Cal's Greatest Football Coaches: #4 Stub Allison

Note: This is the fifth 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, #6 Nibs Price, and #5 Bruce Snyder

The National Champion University of California Golden Bears. The Rose Bowl Champion University of California Golden Bears. Three conference championships in four years.  Back-to-back 10 win seasons for the first time in Cal history. These are the reasons why Leonard "Stub" Allison has to be on any list of California's greatest football coaches.  Allison's tenure as Cal's head coach, from 1935 to 1944, was not without its controversy.  His coaching did not change with the times, and his tenure at Cal ended with several unsuccessful seasons during World War II. But, nevertheless, Stub Allison must forever be remembered as the coach of the magnificent Thunder Team that brought California to the very pinnacle of college football glory.


Head Coach Stub Allison (center), with line coach Frank Wickhorst (left) and backfield coach Irv Uteritz.

Leonard B. "Stub" Allison was born in Minnesota in 1892. He attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he was a highly regarded tackle on the small school's football team.  After college, he joined the army to serve in World War I, where he rose to the rank of First Sergeant, and earned his second nickname "the Top Sergeant." After the war, in 1919, he was hired as an assistant by his old football coach from Carleton, Claude Hunt, who was now the head coach of the University of Washington.  The following year, Hunt returned to coach at Carleton, and Washington promoted Allison to head coach.  At the same time, the Huskies made the young man their head basketball coach and their head baseball coach!  It all proved a bit too much for the 28-year-old Allison, who had only one year of experience as an assistant coach.  The Washington football team ended up with an unhappy 1-5 record, and Allison and the Huskies parted company at the end of the 1920 season.


Allison was hired as the head coach at the University of South Dakota in 1922, and then moved on to the University of Wisconsin, where he was the football team's line coach, as well as the boxing coach and the assistant Athletic Director from 1927 to 1931.

In 1931 Allison was asked to come to California as the line coach by the Bears' brand new head coach, William "Navy Bill" Ingram. Ingram had winning seasons for Cal in 1931, 1932, and 1933, but each season was slightly less successful than the one before.  In 1934, after the Bears suffered an embarrassing 20-0 loss to Santa  Clara, Coach Ingram had to leave the team to visit his ailing mother.  In his absence, Stub Allison took over and led the Bears to a 7-2 upset of USC in Los Angeles, the Bears' first win over the Trojans since 1929.  Unhappy alumni started talking about replacing Ingram, and after Cal suffered a 9-7 loss in the Big Game, Ingram resigned -- despite the fact that the team still had a two-game holiday trip to Hawaii on its schedule.  Allison was asked to take over the team, not only for the Hawaii trip, but for the 1935 season as well.

As unbelievable as it may seem, Stub Allison's first season as Cal's head coach began with a double-header at Memorial Stadium.  First, the Bears took on the California Aggies from Davis, and beat them handily, 47-0.  Then, less than an hour later, those same Bears played the Whittier College Poets. To the surprise of the 25,000 fans present, the Poets gave the tired Bears a real battle, and the game ended in only a 6-0 Cal victory.  But Allison's rookie year as head coach began with five straight shutouts, with wins against St. Mary's (10-0), Oregon (6-0), and Santa Clara (6-0), following the opening day double-header. This was followed by a satisfying 21-7 win over USC, which was not nearly as close as the score indicates, because USC's only touchdown came at the very end of the game.  A better indication of the Bears' dominance was net yardage: California 215 yards, USC 43 yards. The USC game was followed by a 14-2 victory over UCLA before 75,000 fans at the LA Coliseum, and easy wins against Washington and the College of the Pacific.  The Bears thus entered the Big Game with a 9-0 record, ranked #5 in the nation, and with a chance to win the conference championship outright. Unfortunately, Stanford also had a tremendous team in 1935. The Indians were 6-1, and had outscored their opponents 101-13, and they managed to pull off a 13-0 victory over the Bears, resulting in a tie between California and Stanford for the Pacific Coast Conference title. And because Stanford had beaten the Bears, it was the Indians who spent New Years Day in Pasadena that year.

Stub Allison's first year as Cal's head coach had established some facts about his style and methods that would remain largely unchanged throughout his Cal career. Allison was a true believer in "smash mouth" football. Although he would call pass plays when necessary, he did not really think much of the forward pass, or of other "new-fangled" developments in football.  What counted for him was solid blocking and tackling, hard running, and tough players.  More than sixty years later, one of Allison's players, Milt Pollack, recalled: "He would say you're not hurt until the bone is sticking out."  He had no use for "star" football players, insisting that the best running back was only as good as his blockers, and requiring his starters to pull out and store away equipment at practice along side the bench-warmers. Allison would not even designate a single starter at tailback, instead using a "committee" of six players at the position. Reserve back Ray Rosso said of Allison, "Stub was the prototype of the coach of the era, like Pop Warner, Bernie Bierman.  He had a tough manner that fit in with football of that era.  But he was also very considerate of the players at the bottom. He encouraged me to stay with it even though I was a marginal player in every way." Coach Allison also knew how to build unity and loyalty among his players, and genuinely concerned himself with their welfare. According to reserve guard Perry Conner, Allison, "stayed in touch with the professors to make sure guys were doing OK in their classes.  Most everybody graduated."

The Bears entered the 1936 season as the favorite for the Rose Bowl, since the last of Stanford's famous "Vow Team" players had finally graduated. But the season proved to be a step back for the Bears, who finished 6-5, including their first-ever loss to UCLA.  There was a 13-7 win over USC, which turned out to be most notable for the emergence of a single outstanding player at tailback, sophomore Victor Bottari of Vallejo, who threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Sam Chapman in the USC game.  The next week, "Vallejo Vic" was back, throwing a 41-yard touchdown pass to Hank Sparks, and rushing for another touchdown himself in a 28-0 win over Oregon. Bottari saw action in the Big Game as well, trading off the tailback position with Milt Pollock and Bill Archer.  Bottari threw for a touchdown in the second quarter, and then came back to lead a drive to the Stanford goal line in the fourth. On third and goal from the two, Bottari tried to run the ball in, only to be stopped by the Stanford line. But then he whirled around and lateraled to Sam Chapman, who waltzed into the end zone.  The final score of the 1936 Big Game was 20-0.  And while Bottari's offensive explosion was most noticed by the fans, Allison's fundamentally solid defense was even more impressive. The Indians gained only 69 yards rushing.  Their passing was even worse: 4 completions in 26 attempts -- and 9 interceptions! It was the Bears' first Big Game victory since 1931, and their first Big Game win at home since 1923.  Despite their mediocre 6-5 record, the Bears looked poised for greatness in 1937.

Stub Allison, 1936 Big Game

Stub Allison gives his team last-minute instructions before the kickoff of the 1936 Big Game

The 1937 Bears were not a physically imposing team.  The linemen averaged only 188 pounds, and neither of the best backs, Sam Chapman and Vic Bottari, was especially fast. But both of them ran close to the ground and had an impressive ability to keep their feet.  Allison's team started fast, winning their first five games by a combined score of 115-13. Then came a convincing 20-6 victory over 11th-ranked USC.  Bill Leiser of The Chronicle wrote, "Along with the 75,000 who watched, the Trojans themselves are wondering where, if anywhere in the land, is a team which can stop the roll of California's Thunder Team."  And thus, the team's nickname was born.

After an easy win over UCLA, the Bears faced what proved to be their toughest challenge of the season in Washington.  Bottari was injured and out for most of the game.  In his absence, the Bears could only manage a 0-0 tie.  But the next week Vallejo Vic was back and the Bears beat Oregon 26-0.  The Thunder Team was thus 8-0-1 coming into the Big Game, which was played in a downpour at Stanford Stadium.  In the first half, the Bears went on a 77-yard touchdown drive, all on running plays by Bottari and Chapman, and a 65-yard drive that included a 38-yard pass from Bottari to Chapman. With a 13-0 Cal lead at the half, Allison decided that Stanford posed no further challenge, and pulled out his entire starting team at the start of the second half, except senior center Bob Herwig, who asked to be allowed to play the entire 60 minutes of his last Big Game.  The second half was scoreless, and the Thunder Team finished the season undefeated, 9-0-1, and champions of the Pacific Coast Conference.


Thunder Team star Sam Chapman

The Bears then headed to Pasadena to meet undefeated Alabama in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1938. Tickets were the most expensive yet for the Rose Bowl, topping out at $5.50, for those lucky enough to find them for sale. Allison had given his team time off from Big Game, just before Thanksgiving, until Christmas.  Cal fans were anxious about the long layoff, and when Allison resumed practices a week before the Rose Bowl was to be played, two prominent reporters asked to be allowed to watch.  Allison was famous for keeping his game plan secret, and agreed only reluctantly. He finally allowed the reporters to watch a practice, but he scheduled it for dusk. With no lights at the stadium, the reporters complained they could not see anything. Allison said they didn't need to see. "They sure as hell could hear the rockin' and the sockin," said Allison. "I could, too, only to me it was sweet music."

As it turned out, the month-long layoff did the Thunder Team no harm.  They completely dominated Alabama. Cal was only 2 for 9 passing, but gained 192 yards rushing.  137 of those rushing yards belonged to Vic Bottari, who carried the ball a then-Rose Bowl record 34 times.  Bottari also scored the only two touchdowns of the game.  Meanwhile, Alabama completed only two passes, while the Bears intercepted the Crimson Tide five times and recovered three Alabama fumbles. The final score was 13-0, but the game was never really close. The Thunder Team ended the season 10-0-1, Cal's first undefeated season since the days of Andy Smith's Wonder Teams.  And the season was capped off by the Bears being named national champions by two polls. (The AP poll, which voted for the national champion before the Rose Bowl was played, picked 9-0-1 Pittsburgh, which did not play in a bowl.  California finished second in the AP voting.)

1938 Rose Bowl

Vic Bottari scores the first Cal touchdown in the 1938 Rose Bowl

1938 Rose Bowl - California vs. Alabama (via TouchedTheAxeIn82)

Allison typically played most of his back-ups in most games, something which was uncommon in an era when most starters played all 60 minutes of a game. But he only used 15 players in the Rose Bowl. Yet Allison's teams were always unified, and no grumbling was heard from the players who did not get into the game. And when the Rose Bowl committee offered commemorative gold watches to the 15 who did play, the players turned them down, because they were not offered to the entire team.  Allison himself refused a substantial offer to appear on a radio show, telling his players, "I could make a small fortune off what you boys have done this season.  But that wouldn't be right. If you'll promise to keep on the way you have, I'll do the same and skip the extras."

The following year, 1938, would prove to be another outstanding season for the Bears.  Although a number of Thunder Team players, including Sam Chapman, had graduated, Vic Bottari remained along with several other outstanding players. Once again the team started the season fast, winning their first six games convincingly. But then they faced a resurgent USC team before a sell-out crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum.  For the first time in two years, Allison's team was handled easily, with USC racking up 401 yards and 21 first downs to California's 100 yards and 2 first downs. Only the great punting of Cal's Louis Smith kept the score to a somewhat respectable 20-6.  But the Bears did not fold after this thrashing. They shut out Oregon the next week 20-6, and so entered the Big Game with a record of 8-1.

1938 Cal-USC game

In one of the few bright spots of the 1938 Cal-USC game, Vic Bottari, #92, makes a spectacular one-handed tackle to bring down Grenville Landsdell on the six-inch line on fourth down

California prevailed again in the Big Game, although it was closer that the previous two years.  The Bears pulled out a 6-0 win on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Bottari to Angelo Reginato, after the Indians had fumbled away several scoring opportunities.  The Bears ended the conference season tied for the conference championship with USC. But it was USC that went to the Rose Bowl.  The Bears did schedule a game for the day after Christmas against Georgia Tech, which the Bears won 13-0.  Thus, Cal finished the year 10-1, giving the Bears back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

1938 Big Game

Angelo Reginato takes Vic Bottari's pass and runs 18 yards down sideline for winning TD in the 1938 Big Game, shoving aside a Stanford defender on the way

In his first four years at Cal, Stub Allison had compiled a 35-7-1 record, with two shared conference championships, one outright conference championship, a Rose Bowl win, and a national championship. It must have seemed unimaginable at the time that in the remaining six years he would spend at California, Allison would not have another winning season.  But he lost Bottari and the rest of the Thunder Team players to graduation after the 1938 season.  And then college football underwent a radical change beginning in 1940, when Clark Shaughnessy became the head coach at Stanford and brought with him the new revised T-formation and man-in-motion, which he and George Halas had developed with the Chicago Bears. Shaughnessy's innovation would propel Stanford to an undefeated season in 1940, and would sweep college football the following year.  But Allison retained his attachment to traditional running plays, and refused to adopt either the new T-formation or the new emphasis on the passing game that other teams were developing. 

Allison's strength had always been his emphasis on the fundamentals of blocking and tackling, and his ability to inspire and unify his teams.  While his teams had difficulty competing consistently against the new innovations adopted by other coaches, Allison could still inspire his players to unexpected wins on occasion.  1940 and 1941 saw the Bears upset the Trojans twice in a row, 20-7 and 14-0.

Even more memorable was the 1941 upset of heavily favored Stanford.  The Bears played that game like men possessed, sacking Stanford's star quarterback (and future 49er) Frankie Albert repeatedly.  Cal's inspired defense led to two blocked punts in the end zone, one resulting in a safety and the other in a touchdown. The Bears' 16-0 victory was the biggest upset in Big Game history to date, and remains the third biggest upset of all time. (For more about the 1941 Big Game and Cal's other great Big Game upsets, click here.)

But even these successes became rare after the United States entered World War II following the 1941 football season.  For the next four years, the California team would be a revolving door of players who were trying to finish up a semester or two of college before being drafted, combined with some 17-year-olds, and men who had been rated 4-F (unfit for military service).  During the 1942, 1943, and 1944 seasons, Allison literally did not know from one week to the next which players would still be on his team and which players would have been called up for military service, giving the phrase "leaving early for the draft" a rather different meaning than it has today.  It was so difficult to run a program in those years that some schools, including Stanford, quit football altogether for the duration of the war.  They were replaced on Cal's schedule by teams from military bases who were allowed to use men who had spent four years playing college football, and even men who had played in the NFL. Rationing and limited resources added to the difficulties. While Allison's unwillingness to accept the T-formation and other innovations undoubtedly caused problems for his teams, he had little chance of turning things around during the difficult war years.  Over his last six years at Cal, Allison's record was only 23-35-1, and he was let go at the end of the 1944 season. He continued to live in the East Bay, where he became an executive at the Oakland Naval Supply Center.  He died at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley in 1961.

It is difficult to make a definitive assessment of Stub Allison's tenure as Cal's head coach.  The first four years were spectacular.  The last six years were unsuccessful.  His overall record at Cal was 58-42-2.  He won a National Championship and a Rose Bowl -- feats which no Cal coach has accomplished since.  He also won or tied for three conference championships in four years.  Yet, he did not adapt to the fundamental changes being made in the game during his later years at Cal. 

Stub Allison

Leonard B. "Stub" Allison, known to his players as "the Top Sergeant"

The paradox that is Stub Allison was perhaps summed up best by S. Dan Brodie, in his book 66 Years on the California Gridiron.  Writing in 1949, Brodie said:

Does a coach make a team or does a team make a coach? The question has been argued as long as the coaching profession has existed. . . . The memory of the average football fan seems to be short-lived. In the middle and late thirties, Leonard B. Allison was considered a great coach. Then Stub's luck took a change for the worse, and the fans forgot his great years and harped on the less spectacular seasons. "Only Stub Allison could have coached that team," became, "Oh sure, he had his good years, but an infant could have coached those teams."

Brodie's conclusion was that the only way to judge Stub Allison's greatness as a coach is for each fan to examine his record and decide that question for himself or herself.  In light of the fact that 73 years have passed without another California coach winning a Rose Bowl or a National Championship, it does not seem unreasonable to call Leonard B. "Stub" Allison one of California's greatest coaches.




Anonymous, "Stub Allison," Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Brodie, S. Dan, 66 Years on the California Gridiron, Olympic Publishing Company, Oakland, CA (1949)

Bush, David, "Cal's 1937 'Thunder Team' Rumbled to Roses," (Nov. 28, 2004)

Fimrite, Ron, Golden Bears, MacAdam/Cage, San Francisco (2009)

Peters, Nick, 100 Years of Blue & Gold, JCP Corp., Virginia Beach, VA (1982)

Sullivan, John, The Big Game, Leisure Press, New York (2nd ed. 1983)

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