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Why 1920 Cal was the most pleasant fan experience in college football history

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A century ago, Cal showed everyone else how to have a stress-free good time.

Unknown author. Public domain photograph. Banner Society illustration.

You think your most hated rival plays nobody. After all, look at that embarrassingly soft schedule. The best team on it is finishing 8-4 and losing the Pinstripe Bowl!

But there is playing nobody, and then there is playing nobody. And if you want to have the most blissful, stress-free season of fandom possible, your best bet is to root for a team that plays nobody.

We are not talking “the ACC is pretty weak this year” nobody. We are talking “there are several non-majors and even several non-football teams on the schedule” nobody.

The path to an ideally relaxing season is to root for a team facing opponents so overmatched, your squad will barely break a sweat.

As a fan, your heart rate will go up about as much as it does on a light jog around the neighborhood. You will know you’re headed toward glory, and you’ll kick your feet up on the ride.

For most teams, achieving such status is impossible, especially in this era. But you should meet the gold standard of contentment: the 1920 Cal Golden Bears.

In a way, their fans got to experience the pinnacle — a season in which their team was a juggernaut, experienced the tiniest bit of drama, and got to finish by drubbing a big brand in the sport’s most gorgeous setting.

If college football is an amusement park with tons of world-famous roller coasters, fans of 1920 Cal are the customers who showed up, ate some ice cream, rode the ferris wheel, and left with wide smiles. Let this team be your guide to bliss.

Step 1 to delivering a peak fan experience: Schedule nobody.
Step 2: Be good.

These steps must work in tandem.

Andy Smith’s team is commonly called the Wonder Team. The term appeared in newspapers going back to the late 1800s, and plenty of other teams have taken it at points. Just in 1920, numerous papers declared Centre College in Kentucky (final record: 8-2) a Wonder Team. Several other Cal teams of the post-World War I era would take the same name, though 1920 is the most famous.

So let’s say Cal was a Wonder Team because it was a wonder how they wound up on the same field with so many of their opponents.

1920 Cal went 9-0 with a combined score of 510-14. That 496-point margin is #21 all-time, but that undersells the Golden Bears’ dominance. All but one team ahead of them (2013 Florida State at 553 points in 14 games) is from the late 1800s or very early 1900s, when the sport was still getting itself organized.

Yet this team is in just the 94th percentile all-time in Sports Reference’s SRS. That’s because the Bears didn’t exactly challenge themselves. They’re the only team that appears in the top 30 of both the all-time scoring differential list and in the 30 biggest gaps between their own SRS number and their strength of schedule on the same scale.

Simply put, 1920 Cal played nobody:

  • 21-0 over Olympic Club, a local athletic club that wasn’t really a football program
  • 88-0 over Mare Island Marines, apparently a squadron of troops situated in the Bay Area after the war had ended
  • 127-0 over Saint Mary’s, a non-major
  • 79-7 over Nevada, a non-major
  • 63-0 over Utah, which went 1-5-1 and scored 2.7 points per game
  • 17-7 over Oregon State, which went 2-2-2 (I’ll come back to this one)
  • 49-0 over Washington State, which, hey, went 5-1!
  • 38-0 over Stanford, which went 4-3
  • 28-0 over Ohio State, previously 7-0, in the Rose Bowl

Some of these were worse than they look. A 127-0 win looks bad, but what if I told you the total yardage was 558-6? The Oakland Tribune was probably understating it when it deemed Saint Mary’s defeat “the season’s worst college football game.”

That wasn’t Cal’s problem, though. Blowout wins make fans happy, and happiness is invigorating.

Step 3: Intersperse one close (but not too close) game, for fun.

Let’s focus on that 17-7 win over Oregon State. This was the only road game the Golden Bears played, so it’s appropriate they’d face a dash more adversity.

Cal led 10-0, let the Beavers cut it to 10-7, and gritted out an insurance TD in the fourth quarter to win by double digits.

That’s the perfect level of suspense to sprinkle into a season with none. Cal was never in grave danger and didn’t even play badly enough for people to needlessly freak out, as some fans and media do whenever an eventual champ plays a mediocre game.

Step 4: Enjoy a climactic success on the best stage you can envision.

The Rose Bowl wasn’t the Rose Bowl yet, but the scene at the Tournament East-West game in Pasadena was great anyway:

Wikimedia Commons.

Which brings us to ...

Step 5: Have a fun offense.

Ohio State had expected to play 60 minutes of manball. The Buckeyes were shocked when Cal completed seven passes for 126 yards on them, an aerial bonanza for that era.

The Los Angeles Times:

The most sensational play of the day, and probably one that has been unrivaled on any gridiron, occurred in the second quarter and resulted in the Bears’ second touchdown. On a double pass, [Harold] Muller, receiving the ball from [Pesky] Sprott, turned and shot the ball fifty yards down the field to Stephens, the fairy-footed left end of the Bears. Stephens gobbled the ball, and crashed into [Pete] Stinchcomb just over the goal line.

This spectacular individual effort brought the 42,00 persons to their feet, cheering wildly.

“Coach Smith’s team will go down into history as one of the best-drilled machines in fundamentals and with a most varied, polished attack ever seen on the Coast,” the paper wrote.

Step 6: Exit with as many bragging rights as possible.

Going undefeated confers status no matter what, but consider Cal’s resume:

  • 3-0 against Bay Area teams (Olympic Club, Mare Island, Saint Mary’s)
  • 3-0 against Pacific Coast Conference teams (Stanford, Oregon State, Wazzu)
  • 2-0 against other Western teams (Nevada, Utah)
  • 1-0 against the East (Ohio State)

Beating Ohio State in the proto-Rose Bowl was an especially big deal. It was called the East-West game because the Tournament of Roses wanted it to be a showcase of the best Pacific and Eastern football had to offer, and the East previously had the advantage. Michigan had destroyed Stanford in the game’s ugly first edition, and the regions had gone back and forth since. The win made Cal the first overwhelming consensus national champ from west of the Mississippi.

After the game, Ohio State coach John Wilce blamed the (famously heavenly) Pasadena weather in a write-up for the Times:

California has a splendid football team. Ohio State has a splendid football team. California won yesterday’s football game, but California was not twenty-eight points better than Ohio State. California’s open work was the big surprise of the game. I didn’t think the heat would affect my team, but this was manifest early in the game. The usual defense was not present, and the linemen lacked their customary drive. Under the circumstances, as they were, California would have defeated any team in the country.

There were no message boards in 1921, and that is the only pity here for Cal fans.

1920 Cal wrote the book on easy fan satisfaction.

Most fanbases will never get such a perfect experience. The closest modern thing is 2013 FSU, which was about equally dominant but got more of a scare (via Auburn nearly winning the title game) than 1920 Cal did. In retrospect, maybe having to scrap for it made that season even more enjoyable for Noles fans. And there are plenty of Best Team Ever candidates whose fans wouldn’t change a thing about the years they had.

That’s all to say there’s more than one way to have a perfect season. But with an expanded Playoff and fewer chances to schedule teams who can’t even put up a fight, there might never be a healthier rooting experience than rooting the unspeakably dominant, incomparably stress-free Wonder Team of 1920.