Cal's Greatest Football Coaches: # 5 Bruce Snyder

Note: This is the fourth in a series by Ohio Bear and CalBear81 about the eight greatest football coaches in Cal history. Click here for the earlier installments: #8 Mike White,#7 Garrett Cochran, and #6 Nibs Price.


Bruce Snyder


In December of 1986, Cal Athletic Director David Maggard hired then-Los Angeles Rams assistant coach Bruce Snyder to take over as head football coach after the largely unsuccessful tenure of Joe Kapp. Prior to accepting the Cal job, Coach Snyder had modest experience as a head coach: he had spent 1976 to 1982 as the head coach at Utah State, where he had rebuilt a program that had been down and out. Perhaps it was his experience at rebuilding that made Snyder a good fit for the Cal job: after a disastrous 2-9 season in 1986, to say that the Cal football program needed a rebuild was an understatement.

But the Utah State experience was not Snyder's only qualification for the Cal head coaching job. Snyder had learned from legendary head coaches, having served as a running backs coach and quarterbacks coach at Oregon (where he also earned a B.S. in Mathematics) under Len Casanova from 1964 to 1971, as a running backs coach and offensive coordinator at USC under John McKay in 1974-75, and as an offensive assistant under John Robinson with the Los Angeles Rams from 1983 to 1986. During those experiences, Snyder coached such great players as Rickey Bell, Anthony Davis, Eric Dickerson, Dan Fouts, and Ahmad Rashad.


Coach Snyder (far right), during his days as an assistant coach at Oregon, talks with Ducks quarterback Dan Fouts in 1971.


As soon as Snyder accepted the job at Cal, he set out on a vision. That vision was ambitious:

"[Snyder wanted to] sic a ferocious ground attack on the enemy, to unleash a brass-knuckle style of gang- tackling and blocking, and to prance a "fairly sophisticated passing offense" around unsuspecting opponents.


"His plan impressed athletic director Dave Maggard so much that other "name" candidates were thanked for their interest and asked to keep in touch.

"The long-term hope at Berkeley is that given the shovel, the workaholic Snyder will begin burying other Pacific 10 Conference teams on the way to the Rose Bowl."

Dan Vierria, Snyder Sets Out To Rehabilitate Cal’s Program, Lodi News-Sentinel, Jan. 12, 1987.

At least with respect to the passing attack, Coach Snyder's first Cal team had a chance to achieve those heights in 1987. Though he had his work cut out for him in that first season after Cal had gone 2-9 in Joe Kapp's last season as head coach, Snyder at least had Troy Taylor, Cal's sophomore quarterback. Taylor had shown, in his brief playing time as a freshman, that he had the talent to give the Bears a capable passing offense.

Cal was competitive in most games in 1987, but showed obvious signs that the team had a long way to go. The Bears cobbled together an unusual 3-6-2 record, which featured tie games against Arizona and Washington State, the latter in the short-lived "Coca-Cola Classic" in Tokyo. Cal suffered a gut-wrenching defeat at home against a very good San Jose State (yes -- led by prolific quarterback Mike Perez, San Jose State was, in fact, the Bay Area's best college football team in 1987). After Cal scored the go-ahead points on a touchdown and two-point conversion to take a 25-24 lead in the final minute, the Bears suffered through closing moments that Cal fans used to (or maybe still?) think are old hat: poorly executed squib kick, good field position for SJSU, couple of decent pass plays, game-winning Spartan FG as time expired. O--U--C--H.

Though the Bears started the 1987 season with only one win in their first five games, they showed that Snyder knew what he was doing as a coach: Cal noticeably improved late in the season. The culmination of that improvement was a November game at home against Arizona State, the reigning Pac-10 champions. Cal beat the Sun Devils 38-20 at Memorial Stadium in Cal's best performance of the season. But what steady improvement gave the Bears, fate took away: Taylor was injured in the ASU game, which forced Snyder to start Brad Howe at quarterback in the Big Game the following week (Howe's first and only collegiate start). It was the second year in a row that injury cost Taylor a chance to start the Big Game. This time, however, Cal could not overcome his absence, losing the Big Game 31-7, as Stanford recaptured the Axe after having lost it the previous year in one of the most epic upsets in the rivalry's history.

For all the modest progress that Snyder made in 1987, there was still work to do. But for the most part, 1988 proved to be the same story. The Bears had their moments -- enough of them that you had a feeling that Coach Snyder really was inching the Bears in the right direction. Taylor played well enough that he was starting to be recognized as one of the top passing quarterbacks in the Pac-10. And Cal managed to win some games in a fashion that showed mental fortitude. For example, the Bears rallied from a 21-14 deficit to an upset-minded Kansas Jayhawk team to score 38 unanswered points en route to a 52-21 win; later in the season, on the road, the Bears stifled the Arizona option attack and won 10-7 on a 4th quarter long bomb from Taylor to wide receiver Vince Delgado. But the win in Tucson turned out to be the Bears' only Pac-10 victory of the season. That's not to say the Bears didn't have their chances, though: 1988 was a punch-in-the-gut kind of a year--

  • In September, Cal lost the infamous 61-minute game at Oregon State, 17-16, on a last second field goal that should not have happened;
  • In November, Cal played well in Seattle to build a 27-3 lead, only to lose 28-27 to Washington on a last-second field goal that capped a huge comeback by the Huskies; and
  • The Bears ended the season with the devastating 19-19 tie in the Big Game, which ended with Stanford's Tuan Van Le blocking Robbie Keen's potential game-winning 20-yard field goal attempt as time expired.

Cal finished 5-5-1 but, on the bright side, had once again ended the season playing its best football in November. Coach Snyder was making progress.


In 1987, Bruce Snyder recruited quarterback Mike Pawlawski, whom one publication called the Pac-10's worst football recruit. Four years later, Paws would be the 1991 Pac-10 co-offensive player of the year.


The more optimistic Cal fans (whose bandwagon I rode as a Cal sophomore because I didn't know any better) thought 1989 was supposed to be the year where the Bears maybe -- just maybe -- made the jump into bowl contention. With Taylor now a senior quarterback and with some experienced talent on both sides of the ball, Cal was optimistic that it could turn the corner. But it was not to be. Cal still could not break through against USC or UCLA, and again failed to regain the Axe by losing a lackluster Big Game at Stanford. Cal finished the 1989 season at 4-7. Through three years at the helm, Coach Snyder's record was an unimpressive 12-18-3.

The experts were not impressed with the prospects for Cal football in 1990. Coming off a 4-7 season in 1989, the conventional wisdom was that the Bears would regress due to the loss of quarterback Troy Taylor (who was drafted by the New York Jets in the 1990 NFL Draft). Outside the Cal program, not much was expected of Taylor's successor: in fact, Mike Pawlawski was viewed by some as a liability, having once been dubbed "the worst recruit in in the Pac-10" when Snyder signed him out of Troy High School in Yorba Linda in 1987. Cal also figured to struggle defensively in 1990 after losing such defensive mainstays as David Ortega, Travis Oliver, and Doug Parrish. And even though a young running back by the name of Russell White was poised to join the Bears in 1990, the pundits were not brimming with confidence that White could transform the Bears into an upper-division team in the conference. The preseason consensus on Cal was that the Bears would finish 8th or 9th in the Pac-10 in 1990.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 8th or 9th place in the Pac-10: Coach Snyder had taught his Bears how to win. It started innocently enough: the Bears opened the season at Wisconsin, where they spoiled the head coaching debut of Barry Alvarez in a 28-12 win. The Bears intrigued Blues young and old with a smash mouth running game led by an effective one-two punch at running back (Anthony Wallace and the aforementioned Russell White), a capable passing game with Pawlawski and speedy wide receiver Brian Treggs, and an opportunistic defense (John Hardy had a 100-yard interception return for a TD in that season opener). And though the Bears would lose their next two games to fall to 1-2, there was still a sense that this team was something special. The Bears held their own for three quarters in a home loss to Miami (a game in which White returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball at Memorial Stadium) and were tantalizingly close to winning at Washington State before the dreaded Curse of the Palouse beat the Bears 41-31 despite a great performance by Pawlawski (a perfect 12 for 12 in the first half, finishing 24 of 34 for 284 yards and 2 TD).

But after the modest start, the Bears began to win -- usually, in heart-stopping style. Cal became the Cardiac Kids in reverse: jump out to a lead, sometimes a big one, watch the defense slowly give it back, and then hold on for dear life at the end. But the formula worked to give Snyder's Bears a 4-game winning streak and a 5-2 record--

  • @ Arizona: Cal led 28-13 midway thru 3rd quarter after Russell White transformed a simple screen pass into a 39-yard touchdown. Cal fans are put on edge, though, as Arizona comes back to pull within 28-23 in the 4th quarter and had possession of the ball for a potential game-winning drive. But Cal's Joel Dickson sacked the Arizona quarterback for a safety, Ray Sanders thwarted one final drive with an interception, and Cal hung on for a 30-25 win.
  • Vs. San Jose State: Cal had a seemingly comfortable 35-21 lead with under 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter. But SJSU scored 2 quick touchdowns, the second one coming on a long touchdown pass with under three minutes to play. The Spartans went for the go-ahead two-point conversion, but Cal broke up the pass in the end zone. Cal ran out the clock to preserve a 35-34 win.
  • @ Arizona State: Cal went to Tempe and looked like it would run away with a huge victory on the road. The Bears dominated the Sun Devils for 2-1/2 quarters, building a 31-3 lead with 7:44 left in the 3rd quarter. But ASU scored three unanswered touchdowns to pull within 7 points and then drove to the Cal 17-yard line with 3 minutes left. But the Bears' defense came through again, forcing and recovering a fumble. Cal ran out the clock for a 31-24 win.
  • Vs. UCLA: With a raucous Cal crowd anticipating the Bears' long-awaited breaking of an 18-game losing streak to the Bruins, Cal built a 38-17 lead with 14:28 left after a White TD run and 2-point conversion pass to Treggs. But Cal once again put us on edge. UCLA rallied for two fourth quarter scores to pull within 38-31. The Bruins then recovered a fumble in Cal territory and marched toward a potential game-tying (or go-ahead) TD with under 4 minutes left. Again, the Cal defense came through: Michael Davis sacked Tommy Maddox to force a fumble, which Cal recovered with 3:43 left. Cal's stalwart running game again ran out the clock and Cal won 38-31. The streak over, Snyder was carried off the field by his players and Cal students rushed the field to celebrate the biggest win (to that point) of the Snyder era.

There was something special about the 1990 Cal team. And it wasn't just the winning or the dramatic ways in which the Bears won. The team had a certain swagger about them that was likely a function of Pawlawski's leadership from the quarterback position. The swagger also had something to do with the Bears' smashmouth toughness. After relying largely on Troy Taylor's arm in his previous three seasons, Coach Snyder vowed to emphasize the running game to a much larger extent. Using a big and talented offensive line and a terrific running back tandem, the 1990 team remains the last Cal team to boast two 1,000 yard rushers (Anthony Wallace 1,002; Russell White 1,000). Cal was second in the Pac-10 in rushing offense in 1990 (second only to league champion Washington), averaging 203.2 yards per game on the ground.

But there was even more to the Bears' success than swagger and smashmouth. I had the privilege of covering the football team extensively as a member of the KALX sports staff that season, which meant I had the fortune to attend many a weekly press conference. Going to those press conferences that year was enlightening, as it highlighted (from my perspective) Snyder's preparation, attention to detail, and keen sense of the "pulse" of his team. Snyder almost always talked about all three phases of the game during his pressers, even talking about the Bears' performance in the kicking game as an important aspect of the team's overall performance. It was clear that his team was well prepared. But on top of that, I heard something more than once from Snyder in those press conferences that struck a chord with me: the coach mentioned that "football is important" to the team. As odd as it seems to hear a head coach at a major college football program say that, I got the sense that building this mentality was a big deal to Coach Snyder. Instilling that attitude was part of what he had accomplished in the program by the 1990 season. It wasn't that the players in years past didn't care about football; it was that Coach Snyder's players were invested in being great at it.

The four-game win streak (and chances for a Rose Bowl berth) came to a crashing end when eventual Pac-10 champion Washington demolished the Bears 46-7 in Seattle. Cal then played USC to a hard-fought 31-31 tie at the Los Angeles Coliseum on the first Saturday of November. After blowing a 14-point 3rd quarter lead, the Bears mounted a late 4th quarter comeback and had a chance to win. Pawlawski capped a clutch 4th quarter drive with a game-tying touchdown pass to Treggs with 1:22 remaining. Cal then used timeouts on defense to get the ball back and drove to the USC 26 yard line-- only to have Robbie Keen miss a 43-yard field goal on the game's final play to keep the game a 31-all tie.

As encouraging as the performance against USC was, however, it was not a win. So the Bears found themselves needing one win in their last two games (vs. Oregon and Stanford) to become eligible for Cal's first bowl bid since 1979. Cal got it done on the first try, jumping on a good Oregon team (the Ducks were 8-4 that year) early en route to a 28-3 win. After the game, Coach Snyder was clearly proud of what his team had accomplished and happy with the enthusiasm Cal fans had brought to Memorial Stadium.

"How many did we have out there?" Coach Snyder asked reporters at the end of his post-game press conference, seeking the attendance number.

"About 45,000," someone yelled out. (Back in those days, a number like that was considered a good crowd for a game NOT against USC, UCLA, or Stanford.)

"Well, that's good. That's more than they said we'd get," a satisfied Snyder responded.

Snyder had done it: he had brought excitement to Cal football and had led the Bears to their first bowl berth in 11 years.

A huge gap in Snyder's Cal resume remained in 1990, however. The week after clinching a bid to the Copper Bowl, Cal snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the 1990 Big Game, losing 27-25 to Stanford in one of the craziest finishes in the rivalry's history. Cal would rebound from that disappointment to defeat Wyoming 17-15 in the Copper Bowl on New Year's Eve for the Bears' first bowl victory since the 1938 Rose Bowl. For his turnaround of the Cal program, Snyder won 1990 Pac-10 Co-Coach of the Year honors along with Washington's Don James.

And it would only get better for Cal in 1991.


Players like Castle Redmond (left) and Dwayne Odom helped Cal reach and win the 1990 Copper Bowl--Cal's first bowl appearance since 1979 and its first bowl victory since 1938.


There were high hopes for Cal football coming into the 1991 season. The offense was largely intact as Pawlawski, White, Treggs, Dawkins, and most of the offensive line returned. And though Cal lost seven defensive starters, there was still reason for optimism, as the Cal coaching staff was very high on incoming freshman linebacker Jerrott Willard and junior college transfers Mick Barsala (ILB) and Wolf Barber (CB), both of whom were expected to contribute immediately. In yet another showing of his willingness to adapt, Snyder also vowed to implement an attacking style of defense: he felt that Cal's 1991 personnel was amenable to "an active, gambling defense" that took advantage of the Bears' improved speed. Snyder said at the time:

"I feel the same enthusiasm, the same confidence with the way our defense will improve this fall that I did with our running game [in 1990]. I believe we have the talent on defense to make this thing work."

The season was magical. The Bears won their first five games, including an 86-24 blowout of Pacific in the opener and two straight road victories at Arizona (23-21) and UCLA (27-24) won by last-minute field goals by Doug Brien. After a thoroughly dominating 45-7 win over Oregon, Cal ascended to 7th in the national polls as the stage was set for a showdown with undefeated and 3rd-ranked Washington at Memorial Stadium in mid-October.



The 1991 season was filled with memorable performances, including Russell White's determined effort in Cal's 27-24 win at UCLA.

The Washington game on October 19, 1991, was an unforgettable day in Berkeley. The crowd was announced at 74,500 -- by far the largest non-Big Game crowd in a long time at Memorial Stadium. And the atmosphere was electric, as the Bears battled what some considered at the time to be one of the best teams in Pac-10 history. The game came down to the final play, an incomplete pass from Pawlawski to Treggs in the left corner of the south end zone, and Cal lost 24-17 to the team that would ultimately win a national championship. Still, the performance served notice at how far Snyder had brought the program in 4+ years: Cal had gone toe-to-toe with the nation's best team with a Rose Bowl berth on the line.

Cal would win four straight after the Washington loss, including an epic 52-30 beat down of USC in early November before a Memorial Stadium crowd of more than 70,000. (At the time, Cal's 52 points were the most ever scored against a USC team in a single game.) The 5th ranked Bears closed the regular season badly, however, losing 38-21 to Stanford in the Big Game. Even Coach Snyder's most ardent supporters point to that Big Game as a black mark on his legacy, as Cal committed 11 penalties for 140 yards (including five personal fouls).

Just as it had done the year before, however, Cal rebounded from Big Game disappointment to close the season with a bang. Cal accepted a bid to the Florida Citrus Bowl, where it took on the ACC-champion Clemson Tigers on New Year's Day 1992. The game was vintage Snyder. The coach devised a game plan that kept Clemson's heralded defense off-balance, using the passing game early to set up the running attack to do damage later. The game plan worked to perfection.: Pawlawski passed for an efficient 232 yards, White rushed for 103 more on 22 carries, and the Bears controlled the game from start to finish in a 37-13 rout. The final season polls ranked the Bears 8th (AP) and 7th (Coaches) to give Cal their highest season-ending ranking since the 1950 season.

Through five seasons, Snyder compiled a 29-24-4 record at Cal and was the first coach to lead the Bears to two bowl wins. Unfortunately, and to the universal dismay of Cal fans, the epic 1991 season was Snyder's last as Cal head coach. Arizona State, which had fired Larry Marmie after the season, lured Snyder away with a lucrative contract offer after the Citrus Bowl. New Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath, who assumed his duties just a few months before the Citrus Bowl triumph, is generally regarded by Cal fans as having done too little to retain Coach Snyder. In 2004, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Snyder still felt regret about how his Cal tenure ended after having reached what was, at the time, the highest point of his head coaching career.

Just days after Cal's 37-13 victory over Clemson in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1992, capped a 10-2 season, Snyder left for Arizona State when contract negotiations with then-athletic director Bob Bockrath deteriorated to such an extent that he could not stay.

"It's painful to go back and uncover it," Snyder said Thursday. "I don't think there's a simple way of saying what happened. I don't think it was just him (Bockrath). But clearly, he and I didn't see eye to eye. It was really an emotional time for me. I loved that football team.

"We had just won a Jan. 1 bowl game, which had not happened for 100 years (33, actually). I was in a high emotional state."

The difficulty came in negotiations with Bockrath, who bridged the gap in athletic directors between Dave Maggard and John Kasser. Snyder said he had a handshake agreement with Maggard for a new contract, but the AD left for Miami before the deal could be signed. Snyder said Bockrath would not honor the agreement when he took over in August 1991.

"What I feel worst about is that people characterized what I did as a money issue," Snyder said. "They're wrong. I had no way to fight back on that. So I kept my mouth shut and carried on. That's what pained my family the most. I was painted with a brush that was not true."

Bockrath not only failed to retain Snyder, he also eschewed continuity. Bockrath ultimately passed over Cal offensive coordinator Steve Mariucci (then the popular choice of the players and Cal fans) for the job and instead hired Washington offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson to succeed Snyder. The rest, as we say, is history.

The relatively short five-year tenure of Snyder as Cal coach does not, however, diminish his legacy as one of Cal's best coaches of all time. Indeed, the fact that five Cal Athletic Hall-of-Famers played for him (Mike Pawlawski, Sean Dawkins, Russell White, Troy Auzenne, David Ortega) is a testament to his coaching as well as to the players' ability. Coach Snyder's greatness is further illustrated by the way he and his staff had a knack for finding the diamonds in the rough when it came to recruiting. The most striking example was Pawlawski, who was not recruited heavily as a quarterback coming out of Troy High School in Yorba Linda, Calif. Pawlawski played only one season as a high school quarterback and put up modest numbers in that year; yet, Snyder and his staff saw something in Pawlawski that led them to offer him a scholarship. One publication called Pawlawski the "worst recruit in the Pac-10" in 1987; Pawlawski had the last laugh as a senior in 1991, when he was the Pac-10 co-offensive player of the year for a team that finished in the top 10 in the national polls.

But Pawlawski was not the only diamond unearthed by Snyder and his staff. Sean Dawkins, who still holds the Cal record for receiving touchdowns and was a first round draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1993, was not heavily recruited as a senior at Homestead High School in Sunnyvale, Calif. As odd as it sounds, Jerrott Willard was not heavily recruited out of high school in Newport Beach, Calif., yet became Cal's starting middle linebacker and an all Pac-10 perfomer as a freshman in 1991. Eric Zomalt, no doubt perceived as an undersized defensive back, was not highly recruited out of Moreno Valley, Calif., yet earned a scholarship to Cal and excelled as a Golden Bear before having a short stint in the NFL. Chidi Ahanotu, a Berkeley native, was a preferred walk-on at Cal before eventually earning a scholarship, becoming a stalwart on the Cal defensive line. Ahanotu enjoyed a long NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Under Snyder's watch, Cal also recruited David Binn out of San Mateo HS specifically to be a long snapper. How did that work out? Binn was a mainstay at that position for Cal and last year completed his 17th season as a long snapper with the San Diego Chargers.


Sean Dawkins was one of Coach Snyder's unheralded recruits who became a great player at Cal.


Snyder certainly got his share of blue-chip recruits to come to Cal -- offensive linemen Auzenne, Todd Steussie, and Eric Mahlum, running backs White, Lindsey Chapman, and Greg Zomalt, wide receiver Mike Caldwell, and defensive linemen Mack Travis and Jason Wilborn, just to name a few, were highly-regarded high school players whom Snyder and his staff recruited to Berkeley. But it was guys like Pawlawski who really illustrated the keen sense of talent that Snyder had.


The team that should have been ours? Bruce Snyder leads his Arizona State team onto the field at the 1997 Rose Bowl game.


Coach Snyder would go on to have a 9-year run at Arizona State, where he went 58-45 with four bowl appearances (one bowl win) as coach of the Sun Devils. Most notably, Snyder's 1996 ASU team went undefeated in the regular season and were within just a few seconds of a national championship before falling 20-17 to Ohio State on a late touchdown in the Rose Bowl. Snyder was the 1996 Pac-10 Coach of the Year and won several national coach of the year honors that year. To add insult to the injury of losing him to a conference rival, Snyder's teams went 7-2 against Cal.

Snyder was a candidate to replace Tom Holmoe as Cal's coach before then-AD Steve Gladstone hired Jeff Tedford (you may have heard of him -- that worked out a little).

Snyder passed away of skin cancer on April 13, 2009 at the age of 69.

Sources not linked

University of California Media Relations, Former Cal Coach Bruce Snyder Passes Away,, April 13, 2009.

University of California Media Relations, California Golden Bears 1991 Media Guide (1991).

University of California Media Relations, California Golden Bears: The Gold Rush of 1992 is On, 1992 Media Guide (1992).

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