Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

When Cal chose ‘academic stuff’ over college football

By Malcolm Potts

The proverbial visitor from Mars would surely conclude that the primary purpose of American universities is to promote football and that teaching and research are secondary activities. The coaches are paid more than university presidents and chancellors. The largest and most expensive buildings are to stage football games a few times a year.

I am finding that increasing number of faculty worry about the future of college football, given the compelling evidence of serious brain damage among players. Matt Sienkiewicz from Boston College, someone who loved college football, has a powerful piece in the Oct. 22 Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes:

William Wallace Campbell
William Wallace Campbell

“Given the evidence at hand, there is no neutral position to take. We will either be complicit in the continuing epidemic of football-related brain injuries, or we will be at the forefront of creating a safer, less-hypocritical college experience for our student-athletes.”

I find it is the experience of many of us that faculty and administrators see the problem but consider it politically impossible to change. Perhaps we can all learn from the single occasion in our 149-year history when the administration fired the alpha male in the football hierarchy.

In the interest of transparency, I need to interrupt this account to say that the UC president concerned was William Wallace Campbell, my wife, Martha Campbell’s, grandfather. There was always a family story about W.W, Campbell firing the football coach but I never knew the details until a new biography of Campbell called Chasing the Stars: The Amazing Life of William Wallace Campbell by David Ferguson was published this year.

Campbell was elected president of the University of California in 1923. What makes Campbell’s decision even more courageous is that, unlike today’s lack luster performance, the 1920s were the golden age of the Golden Bears. In 1920, in front of a crowd of 40,000, the Bears beat Ohio State 28 to zero in their first Rose Bowl. They were the best football team in America.

When Andy Smith, the much loved and highly successful football coach, died in 1925 the undisputed leadership of football passed to Clinton “Brick” Morse. He was on the Berkley payroll as director of the California Glee Club. Cal football was Morse’s life. He composed Hail to California and Sons of California, still played at games.

The altercation between Campbell and Morse is recorded in an oral history my wife’s father, Kenneth Campbell, dictated for the UC Santa Cruz archives in 1971. Ken writes,

“It got to [Campbell] that Morse had been telling the football players, ‘now look, you know why the alumni got you to come here, paid you to come here. You know where your allegiances lie. Now never mind this academic stuff. We’ll see that you are tutored enough to pass your exams. Don’t you worry about that. You’re here to play football and see that you give your attention to that. That’s what you’re here for, and not for education, primarily.’ “

Campbell did care about the “academic stuff.” The oral history continues. Campbell “called Brick Morse and asked him if he’d said this, and he said yes, I have.” Campbell fired him on the spot.

Predictably, powerful alumni and the regents went ballistic. The press demanded that Campbell reappoint Brick Morse.

Campbell had been director of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton outside San Jose since 1901. It was his meticulous measurements of the apparent position of stars during a total eclipse of the sun in Australia in 1922 that finally proved that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was correct.

On his return from the eclipse expedition the regents met Campbell at the wharf in San Francisco and invited him to take the presidency of the university. Campbell was reluctant to do this. He had to be asked several times.

At the next meeting of the regents, Campbell said: “You know what you told me when you wanted me to be president; I didn’t want to be president, and you said, ‘Well Campbell, we have always given you everything you’ve asked for your community and the observatory, and now it’s your turn to help us.’ ”

“And I told you then that I would come on the basis that you do not interfere with internal administration.” And he said, “Gentlemen, this is internal administration. Now I am going to leave the room, and I want you people to decide whether you want me to continue as president or go back up Mount Hamilton and finish my work.’

“Five minutes later he was called in and they said, ‘We’d like you to continue to be president.’”

If the regents had jumped the other way and Campbell had gone back to Mount Hamilton, it is possible that Berkeley would have continued just like any other state university. At the time academic standards were low. If football had been allowed to trump (if we can still use that word!) academics, Cal might have never achieved the status it enjoys today.

UC Berkeley is the top-ranked public university in the world because of its academic achievements, its research and the talent and commitment of the students who want to come here. Football is a footnote.

In 1930 Campbell left Berkeley to become president of the National Academy of Sciences. The newly rebuilt Campbell Hall commemorates his time on our campus. While president, Campbell negotiated the Morrison family gift. W.W. Campbell’s portrait was recently restored and hung in that beautiful library.