Stanford football has had a very impressive list of coaches roam its sidelines. From Pop Warner and Bill Walsh to Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw, they have coached otherwise mediocre teams into winners. Stanford prides itself as an intellectual university and its best coaches are often looked at as teachers of the game. John Ralston’s time in Palo Alto was often forgettable but the coaches he hired under his tutelage had a phenomenal impact on all levels of the game. Super Bowls were won and some of the game’s greatest were coached by these men in the subsequent decades. In many ways, Stanford was the intellectual starting point for these coaches.
The coaches on John Ralston’s staff impacted the game of football in a myriad of ways. Schemes were invented, stout defenses were coached and championships were won. During Ralston’s time at the Farm, his staff challenged each other and learned from each other. They met every day discussing the finer points of the game of football, dreaming of future days of glory. This is the story of the Stanford coaching staff from 1963 to 1971 and their impact on the NFL.
Born in Oakland on April 26, 1927, John Ralston’s family moved to Norway, Michigan when he was eight years old. Following his playing career at Norway High School, Ralston returned home and played for Pappy Waldorf during the glory years of the early 1950’s. As a linebacker, he was a part of two Rose Bowl teams before graduating in 1951. Armed with a physical education degree, Ralston began his coaching career at nearby San Lorenzo High School and coached at Mt. Diablo High School too through the 1954 season. From there, he was hired by his alma mater and was an assistant coach in Berkley from 1955 through 1958.
His hard work paid off when he was named head coach of Utah State University in 1959. In four years as the Aggies head coach, Ralston turned around a struggling program and lead them in their first year as an Independent. He went 31-11-1 at Utah State and left following the 1962 season to become the Stanford head coach.
The First Year
Ralston wanted to make a statement as the head coach of Stanford University and decided to take a chance on an up and coming wide receivers coach at Cal named Bill Walsh. Walsh had been at Cal from 1960 to 1962 and was highly recommended by the Golden Bears head coach Marv Levy. Ralston decided to put one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history on defense and thus Walsh was named a defensive backs coach.
It was a rough first year for John Ralston and Bill Walsh. After a 29-13 win over San Jose State, Stanford went on to lose the next four games. They then stunned Notre Dame 24-14 before losing the next three games. Stanford wanted to make a statement in the season finale and did so by defeating Cal 28-17, ending the season a dismal 3-7.
John Ralston added assistant coach Mike White to his staff in the 1964 offseason. Led by running back Ray Handley and guard John Wilbur, Stanford improved to a 5-5 record. Their defense improved from giving up 199 points the year before to just 138 in 1964. The biggest wins were over seventh ranked Oregon (10-8) and eighth ranked Oregon State (16-7), further boosting the confidence of Ralston’s program.
Dick Vermeil joined the Stanford coaching staff as the head coach of the freshman team. In those days freshman were not allowed to play on the varsity so they had an abbreviated schedule. Most of their time was spent practicing against one another and learning the intricacies of the program. Vermeil would build a legacy as a hard driving coach who worked his players hard, instilling in them a work ethic which was second to none. His star player was a quarterback named Gene Washington, who would go on to star as a wide receiver for the 49ers from 1969 to 1977 and made four Pro Bowls in a memorable career.
The 1965 season was Bill Walsh’s last as an assistant coach at Stanford, this time serving as the defensive coordinator. Under his tutelage, linebacker Marty Brill and defensive tackle Blaine Nye were named First-team All Conference.
Stanford showed improvement in 1965, earning a winning record for the first time in Ralston’s three years at the helm. However, they were still sitting in the bottom half of their conference. Following a last place finish with a 1-4 conference record in 1966, Ralston hired Jim Mora to coach his linebackers. Dick Vermeil left the Farm following the 1965 season to be one of the NFL’s first special teams coaches with the Los Angeles Rams.
Though Stanford finished 1967 with a better conference record, they still finished with the same 5-5 regular season record they finished the year before. Jim Mora left Stanford following the year to coach the defense at the University of Colorado. Stanford improved in 1968 with a 6-3-1 record. They nearly upset USC who was ranked second in the nation at the time and featured Hall of Fame running back OJ Simpson. Stanford did upset fourth ranked University of Pacific 24-0 late in the year, costing the Tigers a potential national championship. They finished the year defeating 18th ranked Cal 20-0.
Armed with the momentum from the previous year, Stanford started the 1969 season hot with wins over San Jose State (63-21) and Oregon (28-0). However, they weren’t quite ready for the biggest stage as they lost to eighth ranked Purdue (36-35) and fourth ranked USC (26-24). The last blemish on an otherwise perfect year was a 20-20 tie to sixth ranked UCLA in the middle of the season. Stanford finished the season ranked 19th in the nation.
The 1970 season was truly special. Senior quarterback Jim Plunkett had matured into the leader that the team needed to win the Pac-8 championship. They finished the year ranked eighth in the nation, upsetting second ranked Ohio State 27-17 in the Rose Bowl and Jim Plunkett winning the school’s only Heisman Trophy.
The 1971 season was nearly as special. Once again, Stanford won the Pac-8 championship and finished the year ranked 10th in the nation. They defeated fourth ranked Michigan 13-12 in the Rose Bowl. At the end of the year, John Ralston left to take over the NFL’s Denver Broncos.
Legacy Beyond the Farm
John Ralston’s coaching staff spread out to other ventures after their time at Stanford and a significant number of his assistant coaches became head coaches of college and the NFL. They used the lessons they learned at Stanford to fuel their careers and as a result they left an indelible imprint on the game of football. Bill Walsh was known far and wide for his incredible mind on offense. His West Coast Offense is still seen in many offenses today. During his first stint at Stanford he was a defensive coach and even though he admitted his shortcomings in that area of expertise during that time, the lessons he learned while coaching the other side of the ball still made an impact on his offensive philosophy. He was able to articulate better what the defense was thinking and in turn was more ready to find a way to attack the opposing defense.
After Stanford, Walsh spent the rest of his career learning the finer points of an effective offense in the NFL. He took a year-long crash course in the Oakland Raiders deep ball attack in 1966 and beginning in 1968 he was Paul Brown’s offensive assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals. Eventually, he would return to Stanford where he would implement all he had learned and the Cardinal took the country by storm with their constant short passes. Walsh would quickly move on to the San Francisco 49ers where he would further implement his West Coast Offense, win three Super Bowls and become recognized as one of the NFL’s greatest innovators. His offense is still used widely in some variety throughout the NFL. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mike White left Stanford following the 1971 season to become the head coach at Cal. He spent some wonderful years there, going 35-30-1 in six years as the Golden Bears coach. He won the Pac-10 championship in 1975 but never won a bowl game in Berkley. He spent 1978 and 1979 as the offensive line coach of the 49ers before becoming the head coach of the University of Illinois in 1980. He won the Big Ten championship in 1983 but went 0-3 in bowl games while in Champaign. He had a 47-41-3 record in eight years with Illinois.
Dick Vermeil began to find his coaching voice during his lone year on the Farm. With so many practices and so few games, he was able to figure out how to build camaraderie within the team by working his players hard. He used that same approach when he became the head coach of UCLA in 1974. The Bruins went to the Rose Bowl in his second year where they defeated heavily favored Ohio State. Vermeil then left for the Philadelphia Eagles where he built the franchise from the ground-up. They went to the Super Bowl in 1980 where they would lose to the Oakland Raiders. Two years later, Vermeil quit coaching, citing burnout. He returned to the sidelines in 1997 with the Saint Louis Rams where he would finally win the Super Bowl in 1999. In Vermeil’s final year in Saint Louis, his Rams featured one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Nicknamed “the Greatest Show on Turf”, that offense featured four Hall of Fame players, Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce and Orlando Pace. After a brief retirement, Vermeil coached the Kansas City Chiefs until 2005.
Jim Mora would go on to be the head coach of the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts. While he coached both Archie and Peyton Manning, his greatest claim to fame was coaching a great linebacker group in New Orleans. Nicknamed the Dome Patrol, that group included Rickey Jackson Vaughan Johnson, Sam Mills and Pat Swilling. All four would be invited to the Pro Bowl in 1992, the first time in NFL history that four linebackers from the same team made the Pro Bowl. That group would collectively reach 18 Pro Bowls and make three playoff appearances together, losing all three. Following his firing from the Colts in 2001, Mora would retire from coaching.
After his tenure at Stanford, John Ralston would spend five years in Denver. Though he never reached the playoffs, he built the team into a contender who would reach the Super Bowl the year after he left. The Bronco’s Orange Crush defense would be one of the NFL’s best defenses to close out the 1970’s. He would spend time as an assistant with the Vermeil’s Eagles and the Toronto Argonauts before becoming the Oakland Invaders head coach in 1983. When the USFL folded following the 1984 season, Ralston was out of football for the rest of the decade. He returned to the sideline in 1993 as the head coach of San Jose State and retired in 1996 with an 11-34 record at the school. He passed away on September 14, 2019.