The first thing you notice about John Ralston is his grip.
He shakes your hand and does not let go. He looks you in the eye, smiling all the while, and asks your name.
Upon hearing it, he repeats the words, still holding your hand tightly. Only when he feels he has learned your name – and received a strong handshake back, as well as a respectful look in the eye – will he let go.
John Ralston is 86, but he still knows how to make a strong first impression. It’s been ingrained in him for years, from his days as Stanford’s head football coach from 1963-71, highlighted by back-to-back Rose Bowl victories, to his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
On Jan. 1, Stanford will play in consecutive Rose Bowls for the first time since Ralston’s teams in 1971 and 1972. Until Stanford’s return to prominence in the Jim Harbaugh/David Shaw era, it was Ralston’s teams who provided the only major bowl victories over a 70-year span of Stanford football history.
“He was as perfect for Stanford as perfect could be,” said Dick Vermeil, a Stanford assistant under Ralston from 1965-68.
Before Ralston arrived from Utah State, Stanford hadn’t had a winning season in five years. But Ralston brought a new attitude and passion into the program that resulted in a revolution of sorts.
First, he brought in the best possible staff, and created a Stanford coaching tree that extended to Super Bowl winners Bill Walsh and Vermeil, as well as other future NFL head coaches Jim Mora, Rod Rust, and Mike White. Also on staff was Jack Christiansen, a former 49ers head man who would succeed Ralston at Stanford.
Just as he sought the best coaches, Ralston sought the best players, negotiating and sometimes fighting with admissions along the way. Ralston became so close with admissions that the director could sometimes be found watching film with Ralston on Saturday nights after games.
Ralston was determined to recruit the best and therefore became the first Stanford football coach to actively recruit blacks. Stanford had only two before Ralston arrived, but black student-athletes such as running back Jackie Brown, defensive back Benny Barnes, and receiver Miles Moore gave Stanford a dimension it lacked. Their additions became the foundation for Rose Bowl success.
“The only reason we went to the Rose Bowl was the contribution of the black athlete,” said Bill Moultrie, who Ralston hired as Stanford’s first black assistant coach, in 1969.
Ralston was in constant communication with admissions to diversify, not necessarily in regards to color, but in reference to all who did not necessarily fit the traditional image of a Stanford student.
“John was interested in helping the admissions department realize that a real good student in high school didn’t have to be a genius to be a real good student at Stanford,” Vermeil said. “Don Bunce was one of those players. He wasn’t necessarily a 4.0, but he turned out to be the quarterback of a Rose Bowl team and became an orthopedic surgeon.”
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The appropriate description of Ralston's style was “relentless,” Vermeil said.
Ralston worked to improve the program in every way possible, by working not just with admissions, but with the administration, alumni, and the media. Ralston was a big believer in the power of positive thinking and had all his assistants take Dale Carnegie classes in self-improvement and interpersonal skills.
“Coach Ralston believed in the Dale Carnegie school of being positive about everything,” said Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jim Plunkett, who led Stanford to its 27-17 Rose Bowl victory over heavily-favored Ohio State in 1971.
“He would bring in a speaker before the start of the season who gave us a lecture about being positive,” Plunkett said. “’Picture yourself after a loss compared to after a win. Which way would you rather feel?’ That motivated him. He was always spurring guys on. ‘Let’s do this, we can do it better.’ Very positive, no matter what the odds were.”
Ralston’s mantra was: “What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve.”
Defensive lineman Dave Tipton remembers another Ralstonism, and in his best impersonation, recited: “Gosh darn, it’s a beautiful day today, and it’s going to be even better tomorrow.”
Ralston’s recruiting efforts largely focused on quarterbacks. Stanford had trouble getting players from different positions into school, but never had much trouble getting quarterbacks, who most often had the grades to get into Stanford. However, he also knew that quarterbacks were often the best athletes and liked to stockpile them. After a closer look, many would move to different positions.
That nearly was the case with Plunkett.
“When I arrived, I was one of five or six quarterbacks,” Plunkett said. “I had a tumor removed from my thyroid, so my freshman year was not very stellar. I also played defensive end in high school. So, after my freshman year of spring ball, all the players would go see Coach Ralston and he tells you what you need to work on to make this team. He told me I would have to play defensive end.
“I wasn’t about to do that. ‘No. 1, if you ask me to do that, I’ll probably leave and go somewhere else where I can play quarterback. And, No. 2, I came in banged up and I wasn’t myself because of the surgery. Just give me another opportunity to play quarterback.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
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Ralston’s early quarterbacks were Dave Lewis and Gene Washington, swift players who led sprintout attacks. But when Plunkett showed what he could do as a passer, Ralston changed to a dropback style.
“John loved to run the football,” Vermeil said. “But we greatly increased the effort in the passing game.”
“They built it around my abilities,” Plunkett said. “They saw me throw the football and my ability to run was not quite as stellar as Dave and Gene. One of the guys who helped tremendously with that was Jack Christiansen. He came in here as a linebackers coach, but he was also my coach one year and helped develop that pro style attack and made it work.”
Ralston also stressed fundamentals.
“You block, you tackle,” Plunkett said. “If you do it correctly, you’ll win more battles than you’ll lose.”
Another piece of the puzzle was Ralston’s willingness to adapt. In his early days at Stanford, Ralston was known as an overly strict coach in the mold of the authoritarian-coaches of the day, such as Ohio State’s legendary Woody Hayes. Ralston didn’t allow long hair or facial hair.
But the longer he was at Stanford, the more he realized that Stanford students were more liberal. They indeed had long hair and wore Tie-dyed shirts, and Ralston came to accept them for who they were.
Tipton, who later became a longtime Stanford assistant coach and now teaches at St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, Calif., said “I’m a huge fan of John Ralston.”
Tipton had committed to California, but still received a recruiting visit from Ralston, who brought his wife, Patty.
“I never heard of a coach bringing his wife to a home visit,” Tipton said. “His wife and my mother were both from Nebraska and had that in common. They left for the kitchen to talk, and he stayed with me and won me over. It was brilliant.”
Ralston’s quest to surround himself with talent was something he learned from his own coach at Cal, Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf.
“Coach Ralston was the best head coach I had an opportunity to be around,” said Moultrie, who coached defensive backs at Stanford before a long track and field coaching career at Howard University, and a stint coaching the U.S. track team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
“He was honest,” Moultrie said. “We had a great relationship and the staff worked together very well. If you had a different opinion, you always could bring it to the table.”
The teaching also was high quality, said Mike Boryla, a backup quarterback on both Rose Bowl teams and later a Pro Bowl quarterback with the Philadelphia Eagles.
“The things I learned as a quarterback under Ralston put me ahead of the other guys when I got to the pros,” Boryla said. “I was constantly doing drills to strengthen my arm and to develop a high release point. We were doing things like throwing over clothes lines. Other than by “Too Tall” Jones, I don’t think I ever had a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage.”
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Stanford wasn’t always able to recruit the biggest or strongest players, but Ralston’s teams still featured a hard-nosed defense. During the Rose Bowl years, they were known as the Thunder Chickens.
“The name was just a joke,” Tipton said. “(Defensive lineman) Pete Lazetich said he knew a motorcycle gang called the Thunder Chickens in Montana.”
Joke or not, the Thunder Chickens stuffed Ohio State and Michigan. Both Big Ten teams entered the Rose Bowls undefeated and featuring bruising running attacks.
However, the Ohio State game turned when the Buckeyes’ big fullback and future NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year John Brockington was stopped late in the game by Stanford’s Rod Kadziel for no gain on fourth-and-short. Stanford followed with two touchdowns to rally to victory.
Against Michigan, Stanford stopped the Wolverines on a crucial three-and-out to force a punt and gain possession with 1:12 left in the game. It was enough time for Bunce to drive the Indians downfield for Rod Garcia’s winning 31-yard field goal with 12 seconds left in a 13-12 victory.
In both games, Ralston and staff worked overtime to think of wrinkles to throw the Big Ten powers off their game. Against Ohio State, Plunkett became a runner, carrying on options and draw plays.
“People ask John why he didn’t do that a lot before then,” Plunkett said. “He said it was a long season and they were saving it for that big game. It paid off big time because it caught them totally by surprise.“
In the Michigan game, Stanford’s fake punt changed the momentum. An upback took the snap and held the ball between the legs of the player in front of him, Brown, who took the ball and carried it 31 yards to set up his own touchdown run that tied the game, 10-10.
Ralston was a pioneer in one other aspect. He was the first from Stanford to jump directly to an NFL head coaching position, something that Walsh, Dennis Green, and Harbaugh would later do. Ralston coached the Denver Broncos for five seasons (1972-76), recording the best two records in franchise history to that point. Though he never achieved the pro coaching success that some of his assistants did, Ralston was so valued that both Walsh and Vermeil later brought him to their NFL staffs.
Vermeil said he can’t think of any other case where a head coach was hired by those who once coached under him.
“That just shows how much respect we had for him,” Vermeil said.
Those feelings continue to run deep:
“He meant so much to all of us,” Tipton said.
“I was honored to coach under him,” Moultrie said.
Ralston sometimes has trouble recalling specifics about those days now. And he has endured his share of tragedy, losing a wife and two children over the years. But some things never change. He remains boundlessly optimistic. He is remarried, maintains close relationships from his Stanford days, and rarely misses his Tuesday walking group in his San Jose community.
"Going to the Rose Bowl and to win both times ... that was special," Ralston marveled. "I walked on water, I tell you. No question."
After as you prepare to leave after a special visit, Ralston grips your hand, He doesn’t let go. It’s strong. And it's reassuring, to know that men like him do still exist.
John Ralston, it was a pleasure to meet you.