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The Wonder Teams: A Golden Era for the Golden Bears

No college football team in the modern day has won more than two consecutive national championships. However, before bowl games were greatly expanded and the modern ranking system was implemented, there were several teams who won more than two. One of those schools was the University of California, Berkley in the early 1920’s. Affectionately named the “Wonder Teams”, that era has largely been forgotten despite just how dominant they were. In a five year span from 1920 to 1924, Cal went an incredible 44-0-4. In total, they went 50 straight games without a loss and in the process won four straight national championships. This is their story.

Before the Glory

The Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) was formed in 1916 with Cal, Washington, Oregon and Oregon Agricultural (now Oregon State) as founding members. In the ensuing years, Washington State, Stanford, Idaho, USC and Montana joined the conference by 1924. Led by head coach Andy Smith, Cal started off slow in the PCC, going 0-3 in its inaugural season, but eventually they won more than they lost. They went 6-2-1 with a 2-2 conference record in 1919. The future looked bright for the following decade.

The Golden Years

The 1920 campaign was truly a special year for the Golden Bears. Not only did they win their first Rose Bowl and national championship but they outscored their opponents 510 to 14. Their 496 point margin of victory is 21st all time. Shutting out seven opponents, they gave up just seven points each to Nevada (79-7) and Oregon Agricultural (17-7). In an incredible four week span, the Golden Bears beat the Mare Island Marines 88-0, Saint Mary’s 127-0, Nevada 79-7 and Utah 63-0. Though they played a weak schedule by modern standards, they were still a national sensation that year, passing much more than any other team in college football.

They routed previously undefeated Ohio State 28-0 in the Rose Bowl (then known as the Tournament East-West Football Game) to claim their first national championship. In front of a crowd of 42,000, Cal completed seven passes for 126 yards which were incredible numbers for that era. Albert Sprott led the Golden Bears with 20 rushes for 90 yards and two touchdowns. This was just the beginning of an incredible dynasty.

Due to their complete dominance the year before, expectations were enormous for Cal entering the 1921 season. That team featured three future College Hall of Famers Duke Morrison, Dan McMillan and Stan Barnes. They weren’t as dominant as the year before but still managed to defeat Washington 72-3, with Duke Morrison scoring five touchdowns for the Golden Bears. Cal outscored their opponents 312 to 33 and remained unbeaten entering the Rose Bowl. There they would tie Washington & Jefferson College 0-0. Despite the tie, Cal still claimed their second straight national championship.

The Golden Bears were determined to avenge their lone tie from 1921 and started 1922 hot with wins over Santa Clara (45-14), the Mare Island Marines (80-0) and Saint Mary’s (41-0). They kept their focus on the prize all year and went 9-0. They were led by their quarterback and captain Charles Erb, who operated the short-punt formation to perfection. He would go on to a college coaching career after graduation. They outscored their opponents with a nation leading 398 points against 34 points. This was in the era where conference winners were not automatically given the right to play in a bowl game and Cal was left stranded. They still claimed their third straight national championship.

The offense wasn’t as dominant in 1923, with their most points of the year being just 49 against Saint Mary’s and scoring a measly 182 points all season. However, this was a defensive team which astonishingly performed even better than the 1920 squad. The only points they allowed all year were against USC in a 13-7 win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. They tied Nevada 0-0, their only blemish on an otherwise perfect season. The Golden Bears were led by halfback Donald Nichols, who had been named an All American the previous Fall. They opened their new home, California Memorial Stadium, at the very end of the year, beating Stanford 9-0. Though Cal was once again left out of the Rose Bowl despite a 9-0-1 record, they still claimed their fourth straight national championship.

The Decline and a Lasting Influence

The decline of the Wonder Teams began when it was still undefeated. They went 8-0-2 in 1924 and outscored their opponents 162 to 51. Though they were undefeated, ties to Washington and Stanford gave them a second place ranking behind Stanford in the PCC and kept them out of the national championship conversation. This was the final season of an incredible five year run where they recorded a 44-0-4 record.

Their decline became official when they lost to Olympic Club in a 15-0 stunner the following year. It was their first loss in 50 games and they would end the season with two straight losses to Washington and Stanford to end the year 6-3.

The 1925 season was Andy Smith’s final year at the school and Nibs Price took his place. The Golden Bears ended the 1926 season a disappointing 3-6, dead last in the PCC with a 0-5 conference record. The team rebounded the following two years and eventually made a Rose Bowl appearance after the 1928 season, losing to Georgia Tech.

The Wonder Teams were possibly the greatest generation of the California Golden Bears football team. Though their schedule was light at times, they dominated a conference which would one day be known as the Pac-12, one of the premier conferences in college football. The first great dynasty of that conference resided in Berkley and during those four magical years the Golden Bears showed the nation the possibilities of the passing game, which was still in its infancy. Due to their dominance, the PCC was able to get a foothold in college football and eventually became a powerhouse. The Wonder Teams may not be remembered well, but their impact on the game is still felt to this day.

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