The Day Stanford Football Shocked the Sports World; The John Ralston Leadership Program

Fifty years ago today, on December 28, 1970, the Stanford football team was ensconced in a hotel in Long Beach, California, getting ready to play Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1971.


The game was generally considered a mismatch, a sure blowout, pitting the undefeated Buckeyes’ “Team of the Century” against an inconsistent Stanford team that had won the Pac-8 Conference Championship but lost three games.


Ohio State, ranked No. 2 in the country (No. 1 at game time after top-ranked Texas was upset by Notre Dame earlier in the day), featured stalwarts Jack Tatum, Jim Stillwagon, Rex Kern and John Brockington. The Buckeyes were favored by two touchdowns and had compiled a 27-1 record during the 1968, ’69 and ‘70 seasons, leading some pundits to call them the greatest team of all-time.


Stanford, led by Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jim Plunkett, was playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1952. Most fans and media gave the undermanned Indians (as Stanford was known in those days) no chance against the Ohio State juggernaut.


The same level of disrespect prevailed when comparing the two head coaches.


Ohio State was led by the gruff, iconic Woody Hayes, who’d guided the Buckeyes to five national championships and 13 Big Ten titles during his 20 years in Columbus.


Stanford’s head coach, the upbeat John Ralston, was in his eighth year on the Farm. The 1970 Pac-8 championship was his first, and the Rose Bowl would be his first post-season appearance since 1961, when he coached Utah State in something called the Gotham Bowl.


But Ralston and his players were undaunted by all the Ohio State hype. They ran a reverse to wide receiver Eric Cross on their first offensive play, good for 41 yards, and never looked back.



Stanford’s 27-17 win was—and is—considered one of the greatest upsets in college football history. Hayes was completely out-coached by his Stanford counterpart, the under-appreciated Ralston, who would repeat the same feat in the Rose Bowl a year later against another unbeaten Big Ten opponent, the heavily-favored Michigan Wolverines.


I had the privilege of seeing Ralston—and Hayes—up close and personal. Although I was still finishing up my senior year at Stanford, I was assistant sports information director to the great Bob Murphy, and was included in all of Murph’s interactions with Ralston, Rose Bowl press conferences, and production meetings with NBC.


In addition to arranging interviews and TV logistics, we were responsible for putting together the press guide, managing the mammoth press box, and distributing quotes from players and coaches after the game. Since everyone expected Stanford to lose, I was given the assignment of getting quotes from the losing coach.


So after the game, I rushed down to the cramped Ohio State locker room and interviewed the red-faced Hayes, who literally had smoke coming out of his ears. He went into a blistering tirade about the famous “Mad Dog Pass” from Plunkett to tight end Bob Moore (photo above) that set up the go-ahead touchdown. Hayes was literally foaming at the mouth, spewing spittle all over the room. I needed a shower afterwards.


Ralston, by contrast, was, as always, the perfect gentleman, humbly crediting his players and assistant coaches…everyone but himself.


He was, to his Stanford players and assistant coaches, a remarkable leader of men. He had some corny sayings, to be sure, like “you can’t make the club in the tub,” and “sweat freely, men.” He was relentlessly positive, almost to a fault. He began every speech or press conference with “a pleasant good evening”.


But he also exemplified many of the key virtues and qualities of a great leader. Confidence. Humility. Self-discipline. Organizational skills. Mentorship. Relationship building. The ability to inspire others to achieve a collective goal.


Ralston, who passed away last year, was also blessed with enough self-awareness and self-confidence to hire assistant coaches who had more talent than he did, men who went on to greatness as head coaches and furthered his coaching legacy.


The Ralston coaching tree includes Super Bowl champions Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil, Mike White, Jim Mora, Jack Christiansen, Rod Rust, Roger Theder, Dave Currey, Tony Knap, Ed Peasley, and Rubin Carter.



His players revere him to this day. One of them, Phil Satre, a standout linebacker on the 1971 Rose Bowl team, has created an undergraduate leadership program in Ralston’s honor at Stanford, so fitting on the 50th anniversary of his finest moment as a coach.


The John Ralston Stanford Leadership Program will provide leadership training for undergraduate students who hold leadership roles across the campus, including ASSU government officers; leaders of student organizations, activities, fraternities and sororities; resident assistants; and athletes, as well as others without formal titles who would benefit from such training.


The program will be designed and implemented by the Office of Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole in partnership with the Graduate School of Business’s Experiential Leadership Education Team.


“I’ve been involved in a lot of things at the university,” says Satre, a former member of the school’s Board of Trustees. “I kept thinking, Stanford never has had a leadership curriculum for undergraduates. But Stanford produces leaders, and we should be more active in teaching the characteristics of leadership to undergraduates, whether it be for athletics or politics.


“Probably what motivated me most was a longstanding belief I had that John Ralston embodied leadership characteristics that applied not only to athletics but carried over into business, politics and other things.


“First and foremost was his recognition that to really succeed as a leader you needed to surround yourself with the strongest possible group of people you could bring onto your team. It takes a humble and confident leader to recruit people that are more successful and perhaps better than you.


“Second thing, in those days, we used to joke about it, but he was so positive. He had all those phrases, like ‘today is the best day of your life and tomorrow is going to be even better.’ We’d say, ‘you know, that’s awful corny.’ But it had an impact.”


Satre and his wife, Jennifer, have made a generous lead donation that will get the program off the ground, but additional contributions will be needed to sustain it long term and involve more students.


If you were among the many fortunate people who played for, cheered on and admired John Ralston, and would like to honor his memory by supporting this program, contact Julia.Hartung@stanford.edu.


Gifts can be pledged over five years, and if you’d like to make a contribution before the end of this year for tax purposes, send your check, made out to the John Ralston Stanford Leadership Program, to Julia Hartung, Senior Director of Development for Undergraduate Education, Stanford University, 326 Galvez Street, Stanford, CA 94305.


It’s a nice way to end a very difficult year on a positive note.

Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com