Sweet Victory: Beating Bear Bryant

Remembering a great moment in Bay Area sports—and paying tribute to quarterback John Pasco ’52, who left us in November.

This past year, for the first time, all three Bay Area college football teams were bowl bound in the same season. They boarded charter jets to their postseason destinations. They returned victorious.

It was a little different in 1949, when Santa Clara University’s football team left to play in the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day of 1950. The players boarded a train for the four-day trip to Miami. They made brief daily stops to practice en route. The Broncos upset Bear Bryant’s Kentucky team 21–13 and then loaded in plenty of “refreshments” for the return train trip and what amounted to a four-day party all the way home.

“Let me tell you, that was one heck of a train ride,” John Pasco ’52 told me, more than once, when recounting how, when the team finally reached Santa Clara, thousands of people were at the depot. The crowd included Gov. Earl Warren, later chief justice of the United States. He wanted to pose for photos with the players.

“I was only 19—can you imagine?” Pasco would say with a smile.

Pasco was the Broncos’ quarterback that season. He was also, years later, my neighbor, the best kind: helpful with advice when needed and full of interesting stories if you asked to hear them. He and his wife lived across the street from our first San Jose house. Pasco died on Thanksgiving Day of heart issues, just short of his 85th birthday.

When I heard the news, it made me both sad for his family and sad that we are in the inevitable process of losing so many links to a Bay Area sports era that seems unfathomable today.

It isn’t merely that Santa Clara no longer plays football at any level, let alone Orange Bowl level. College football in 2016, too often, is seen strictly as an apprenticeship for a pro football career or perhaps a path to a cushy job at a company owned by a well-heeled alum.

Football did not define John Pasco. He loved the game. But he saw his Santa Clara athletic scholarship, awarded to a naive kid from Chicago who nervously traveled west, as both a ticket to an education and an obligation to stick around and make the area a better place. He earned a law degree, became a prominent local criminal attorney, and then was a judge in municipal and superior court before retiring 16 years ago.

“I always thought he represented everything good about both the old Santa Clara Valley and the then-emerging Silicon Valley,” said Chuck Hildebrand, who several years ago authored a book about Santa Clara football history.

Hildebrand’s chapter about the 1949 team included a Pasco interview. That season, he was a sophomore who won the starting quarterback job from a senior—on a roster stocked with World War II veterans who had entered college late and were much older than he was.

“John said he knew that he’d won over his teammates when he would call the play in the huddle and had everyone’s rapt attention,” Hildebrand said. “That hadn’t been the case early in the season. If he hadn’t evolved as a quarterback and leader among much older and cynical men, it’s unlikely Santa Clara would have made it to that Orange Bowl.”

Santa Clara accepted the invitation after finishing the regular season with a 7–2–1 record and ranked No. 15 by the Associated Press. But the Broncos were large underdogs in Miami to Kentucky, coached by Bryant and ranked No. 11. Noted gambler Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder later claimed he’d bet more than $250,000 on Kentucky because he was so certain the Wildcats would win.

According to Pasco, a priest in the Santa Clara traveling party who liked to bet the dog races told coach Len Casanova that in the Florida heat and humidity, dogs who had the lightest training sessions always performed better at race time. Casanova took the advice. He held gentler practices while Bryant worked his team hard and long. On game day, with Pasco rushing for one of Santa Clara’s three touchdowns, the fresher Broncos dominated the second half and won by eight points.

That was Santa Clara’s last major bowl. The 49ers were the hot new rage at Kezar Stadium, the Broncos’ home field, and they couldn’t compete. So the school dropped the sport after the 1952 season, although football was revived at a lower tier in 1959. Pasco also contributed to that. To aid the budget, he served as an assistant coach—at no pay—for his friend and head coach Pat Malley ’53. Pasco juggled both his legal and sports gigs for 19 years, then became a full-time judge. But he never forgot his alma mater.

“You know, he was starting a whole new life when he decided to accept that football scholarship and come west,” said Pasco’s son, John Jr., who is vice president of a Contra Costa title company. “I think Santa Clara gave him the identity and the confidence to go to law school and shaped the rest of his life.”

In 1993, when Santa Clara again dropped football, I walked across the street to get Pasco’s reaction. He was melancholy but pragmatic, noting that at recent Broncos games he and his wife, Beverlee, had attended, students had spent more time socializing in the end zone picnic area than paying attention to the game. If the student body wasn’t that interested in football, he said, maybe the University’s choice was justified. But he lamented that so many future young men would not have the opportunity given him at Santa Clara.

John Pasco quarterbacked the Broncos to Miami, rode the train home, and stayed in the South Bay for a heck of a ride. John’s life was celebrated December 6 at the Mission Church on campus.

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