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Stanford 125: The 1980s

Nov 5, 2019

In recognizing the 125th season of Stanford football and the 150th year of college football, is celebrating and highlighting Stanford's football history with a season-long series by decade.

Stanford 125: The 1980s

Games of the Decade:

Oct. 30, 1982: Stanford 43, Washington 31

John Elway's greatest Stanford victory was this 43-31 upset of Washington at Stanford Stadium.

The rain came early that day and a mist steadied itself over the field. ABC chose this for its national audience, to see how Elway would fare against a Husky team ranked No. 1 in the coaches' poll and No. 2 by AP.

Ironically, there was so much emphasis on Elway – with "suicidal safety blitzes" in the words of Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite -- that Stanford's other offensive players flourished. Stanford offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, who in 2000 would coach the New York Giants into the Super Bowl, was fine with the Husky blitz.

"If they sack us, they take seven yards away from us," Fassel said. "But if they don't, they give us seven points."

With Stanford trailing 17-7 midway through the second quarter following a series of early miscues, Mike Dotterer took a handoff up the middle for a 46-yard touchdown sprint that launched a 30-0 Stanford run. Stanford's top two fullbacks were out with injuries and reserve Kaulana Park, a sophomore, was brought in. He made an outstanding block on a blitzing strong safety to allow Dotterer to rush into the open space.

After a Washington punt, Elway took control, hitting tight end Chris Dressel for big gains to set up Dotterer's go-ahead 1-yard plunge. A field goal put Stanford ahead 24-17 on the next Cardinal series, and Elway's 41-yard pass down the middle to Dressel set up an 18-yard pass to Emile Harry for a 31-17 lead.

Elway completed 20 of 30 passes for 265 yards and threw two touchdown passes. Dressel had six catches for 106 yards, with plenty of room down the middle, partly because Elway was so good at looking off the linebackers.

Stanford harassed quarterback Steve Pelluer throughout. Outside linebacker Garin Veris had 14 tackles, including four sacks, and Pelluer was limited to 98 yards passing on a 9-for-19 day before he was lifted.

The Huskies came within 37-24 in the third quarter, but drew no closer. After one fourth-quarter stop, the Huskies punted. Stanford's Vincent White was instructed to fair-catch the ball as an injury precaution, but because the 57-yard boot outkicked the coverage, White reconsidered.

Here's Fimrite's account:

As the Huskies converged—failing to cover the lateral 30 yards (Washington) coach Don James insists on—White swerved sharply to the right sideline behind a screen of blockers. And that's just what it was: a screen. Not a block was thrown on White's behalf as he headed for the sideline. Suddenly, he was loose, twisting and juking the way his friend (Darrin) Nelson had done before him.

Near the Washington 40, he was confronted by (punter) Partridge. "I knew then I had a chance to go all the way," said White. Partridge got a hand on White's jersey but couldn't hold on. Free again, White reversed his field, cutting across the center of the gridiron and angling for the left corner of the end zone. He had eluded nine tacklers, by (Stanford coach Paul) Wiggin's estimate. When White reached the goal line after this tortuous jaunt, he looked back for officials' flags. Finding none, he bounded high in celebration.

The play covered 76 yards and cemented a Stanford victory that left Elway grinning and raising his arms in triumph as the Stanford band played and played, even as Stanford Stadium long had emptied. The sounds of "White Punks on Dope" echoed across the wooden bleachers.

Stanford discovered it didn't have to rely on Elway's superhuman talents to beat a team like Washington. And playing a part in Stanford's huge triumph, rather than dominating it, was the ideal send-off to Elway's Stanford career.

"Today," said Wiggin, "We were a team."


Stanford celebrates its victory over No. 2 Washington. Photo by David Madison.

Sept. 27, 1980: Stanford 31, Oklahoma 14

Vintage John Elway. In a game that would help define Elway's collegiate career, Stanford took on Barry Switzer's No. 4 Oklahoma team in Norman, and won in a rout. Elway, only a sophomore, threw three touchdown passes by the middle of the third quarter as the baffled Sooners looked up at a 31-0 deficit.

"He put on the greatest exhibition of quarterback play and passing I have ever seen on this field," Switzer said of Elway, who completed 20 of 34 passes for 237 yards. Elway kept the Sooners off guard by rushing for 95 yards and a touchdown as Stanford overcame the absence of injured running back Darrin Nelson. Mike Dotterer and Vincent White combined for 121 yards rushing in his stead.

Oklahoma ran the wishbone in the run-heavy Big Eight, but was unaccustomed to facing a passing team, especially one with the talents of Elway, who hit Ken Margerum for one touchdown pass and Andre Tyler for two more.  

The Sooners, quarterbacked by J.C. Watts, would go undefeated in the Big Eight and beat Florida State in the Orange Bowl to finish 10-2 with a No. 3 ranking. But on this day, Stanford held the Sooners to three first downs rushing while dominating the time of possession 40:13 to 19:47. Oklahoma lost five fumbles in a constant drizzle and its home winning streak ended at 20.

"John Elway just possibly came of age Saturday, running and passing a Stanford attack that seemingly never left the field," wrote the Stanford Daily's Ivan Maisel. "He gave a dream performance and was one three-hour nightmare for Switzer."

Referring to Oklahoma's final chance to draw close and ending on a fumble near the goal-line that scooted out of the end zone for a touchback, Switzer said, "I don't know if we could have come back even with that touchdown. I just never did feel we could stop them."

Nov. 29, 1986 (Coca-Cola Bowl): Stanford 29, Arizona 24

Stanford and Arizona have met 31 times in football, but never in a more unusual setting than the so-called "Coca-Cola Bowl" in Tokyo, Japan.

The game was scheduled for Tucson, Arizona, but each school was willing to travel 10,000 miles for $150,000 plus expenses to conclude the regular season. Tokyo hosted college games from 1977-93 under the headings of the Mirage and Coca-Cola bowls.

Stanford brought a travel party of 500 for the game at Memorial Stadium, the site of the 1964 Olympic Games. The teams already earned bowl bids. Stanford (7-3) was headed to the Gator and Arizona (8-2) to the Aloha.

The teams approached the game differently.

"Arizona's players were spotted by several writers in some of the more disreputable sections of Tokyo long after the Stanford players had called it an evening," wrote The Stanford Daily's John Lis.

"What are we supposed to do?" Arizona coach Larry Smith said. "You come to Japan for once in your lifetime and stay in a hotel? That doesn't make sense."

To adjust to the 17-hour time difference, Stanford's first curfew was 7 p.m., with a 4 a.m. wakeup the next morning. Gradually, curfews were pushed back to 11.

The Cardinal practiced at a baseball stadium on an artificial surface with all the cushion of a pool table, wrote Lis. Yard lines were taped to the outfield.

At the 80,000-capacity Olympic stadium, the locker rooms were so small only 20 could comfortably fit. A year earlier, USC's players had showered at their hotel, an hour away.

On gameday, the back half of each end zone doubled as the rubberized track that surrounded and encircled the field. The chalk lines were drawn so faintly that they barely could be seen, especially by fans and the ESPN television audience. When an Arizona punt returner was tackled in the end zone for a safety, he didn't know he was in the end zone in the first place.

There was some concern that the fans would not know the rules or be enthusiastic enough, so 60,000 red-and-white pompoms were distributed and cheerleaders flashed signs – in Japanese -- around the stadium instructing the crowd when to cheer. The crowd responded even when the signs were held upside down.

Perhaps the biggest draw, even more than the game, was the entertainment. The Stanford and Arizona bands, dance teams, and Arizona baton twirlers, teamed up to play a 30-minute pregame show, 18-minute halftime show, and another 30-minute set after the game. Coca-Cola also paid for the Wheat Street Baptist Church choir from the company's base in Atlanta, to bring some gospel music to the audience.

This being Japan and far away from those who might have cared, the bands played throughout the game, even during game action. But the players didn't complain. "It really wasn't a distraction," Stanford cornerback Toi Cook said. "Maybe only when we came off the field for defensive meetings."

The game -- played before 55,000 with a gametime temperature of 46 degrees -- took on a bizarre quality as well. There was a fumble on the opening kickoff, a fake field-goal for a touchdown, a fake punt, a blocked field-goal try, a safety, seven fumbles, five interceptions, and 150 yards in penalties.

Moments after Arizona took the lead on a field goal at the outset of the fourth quarter, Stanford's Kevin Scott broke through on the ensuing kickoff, sidestepped the kicker and outran four Wildcats to the end zone to give Stanford a 22-17 lead it never relinquished.

Greg Ennis, who replaced starter John Paye in the third quarter when Paye aggravated a shoulder injury, scored from one-yard to extend the lead to 29-17. The Stanford defense gave up only one sustained touchdown drive, and it was capped by an 11-yard TD catch by Branch McNeal with 2:42 to play to make it 29-24.

Arizona got the ball back with 1:38 left, but Stanford's David Wyman, who had 11 tackles, intercepted a pass to seal the victory.

Brad Muster rushed 27 times for 108 yards and scored Stanford's first touchdown, on a 21-yard run off-tackle to tie the game, 7-7. The total put him over 1,000 yards, becoming only the second Stanford player (after Darrin Nelson) to reach that season total.


Coca-Cola Bowl program cover.

Notable Coaches:

Jack Elway (1984-88)

For three consecutive years, Jack Elway's San Jose State teams beat Stanford. The Spartans were traditional punching bags for the Cardinal, but under Elway, the Spartans dominated.

It seemed natural that Jack Elway would succeed Paul Wiggin in 1984 at Stanford. In a decade in which Stanford had only two winning records, the Cardinal's best season – the 8-4 campaign of 1986 -- came under Elway.

Elway coached for five seasons, compiling a 25-29-2 record and took the Cardinal to the 1986 Gator Bowl, the program's only bowl appearance of the decade.


Jack Elway in 1986.

Paul Wiggin (1980-83)

Until David Shaw was hired in 2011, Paul Wiggin was the last Stanford product to be the head coach at his alma mater. The 84-year-old Wiggin also holds the distinction of being the oldest living former Stanford head football coach.

Wiggin was an All-American as a two-way lineman at Stanford from 1954-56 and a two-time Pro Bowler and a 1964 NFL champion as a defensive end with the Cleveland Browns. Just like Jack Christiansen in the 1970s, Wiggin came to the Stanford job after being a head coach in the NFL – Wiggin coached the Kansas City Chiefs from 1975-77.

He is best known for coaching John Elway at Stanford, though they never reached a bowl, and for being victimized by "The Play," the zany and controversial kickoff return through the Stanford band that gave Cal a dramatic victory in the 1982 Big Game.

In 2013, Lathrop (Calif.) High School named its stadium after Wiggin, a native of the town. Lathrop High did not exist when Wiggin went to school, but a longtime citizen, Arnita Montiel, led a two-year campaign to gain support for honoring Wiggin and gathered enough signatures to present a nomination to the Manteca Unified School District Board of Trustees, who agreed.

"I think that the kids need somebody that they can look up to," said Montiel to the Manteca/Ripon Bulletin. "I think that they can look and say, 'If he did it then I can do it too.' It gives them a fitting role model."


John Elway and Paul Wiggin after the Washington victory in 1982. Photo by David Madison.

Dennis Green (1989-91)

In 1989, Dennis Green became the first African American head coach in Pac-10 history and Stanford's first Black head coach in any sport – 28 years after the arrival of Stanford football's first recruited Black player.

"I've always looked at myself as a football coach who happens to be Black," Green said to the Los Angeles Times upon his Stanford hiring. "I've never looked at myself as a Black coach and I don't think the players look at me that way, either. I think they just want somebody to do the job."

Green was Paul Wiggin's offensive coordinator in 1980 when Stanford unveiled a shotgun formation that confused No. 4 Oklahoma in a 31-14 upset victory in Norman. He was Stanford's wide receivers coach under Bill Walsh in 1977 and 1978, and held the same role with the 49ers when hired as head coach by Stanford athletics director Andy Geiger over Pete Carroll, then a Minnesota Vikings assistant.

In three seasons at Stanford – until jumping to the NFL as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings – Green had a combined record of 16-18, but improved -- from 3-8 to 5-6 to 8-4 -- each season.


Dennis Green. Photo by Tim Davis/Stanford Athletics.

Prominent Players:

John Elway (1979-82)

It is quite possible that John Elway is the greatest player in Stanford history. He certainly deserves to be chiseled on Stanford football's Mt. Rushmore.

Strong-armed and athletically gifted, Elway was the top recruit in the country when he arrived at Stanford in 1979. He never led the defensively-challenged Cardinal to a bowl, but made the spectacular seem natural. In his four seasons, Elway completed 774 passes for 9,349 yards and 77 touchdowns.

Elway's 24 touchdown passes in 1982 led the nation, and at the conclusion of his career, he held nearly every Pacific-10 record for passing and total offense. He won the Pac-10 Player of the Year honors in 1980 and 1982, was a consensus All-American, and finished second in Heisman Trophy balloting as a senior.

In 2000, Elway was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. In 2015, Elway was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Century. And, after leading the Denver Broncos to two Super Bowl titles as a player and five appearances overall, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, his first season of eligibility.


                    John Elway in the 1980 Big Game. Photo by David Madison.

Ken Margerum (1977-80)

Wide receiver Ken Margerum was what was called a "free spirit." a player who mountain biked and windsurfed. In the pros, Margerum wore black hightops to fool defensive backs into thinking he was slow. In reality, Margerum was a speedster who competed in the hurdles and relays on Stanford's track team.

Margerum lived with Elway in the building on Galvez and Campus Drive that now houses the Stanford Visitor Center. Its location, adjacent to Angell Field, was advantageous as well. That's because Margerum and Elway, driving Pintos and such, staged personal drag races on Angell Field's dirt track.

Margerum regularly made acrobatic catches because of a mentality he carried into every play. He convinced himself he would be willing to die to make a catch. He never short-armed any throw and his courage on the field allowed him to sellout for every ball thrown his way.

Margerum, a favorite target of Elway, held the Pac-10 record for career touchdowns with 32 until 2006 when Dwayne Jarrett broke it and held the Stanford record for receiving yards (2,430) until that mark was broken in 1999 by Troy Walters. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

Ken Margerum against San Jose State. Photo by David Madison.

Darrin Nelson (1977-78, 1980-81)

There never had been a running back at Stanford like Darrin Nelson. His style of play, agility, quickness, elusiveness, good hands and flat out speed was a revelation for Stanford football. He was Stanford's first 1,000-yard rusher – the first freshman in conference history to reach that total -- and remains second on Stanford's all-time career rushing list, with 4,169 yards.

Nelson was a dual threat as a rusher and receiver, becoming the first player in NCAA history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and catch more than 50 passes in one season. He accomplished this feat three times. He finished his college career with the school records for rushing yards, receptions (214), touchdowns (40), scoring (242 points), while also setting the NCAA record with 6,885 career all-purpose yards. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2014.


                    Darrin Nelson vs. Arizona State in 1981. Photo by David Madison.

Best Teams:

1986 (8-4)

This was Brad Muster at his finest. Against Washington State on Nov. 1, he set a school record with 37 carries while rushing for 190 yards. Against UCLA on Nov. 8, he broke it with 38 carries, for 183 yards. Muster's 260 carries that season also set a Stanford record.    

The UCLA game was the team's signature victory of 1986. With Stanford holding a 28-23 lead at the Rose Bowl, the Bruins faced a 4th-and-1 at the Stanford 19 with 2:15 left. The UCLA sweep worked all day and the Bruins went to it again, but this time running back Gaston Green was met by strong safety Brad Humphreys, who knocked Green backwards. Lester Archambeau, Darren Bennett, and Alan Grant finished him off.

The bench erupted in celebration as players and coaches leaped into each other's arms, and the screaming and exuberance were years in the making. The victory assured Stanford of its first bowl game in eight years, and knocked UCLA out of the Rose Bowl race.

Stanford fans sang "All Right Now" a capella, because the Stanford band was under suspension and did not make the trip.

Stanford was 7-2 at the time and moved up to No. 16. But quarterback John Paye, battling a shoulder injury, was limited and Stanford followed with a crushing 17-11 loss to a struggling Cal in the Big Game.

Paye was unable to go in the Gator Bowl, and Stanford fell behind Clemson, 27-0, by halftime. But backup QB Greg Ennis engineered a comeback featuring three touchdowns from Brad Muster. Stanford had chances to take the lead in the final minutes, but threw an interception inside the Clemson 10-yard-line and then lost the ball on downs in the 27-21 loss. Still, the team finished 8-4 under Jack Elway, a record Stanford wouldn't match for another five years.


Brad Muster runs against Texas in 1985. Photo by David Madison.

1980 (6-5)

Stanford featured some of the greatest offensive weapons in its history – quarterback John Elway, running back Darrin Nelson, and receiver Ken Margerum – in 1980. All three are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Stanford pulled off an outrageous 31-14 victory at No. 4 Oklahoma and was ranked in the A.P. Top 20 for six of the first seven weeks of the season. But losses to USC and Cal closed out the year in a disappointing fashion.

The Cardinal finished 6-5 in Paul Wiggin's first season as coach. It was Stanford's 17th consecutive season with a .500 record or better and the team's best record in the John Elway years.

1982 (5-6)

John Elway's senior season was highlighted by two of the biggest victories in school history – against Washington (see above) and Ohio State. Both games are elevated into lore because of the quarterback who played in them – the great Elway.

In Columbus, Ohio, Elway fired 63 passes and completed 35 for 407 yards in a 23-20 victory over No. 12 Ohio State. He threw the 12-yarder to Emile Harry with 34 seconds left to beat the Buckeyes before an Ohio Stadium record crowd of 89,436 and a national television audience.

Ohio State took leads of 13-0 and 20-16, and was poised to pull away with two minutes left. Rather than stay on the ground to work the clock with its set of big backs, the Buckeyes went to the air from the Stanford 25, only for Kevin Baird to tip the ball and teammate Charles Hutchings, who snagged the deflection in the end zone for Stanford's fourth interception.

Elway, a senior, drove Stanford downfield on seven plays, finding holes down the middle against a gassed Ohio State defense that hardly left the field during the second half.

Stanford senior linebacker Gary Wimmer had 15 tackles and the Cardinal recovered two fumbles in addition to their four interceptions. Along the way, Stanford held Ohio State to only 38 yards rushing in the second half.

"If you heard a chant from our bench, it was 'believe,' " Stanford coach Paul Wiggin said.

The Elway Era was marred by a sequence that he had nothing to do with – the multilateral kickoff return that gave a Cal a notorious 25-20 victory in the Big Game to end the season. Few remember that Elway made a huge throw to allow Stanford to take the lead moments before. On 4th-and-17 on Stanford's own 13-yard line, Elway threw for 29 yards to Eric Mullins, and put Stanford within range for Mark Harmon's 35-yard field goal for a 20-19 lead with four seconds left.

The Big Game loss cost Stanford a bowl berth and possibly a Heisman Trophy for Elway, the No. 1 pick in the 1983 NFL Draft.

Key Moments:

The Elway Cross (Nov. 8, 1980)

In John Elway's time at Stanford, this play may have topped all the others. In a game in which Elway was sacked eight times, Elway again was flushed out of the pocket on a first-down play that began at the USC 49.  

He scrambled to his left, barely escaping the clutches of two defenders. Elways twisted against the grain, backtracking 20 yards, with three more defenders in pursuit.

Elway turned to his right, ran forward about 10 yards and fired the ball on the run. The throw zipped over USC safety Ronnie Lott to a waiting Ken Margerum in the end zone, hitting the receiver in the chest and knocking him backward as Lott bared down. The line-drive pass traveled more than 60 yards in the air.

Given the choice of catching John's passes with their fingers or their chest, receivers opted for their chest. The ball was thrown so hard the seams on the point of the ball would leave a cross imprinted on a receiver's chest. It became known as the "Elway Cross."

Sure enough, after the game, Margerum pulled up his shirt and showed reporters a welt -- the "Elway Cross." 

The score cut Stanford's deficit to 12-6 in what would be a 34-9 loss. But the play has outlasted any memory of the score.


John Elway's laser pass hits Ken Margerum in the chest from more than 60 yards away, as Ronnie Lott tries to break it up. Photo by David Madison.

The Daily Cal (Nov. 24, 1982)

Four days after Cal got away with "The Play," the multilateral kickoff return through the Stanford band to beat Stanford 25-20, a four-page "Extra" of the Daily Californian showed up on the Berkeley campus.

As students walked to morning classes, they were stunned to read "NCAA Awards Big Game to Stanford" bannered across the top of the newspaper.

The Daily Cal "Extra" actually was a fake -- an idea hatched by the Stanford Daily's Adam Berns and Mark Zeigler – but taken as truth by the unknowing Berkeley students. Forty-year-old Thomas Mulvoy, deputy managing editor of the Boston Globe who was at Stanford that year on a journalism fellowship, helped write the main story

"Life isn't fair, I swear to God it isn't," Cal coach Joe Kapp was quoted as saying.

The paper described an NCAA rule invented to justify overturning Cal's victory, and included a late-night interview with groggy Cal coach Joe Kapp.

Wrote Zeigler: "Joe Kapp, the grown man, the head football coach at Cal and the leader of young men, was crying. … 'This has to be the worst moment in my life,' he said in a soft, hushed voice. 'Why now, why me, why Cal, why Big Game, why in front of 77,666 fans in Memorial Stadium … why did it have to happen to my boys? It's just not fair.'"

Brent Musberger held up the paper on a national broadcast and Stanford president Donald Kennedy called to congratulate the perpetrators. It didn't make up for the Big Game, but it gave Stanford the last laugh.

The Block (Nov. 19, 1988)

With the Big Game tied 19-19 in Berkeley, Stanford was driving for the winning score when quarterback Jason Palumbis had his arm hit as he was throwing. The ball floated into the air and was intercepted, giving Cal the opportunity to drive to Stanford's 3-yard line with four seconds left.

Cal's Robbie Keen, who had converted 21 of 24 field-goal attempts during the season, lined up for a possible winner. But as the ball was kicked, Stanford redshirt freshman Tuan Van Le raced untouched around left end and blocked the kick with both hands as time ran out.

Le was born in Vietnam and lived there until he was eight. His father, a U.S. serviceman, was killed about the time Le was born. Six days before the fall of Saigon, Le left his mother and escaped with his aunt, a translator at the U.S. embassy, and settled in Pittsburg. Speaking no English, Le participated in sports so he could fit in with his new culture.

While some of his teammates were not thrilled with the tie, Le, who knew the significance of beating Cal, was happy.  
"It just felt good that they didn't win," Le said.


Cal attempts a field goal in the 1988 Big Game. On the final play, Tuan Van Le (No. 24) blocked a kick to preserve a 19-19 tie. Photo by David Madison.

Lead photo: John Elway pays tribute to the fans after leading Stanford to victory over No. 2 Washington. Photo by David Madison.

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