“A very pleasant good evening to you.”
With those words, John Ralston would begin any speech, press conference, or appearance before a booster group as Stanford’s head football coach (other than when it was a "pleasant afternoon.”)
Ralston was Mr. Positive, a graduate of the Dale Carnegie School, a man who believed anything was possible if you just worked hard enough and had enough faith in yourself.
Few shared Ralston’s optimism when he was appointed Stanford’s head football coach in 1963. He had been recruited from Utah State to turn around a moribund program that had won 14 games in five years, including an 0-10 record in 1960.
At the time, there was a lot of growling among the alums and some serious discussion about giving up football. Why was an Ivy League-type school like Stanford trying to compete in the Pacific-8 Conference against the likes of USC and UCLA?
Initially, John tried the same run-oriented attack he’d used at Utah State. After three mediocre seasons, Athletic Director Chuck Taylor had had enough. Taylor, a member of Stanford’s 1941 Rose Bowl champions and coach of the ‘52 Rose Bowl team that lived and died by the forward pass, made a not-so-gentle suggestion to his head coach: throw the damn football.
So Ralston recruited a couple of local quarterbacks who could sling it—Jim Plunkett from San Jose’s James Lick High School and Don Bunce from Woodside—and announced that he would switch to a pro-style passing game for the ’68 season.
That fall, Stanford opened with San Jose State and Plunkett made his debut by throwing for four touchdowns—including three bombs to quarterback-turned-wide receiver Gene Washington—in a 68-20 rout. No one who was in the stadium that day will ever forget that game. It was the beginning of a new era in Stanford football and, in many ways, a new era in college football.
But the skeptics weren’t convinced, making fun of Ralston’s “Mr. Sunshine” persona and questioning whether his new offense could succeed in the Pac-8.
In those days, USC dominated the conference. USC used to beat Stanford at everything—football, basketball, baseball, track and field, tennis, swimming, whatever. Trojan football coach John McKay once said he wanted to beat Stanford by 1,000 points.
Ralston’s 1968 and ’69 teams were very good, but couldn’t get over the USC hump. In ’68, the Trojans squeaked by the then-Indians, 27-24, led by a running back named O.J. Simpson. The following season, in one of the greatest football games ever played, USC prevailed 26-24 on a last-second field goal by Ron Ayala.
Finally, in 1970, Stanford triumphed, 24-14. Plunkett combined with tight end Bob Moore and wide receiver Randy Vataha to shred the Trojan defense while Stanford’s defenders—led by safety Jim Kauffman and linebacker Jeff Siemon—made a couple of goal line stands.
Then Ralston and Plunkett led Stanford to an upset 27-17 win over Woody Hayes and unbeaten Ohio State’s “team of the decade” in the Rose Bowl. He would do it again the following year against Michigan—this time with Bunce at the controls—beating another unbeaten, highly-favored Big Ten team, 13-12.
With those back-to-back Rose Bowl championships, the myth had been shattered. Stanford could compete with the big boys. Mr. Positive had done something no one believed was possible at a school that just a few years earlier was close to giving up football.
Ralston will not be remembered as a great x’s and o’s guy. But he was a great leader of men. He was unparalleled as a motivator, recruiter and organizer.
He was relentlessly upbeat and exhorted his troops in the locker room and training room with a lot of uniquely Ralstonesque slogans. Among my favorites were: “sweat freely” and “you can’t make the club in the tub.”
Ralston also had a terrific eye for talent, both among players and assistant coaches. His coaching disciples included former NFL head coaches Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Jim Mora Sr., Mike White and Jack Christiansen, as well as college head coaches Roger Theder, Ed Peasley. Tony Knap, Dave Currey, and Rubin Carter.
After his second Rose Bowl win, Ralston went on to become the head coach of the Denver Broncos of the NFL, where he produced the franchise’s first winning season, and, later, the USFL Oakland Invaders and San Jose State Spartans. He also worked as an administrator for the 49ers, a women’s volleyball association and San Jose State. He even coached a football team in Russia, the “Moscow Bears.”
He never changed. The smile, the booming voice, the vise-grip handshake never faltered.
I worked closely with John from ’67-71, first as sports editor of the Stanford Daily and later as Assistant SID (sports information director). Over the years, we were on a couple of committees together, and I’d see him frequently at football banquets and reunions. He used to kid me that he could crush me in a handshake.
The last time I saw him was at a football luncheon in 2015. He was in a wheelchair, but as vibrant as ever. He stood up when he saw me, so I braced myself, reached out my hand, squeezed as hard as I could, and managed to get him to loosen his grip. He smiled at me and said, “you’re getting better.”
Ralston died Saturday at the age of 92. He was one of a kind. He accomplished the impossible at Stanford, and we will miss him.