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College Football in the Bay Area during the Spanish Flu

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

It began with a cough. Or was it a fever? However it started, the original symptoms tended to blur as the illness became more and more severe. It spread like a wildfire and quickly struck down thousands before the world could even blink. Sound familiar? This is not the virus popularly known as COVID-19, this illness went by a more simplistic yet festive name, the Spanish Flu or Influenza.

Much like this present day, the world needed the comfort of sports to distract itself from the previously unimaginable tragedies of everyday life. At the time, college football was the highest level of the game; the NFL didn’t exist yet and the professional teams in America were poorly paid and managed. America needed the pageantry and excitement of college football to give it a sense of normalcy. At the time, the San Francisco Bay Area was blessed with four college football teams of some form or another. Each of those teams dealt with the pandemic differently. This is their story.

Before Influenza

The game of football has always been considered dangerous but it was considered especially deadly during its infancy. Beginning in 1906, Cal, Stanford and other West Coast schools decided to switch to rugby, considering it to be less dangerous than football. By 1915, Cal had elected to return to football but Stanford stuck with rugby.

Both Santa Clara and Stanford’s rugby style football teams were undefeated going into the final game of the 1916 season. Santa Clara defeated Stanford 28-5 at Ewing Field in San Francisco to finish the season without a loss. Meanwhile, Saint Mary’s went 8-1-1 in 1917, losing to Cal 14-13 on November 10, 1917.

Under coach Andy Smith, Cal competed in the newly formed PCC and started winning games in the conference in 1917 while going 5-5-1 overall. They finished the season with a 0-0 tie to USC on November 29, 1917. It would be the last sense of normal that the players would feel for the next two years.

The Pandemic

The pandemic began innocently enough, with numerous people becoming ill and eventually getting better. However, a dark cloud was on the horizon. A second wave hit the world hard in the Fall of 1918. The virus killed its victims within days or even hours of becoming infected. Even though it was called the Spanish Flu, contrary to popular belief it did not originate in Spain. Since the country was a neutral party in the Great War, their media was not censored as most other media sources were at the time. As a result, they were free to cover the spread of the virus and as a result the pandemic became known as the Spanish Flu.

Surgical masks soon started to show up in communities all across the world as people tried desperately to prevent the virus from spreading further. Due to the war, there was a shortage of physicians and thus fewer human resources to battle the pandemic. Hospitals became so overrun in some areas that schools and private homes were used as makeshift hospitals.

With the pandemic and World War I quickly becoming intertwined, college football was at a crossroads. Still in its infancy, college football could have disintegrated into thin air, never to be heard from again. Instead, the game which had been deemed too dangerous to play just a couple of years earlier, made an improbable comeback one school at a time.

While some schools elected not to play, many decided to play with tens of thousands in the stands and an abbreviated schedule. Santa Clara did not field a team in 1918 but came ready to play in 1919. Led by first year coach Robert E. Harmon, the Missionites opened the year by losing to Olympic Club 19-3. They followed up that crushing loss by demolishing the USS Nebraska 60-0 but were quickly humbled by Stanford 13-0 the next week. They were frustrated and took out their frustrations on the USS Boston, beating them convincingly 60-0. Nevada (41-7) and Olympic Club (6-0) brought them back to reality and Santa Clara ended the season 2-4.

Saint Mary’s spent the 1918 season primarily playing against military bases and yet still managed to go winless. Their only game against a school, Cal, was a 40-14 disaster. Interestingly, even with a tougher schedule in 1919, the Gaels played much better and finished the season 3-3-1. They blew out San Francisco 48-0, got blown out to Cal (19-0) and Stanford (34-0), tied Nevada 0-0 and beat UC Davis 14-0. The future looked brighter for the Gaels.

Stanford fielded an official football team in 1919 for the first time since 1905. The 1918 season was a strange one as their football team was comprised entirely of volunteers from the Student’s Army Training Corps at Stanford. They began the 1919 season by demolishing the USS Boston 59-0 but were humbled by Olympic Club 13-0 the next week. Oregon Agricultural (14-6), St. Mary’s (34-0) and Santa Clara (13-0) all did not stand a chance against a determined Stanford squad. They lost to Cal 14-10 and to USC 13-0 to end their first season back on the gridiron with a respectable 4-3 record.

The 1918 season was arguably Cal’s easiest schedule ever. Many of the teams either no longer exist or were comprised of primarily walk-ons. Amazingly, their only two losses were to two military bases, Fort MacDowell (21-7) and Mather Field (13-0). They swept the rest of the competition to end the season 7-2 and PCC champions.

The next season was much the same and once again Cal was competitive. They tied Olympic Club 6-6 and lost to both Washington State (14-0) and Washington (7-0). They finished tied for third place in the PCC after going 6-2-1.

1920: A Season of Healing

Santa Clara began the 1920 season losing to Stanford 21-7 but rebounded against Nevada, winning 24-21. Their defense stiffened considerably, shutting out Olympic Club (7-0), USS Boston (46-0) and California Aggies (19-0). They defeated the West Coast Navy 48-13 to end the season 5-1.

Stanford began the season defeating Saint Mary’s 41-0 but lost the next two games to Olympic Club (7-10) and USC (0-10). After defeating Santa Clara, they began their PCC schedule by defeating Oregon (10-0) and Washington (3-0). Cal blew them away 38-0 to end the season 4-3.

Saint Mary’s only played three games in 1920, losing all three. However, much like 1919, the following year was much better. Under first year coach Ed “Slip” Madigan, the Gaels finished 4-3 in 1921.

The schools in the Bay Area were providing hope for those who had suffered through both Influenza and the Great War. However, none could compare to the kind of hope which the Golden Bears of Berkley. After coming close the previous year, Cal was determined to win the PCC and so much more in 1920. They began the season demolishing Olympic Club (21-0), the Mare Island Marin (88-0), Saint Mary’s (127-0), Nevada (79-7) and Utah (63-0). Oregon Agricultural was the only school to come close to defeating Cal, losing 17-7. Washington State lost to Cal 49-0 and Stanford was pummeled 38-0 to give Cal the PCC championship and a shot at the national championship. They defeated Ohio State 28-0 in the Rose Bowl to win the national championship. Cal would go on to win four straight national championships to become the first college football dynasty since the Great War.

Along the way, each of these schools gave the people of the Bay Area hope for the future. The previous two years had been hard with the war and the pandemic. Many people had died from those two catastrophic events and hope had been drained from the land. In the midst of those difficult times, college football proved to be a respite from the horrors of the world. The people of the Bay Area were able to bond over the spectacle of collegiate football and the glory which Cal brought with four national championships.

Inspired by the resilience that was displayed during this trying time, the State Teachers College at San Jose (now San Jose State University) started up its football program in 1921 after being on a hiatus since 1900. Similar to college football, the people of the Bay Area had entered those two years of strife as wide eyed youth. They finished those two years of strife and hardship stronger and with limitless possibilities. They realized that they could do anything that they set their minds to. The future looked bright with the Roaring Twenties just around the corner.

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