Bold coaching choice pays off as Kapp builds football winner at Cal

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When the University of California at Berkeley decided to do something about its defeat-weary football team at the end of last season, people somehow expected that the new coach would have at least worked at his profession.

They were looking for someone who had been a winner in the Big Ten, beaten Notre Dame, or taken one of the nation's major independents to a bowl game. Experimenting with atoms in the school lab is acceptable, but for the football field you've got to have a proven formula.

Instead Dave Maggard, Cal's athletic director, bypassed the popular newspaper candidate (Jack Elway of San Jose State) and hired Golden Bear alumnus Joe Kapp, ignoring the obvious risk that maybe the onetime star quarterback couldn't coach. Since ending his pro playing career with the New England Patriots, Joe had been off dabbling in acting, construction, real estate, and movie production.

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Most of the feeling that Kapp didn't have the credentials dissolved when Cal, which had gone 2-9 in 1981, won three of its first four games. The Golden Bears didn't stop there either, posting a 7-4 overall record climaxed by a wild 25-20 upset of arch rival Stanford in the season finale Saturday.

Thus Joe has already accomplished his first goal, which was to turn a losing program around. A good recruiting year should do the rest.

Looking back at his playing days at California, Kapp ran his team on the field like a Marine drill sergeant whose shoes were too tight. But the last time the Golden Bears made the Rose Bowl, against Iowa in 1959, it was Joe who got them there.

At that time Kapp was the Phyllis Diller of college quarterbacks. His passes had all the style of a shopworn housedress; the hang time of a manhole cover; and the trajectory of a Wall Street broker's stock charts.

Joe, however, was a born leader who kept a constant verbal fire under the emotions of his teammates. He wouldn't let anyone feel sorry for himself, even on those days when Cal wasn't winning, which wasn't often. If a personality problem developed between players, he solved it himself.

National Football League teams were so impressed with Kapp that they took 279 players ahead of him in the 1959 draft. They were looking for quarterbacks with rifle arms, not rubber hoses, so Joe ignored a modest offer from the Washington Redskins and took his act to the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.

After two years with the Stampeders, he was traded to the British Columbia Lions, a team he eventually led to the 1963 Grey Cup game, Canada's equivalent of the Super Bowl. The following year B. C. won it, even though Joe's wobbly passes didn't fly any better north of the border than they had in the United States.

Finally the downtrodden Minnesota Vikings, who stopped looking at pictures of Joe throwing and began reading his statistics instead, ransomed him out of the Canadian league along with coach Bud Grant.

Kapp and Grant turned out to be a wonderful partnership that produced a Viking win over the champion Green Bay Packers their first year; an 8-6 record the next season; and a trip to the Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 1969 season.

When Kapp first became head coach at Cal this year, there reportedly was some resentment among those in the profession who felt he hadn't paid his dues. Frankly, they were stunned that Maggard would hire a man who hadn't coached before at any level. Besides a lack of experience, Joe reported for work with only one fulltime holdover from last year's Cal coaching staff, defensive coordinator Ron Lynn.

''If there are people out there who don't think I should have this job, then it's their problem, not mine,'' Kapp told reporters. ''Of course experience is desirable. But to me a person can either do a job or he can't, and when I played pro football I studied a lot more film than most of my coaches.

''To be a success in football, you have to achieve a certain amount of balance between the offense and the defense. We've made some progress this year and we've made some mistakes. But the big thing is that we started to learn to play to our potential.''

One thing that helped Kapp tremendously was an opening game win against Colorado in which sophomore quarterback Gale Gilbert (whom Joe had helped convince to stay at Cal) played extremely well. California's football program was also reinforced by its first defeat; a 15-0 loss to powerful Arizona State that should have been a laugher for the Sun Devils.

Although the feeling right now in Berkeley is ''Wait until next year and we'll be champs,'' Kapp is undoubtedly going to need more time than that, even if all his new recruits turn out to be blue chippers.

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