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Cal Notebook: Big Game Staredown

Nov 25, 2020

THE MOST ANTICIPATED tradition of the Big Game is the presentation of the Stanford Axe to the winning team of the annual football rivalry between Stanford and Cal. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, traditions will be altered Friday at Berkeley's Memorial Stadium. 

Some differences: Fountains around the Stanford campus usually are dyed red and Hoover Tower is bathed in red lights. Members of the Axe Committee camp out in the 'Birdcage,' a platform with a tent built in White Plaza, for as many hours as there are Big Games. Because the Big Game is in its 123rd year, they would have camped for 123 hours. None of that happened this year. 

With two minutes remaining on the game clock, the Cal Rally Committee and Stanford Axe Committee – typically 5-10 members each -- meet on the sidelines and stare at each other until the game ends, and the trophy is given to the winning team and paraded around the field by jubilant players. 

This year, only two members of each committee will be present – Axe Committee chairman Carlino Cuono and longtime Axe steward Jon Erickson will represent Stanford -- in a mini-staredown. It will take place in a tunnel. The field is regarded as the 'bubble' and no one outside of the players and staff is allowed. 

If Stanford reclaims the Axe, it will be sanitized before the exchange. Then, Cuono and Erickson will display the Axe for the players, who won't be allowed to immediately touch it. After that, the Axe returns to its display case in the Home of Champions. 

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STANFORD HAS A five-game winning streak in Berkeley. The last time Cal beat Stanford there was 2008, by a 37-16 score. Since then, Stanford has had memorable success. What Stanford fan can forget Andrew Luck's run in the 2010 Big Game, when he flattened Cal's Sean Cattouse on the way to a 58-yard gain? Or, Christian McCaffrey's 284-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance in 2016? 

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The 1896 team gave Stanford permanent possession of the University Club Trophy, predecessor of the Axe.

THE ONLY YEAR Stanford played Cal as early as the third game was 1892, Stanford's second season of football. Stanford played an abbreviated three-game season as it waited on new coach Walter Camp to finish leading Yale to a 13-0 unscored-upon national-championship season.

After the final game, Camp, who offered his services without salary to become Stanford's first true coach, took a train across the country to begin Stanford's season on Nov. 30 with the first of a pair against the Olympic Club before playing Cal to a 10-10 tie at San Francisco's Haight Street Grounds on Dec. 17. 

Camp, regarded as the "Father of American Football," went 12-3-3 in three Stanford seasons, bringing legitimacy to West Coast football through his knowledge and influence, and in encouraging other experienced players and coaches, particularly from powerhouse Yale, to come West and teach the game.

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PLAYING WITHOUT FANS in Berkeley on Friday and coming off a canceled game against Washington State, does Stanford (0-2) against Cal (0-2) in the year 2020 really feel like Big Game week?

"It did once we started practicing," said David Shaw, Stanford's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "We've got enough guys that have played in this game a few times. Regardless of not having fans in the stands, they know how emotional this is and that we have a trophy on the line. 

"Once we started practicing, we were in Big Game week."

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STANFORD WOULD HAVE faced a short week had the Washington State game been played on Saturday. With the cancellation, Shaw was able to manipulate the calendar to make having a Friday game seem like a normal week.

The Cardinal had a regular practice last Friday. On Saturday, the players were given the day off while coaches prepared for Cal. Practice resumed Sunday, like Monday in a normal week, and Stanford was back on its preparation schedule as if it was a typical Saturday contest. 

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Simi Fehoko gathers in a pass in last year's Big Game. Photo by Grant Shorin/Stanford Athletics.

STANFORD WILL ATTEMPT to regain the Axe that it owned for nine years before Cal took a 24-20 decision from the Cardinal on a 16-yard touchdown run by quarterback Chase Garbers with 1:19 left last year at Stanford Stadium. 

Shaw described the feeling of that loss as "absolutely awful … We had every opportunity to win the game. We didn't hand it away, Cal took it from us. You hate to lose to your rival at home and hate to see them carrying the Axe on your field. Hopefully, we'll get to return the favor."

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BEFORE THE STANFORD Axe, which made its first appearance at an 1899 baseball game, the football rivals played for the silver University Club Trophy. In 1892, the University Club of San Francisco donated a trophy to become a permanent possession of the first team to win three Big Games. In 1896, Stanford did just that with a 20-0 victory at San Francisco's Central Park. 

After that, another trophy was donated. The Tilden Statue, produced in Paris by world famous sculptor Douglas Tilden, would go to the next team to win two. With victories in 1898 and 1899, Cal finally had its Big Game reward. It wasn't until 1934 that the Axe began to be awarded annually to the game's winner. 


Stanford's Gabe Reid tussles with Cal in 2019. Photo by Bob Drebin/