He quarterbacked the Broncos to a win for the ages, but Johnny Pasco ’52 did so much more.
In Broncos football lore, few wins are more celebrated than Santa Clara’s upset of legendary Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s Kentucky Wildcats in the 1950 Orange Bowl. The upstarts from California were quarterbacked that day by a 19-year-old future judge from Chicago, Johnny Pasco ’52, who ran for a touchdown in a 21–13 win. He passed away last Thanksgiving at age 84.
The 1950 Orange Bowl was a contest of old and new. The Broncos wore leather helmets, and its starters played both ways. Kentucky sported the new plastic helmets and fielded separate offenses and defenses. Yet the old-fashion way won.
After a year of military service in Korea, Pasco earned a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He then began a private practice in criminal law in San Jose that lasted 29 years.
The University discontinued its football program two years after the Orange Bowl win. When it was revived on a more modest level in 1959, coach Pat Malley ’53, a close friend, asked him to help as a volunteer assistant. He said yes. And kept at it for 19 years.
He was one of several alumni pillars of the community who, year after year, reported to campus every afternoon at 3:30 to work with the team. Monday nights the coaches studied film of their upcoming opponent. Pasco, who mentored the quarterbacks, was known for his ability to spot the football equivalent of the poker “tell”—subtle body language that tipped him off to what the defense had planned. Three quarterbacks he coached went on to play professionally, including NFL Pro Bowler Dan Pastorini ’71.
Pasco sometimes told a story from his playing days of how he dealt with a defensive lineman who kept getting through the blocking. He told his linemen to let the player come straight through on the next play. As the defender galloped toward him, he fired a pass into the surprised player’s face. This was before the advent of the facemask.
Smart, soft-spoken, and resolute, Pasco was widely loved and admired. A member of the 1960 team recalled how Malley had a hard time finding opponents for the newly resurrected program. The coach also wanted to toughen up the players, many of whom were only 17 or 18 years old. So he scheduled a game against the inmates at San Quentin prison. When the team arrived, several prisoners recognized Pasco—he’d been their attorney. They began yelling out his name and saying hello, apparently not angry over the outcome of his representation.
The longtime defense attorney was appointed a municipal court judge in 1985 and served as a superior court judge from 1994 until his retirement in 1999.
He was one of the original members of the Bronco Bench Foundation, launched in 1962, which raises money for scholarships and other athletic needs at Santa Clara.
Read Mark Purdy’s tribute “Sweet Victory: Beating Bear Bryant.”