including a 17-14 victory over 10th-ranked USC.  The Bears made several appearances in the national rankings during the season's first eight weeks, but couldn't close the deal.  The Bears lost two of their final three games (including a lackluster 21-3 loss to Stanfurd in the Big Game) to finish 7-4 (3-4 in conference play). 

The 1977 season proved to be White's last as Cal head coach.  Cal fired White amid allegations of recruiting violations and promoted offensive coordinator Roger Theder to be White's replacement.  In a 2007 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, the then-71 year old White -- with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight -- wondered whether his decision to coach his alma mater may have been a mistake:

On job choices

I was offered both the Stanford [sic] and the Cal head jobs in 1972. Probably not the smartest thing I ever did, but I decided I'd rather go back to Cal. I was head coach for six years. I got fired. It's one of the reasons I'm glad I'm back at Cal. When I left, it wasn't the happiest day of my life.

On his favorite coaching job

Probably Illinois. Cal was hard. Pappy Waldorf told me, "Don't ever go back and coach at your own school."

White returned to coaching in 1980 when he accepted the head coaching job at the University of Illinois.  White would go on to serve as the Fighting Illini's head coach until 1987.  During that time, White guided Illinois to a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl in the 1983 season and posted a career record of 47-41-3 at Illinois.  As were his Cal teams, the Illinois teams under White featured good offenses; White coached two highly regarded quarterbacks at Illinois (Tony Eason and Jack Trudeau) who would go on to NFL careers. 

White's tenure at Illinois ended similarly to his run with Cal: White resigned in 1988 amid a recruiting scandal.  White later spent 10 years in the National Football League, including two as head coach of the Oakland Raiders (1995-1996).  After leaving coaching, White once again returned to serve his alma mater: he became the director of Camp Blue at the Lair of the Golden Bear.


Mike White in 2007


Reasonable Cal fans can disagree about White's legacy as a Cal coach.  On the one hand, White made Cal football relevant again in the 1970s after the program had sadly become a college football wasteland in the 1960s.  White won more football games than he lost during his tenure at Cal (a feat that should not be pooh-poohed given the lack of success his immediate predecessors had), gave Cal a reputation for being a formidable offensive team, recruited excellent players who would later go on to success in the NFL, and hired an impressive collection of assistant coaches.   

Then again, for some, the circumstances surrounding White's departure from Cal may have left a bad taste.  White seemed to have been the right man for the Cal job, but was prematurely derailed by recruiting transgressions, the same bugaboo that would eventually drive him out of the University of Illinois a decade later.  And while White's teams had their moments of glory on the field, they did not deliver the prizes that Cal fans thirsted for: White never led Cal to a bowl game (much less the Rose Bowl) and won the Big Game only twice in his six years as head coach.  There is indeed bitter irony in the fact that White, a multi-sport Cal athlete who played for four of Cal's most revered coaches, was an assistant coach for Stanfurd during glory years of that program but could not bring the same level of success to Cal's program. 

Regardless of how your personal historical perspective treats White, one thing is clear:  he deserves to be on the list of of the best Cal head football coaches of all time. 

Sources not linked above

Antonik, John, Mountaineers Stun Cal,, July 8, 2003

Cal Hall of Famer Mike White on Cal Rugby and Jack Clark, (posted in December 2010)

Crumpacker, John, Remembering Joe Roth - Cancer Took The Dynamic Quarterback 30 Years Ago, San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 19, 2007.

Crumpacker, John, and Rochmis, Jon, The Joe Roth Story, California Monthly Magazine, March 1977

Dickens, Bill, Roth Plans on Playing for Bears, El Cajon Californian, December 1974

Heater, Jay, Cal Hasn't Forgotten Joe Roth, Contra Costa Times, Nov. 23, 2006

McCambridge, Michael (Ed.), ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, 2005

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