April 4, 2013
BERKELEY - Recently CalBears.com had the privilege of speaking with Mike White, a former head football coach at California who also played rugby, gridiron and frosh basketball, and competed in track and field for the Golden Bears before going on to a coaching career that included a Super Bowl ring as a St. Louis Rams assistant following the 1999 season. The 2007 inductee into the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame had some sage observations that speak across generations of players, friends and family.
A varsity letterman at Cal in football and track & field from 1955-57, and an all-star flanker on "Doc" Hudson's 1957 varsity rugby team, White was the Bears' head football coach from 1972-77, compiling a 35-30-1 record and leading the team to a share of the 1975 Pac-8 title. Playing football under coaches Pappy Waldorf and Pete Elliott, White was a wide receiver and team captain as a senior in 1957.
In track, he won the high hurdles and high jump competition in the 1957 Big Meet vs. Stanford. In addition to his three varsity sports, White also earned a pair of junior varsity letters for Pete Newell in basketball. He began his long football coaching career as a Cal assistant from 1958-63. He returned to Berkeley as head coach in 1972 and had his best season in 1975 when the Bears finished 8-3 and were ranked 14th in the final Associated Press poll.
When White returned to his alma mater as head football coach, he met Jack Clark, an offensive lineman and future rugby head coach whom he recruited to Berkeley.
After Cal, White went on to become head coach at Illinois, where he earned the Big Ten Coach of the Year and his second National Coach of the Year honor in 1983, winning the conference and taking the Fighting Illini to the Rose Bowl. He then moved on the NFL, coaching the Oakland Raiders before earning his ring on the winning staff of the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV. He currently directs the Camp Blue at the Lair of the Golden Bear and serves on the board for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, awarded annually to college football's defensive player of the year.
What impact did rugby have on you as a student-athlete at Cal and how has it influenced your life?
"My favorite sport at Cal was rugby. I enjoyed the whole rugby culture and we had some great trips back to Yale and Harvard and Princeton, and of course up to British Columbia, and it was just a great experience for me. It was something that influenced my whole life because when I became the football coach at Cal, I was I think in the minority, so to speak, because I felt rugby was one of the great activities a football player could get involved in in the off-season, because you had some variety and you had a new sport and new team concept. So as I progressed in my career and became head football coach at Cal, I was promoting rugby and had a lot of players play rugby. Even I tried to play as an over-40s player - that was a mistake. But I really enjoyed it.
"Rugby has had a major, major impression on my life. I'm glad to be a part of it. I keep my eye on the scores to see how they're doing."
What has your role been at the Lair of the Golden Bear as director of Camp Blue?
"Having been a football coach and my parents having gone to Cal, and when I was making a transition into Cal and looking for a summer job, I worked at the University of California Alumni Camp, the Lair of the Bear, back in in 1954, '55 and '56. It was another experience that really added to my life and ironically, when my football career was over, a job opened up at the Lair. They asked me to manage one of three camps, Camp Blue.
"Seven years ago, my wife, Marilyn, and I decided the heck with this retirement, let's head on up to the Lair every summer for a little over three months and create another team atmosphere. We have over 50 kids on our staff, including several cooks, a lot of Cal students, a lot of students from all over the country who are hired and given opportunities for different jobs. It's a camping experience. There are sports activities too but it's just another great atmosphere. It's almost like a rugby atmosphere or a great sports team atmosphere where people have to work together and they have to give and take a little bit.
"I may be getting just as much enjoyment in managing the Lair of the Bear family camp as I did in any of my coaching because we're dealing with young men and women who have responsibilities and they have to be accountable for their jobs and they have to have a work ethic. We find we're giving something back, not only to the University but certainly to these young people that we have responsibilities for. It's been another great part of my life and I'm grateful that I wasn't the kind of guy to retire just to sit and look out the window and play golf every day. I enjoy being in the inner workings of a team and family, another very positive experience for my wife and me."
Can you tell us about former head football coach Pete Elliott, who passed away on Jan. 4, and the effect he had on your life as a coach, colleague and mentor?
"Some of the things I've tried to relate are about coaching, building a team or organization and working together. My entire career changed when a gentleman named Pete Elliott came to the University of California in 1957 and replaced one of the greatest coaches in sports, Pappy Waldorf. Pete Elliott was a young guy from the state of Illinois. He was a vibrant gentleman and somebody who made a major impact on so many of us. At that time I was going to go to business school or law school when I graduated from college. I was on his first team, his first year, and became captain of the football team.
"We weren't blessed with great success but his impact changed the entire course of my life because of how he handled himself and the impact that he had and the inspiration he was. We were 1-9 that year and flailing away with a lot of issues, just like any organization that isn't functioning very well, and of course following the great Pappy Waldorf wasn't very easy either. But my life changed because Pete Elliott saw the brightness in adversity and in all of us. He didn't let us sit around and feel sorry for ourselves or worry what happened in the last game or why we weren't successful or make excuses. I learned real quick a lot of great lessons in life and at that time I decided I wanted to be a football coach.
"This was in my senior year and for whatever reason, Pete Elliott named me the head freshman football coach the next year. Being a football coach sounds good - you get a whistle and you can blow it at people - but there's a little more to it. So I became the freshman football coach right out of college. I think we played two games, both against Stanford, and we won. Those were the years they had great freshman programs and you were exposed to the athletes. They didn't play varsity and get lost in the shuffle. It was a tremendous responsibility and all of a sudden, there I was as a coach. That was the last time Cal went to the Rose Bowl [Jan. 1, 1959, following the '58 season] so I was involved in the Rose Bowl experience as a newcomer and as a coach and was an integral part of Pete Elliott's coaching staff after having just played.
"The important thing is Pete showed tremendous confidence in me and hired me, giving me the confidence that maybe this is the kind of profession I could be successful in, so I owe it all to him. He helped me formulate an approach to teaching and coaching, then showed the confidence in me by putting his support behind me and giving me the confidence that maybe this is the right thing.
"It's the toughest thing you can do in sports and coaching, is following a legend, and Pete made that transition and did so much for so many of us, that's classroom teaching and coaching. He was a tremendous person and since his passing, a lot of his ex-players - Joe Kapp, Jack Hart and many others from his Rose Bowl team - have expressed an interest in doing what they can to remember Pete Elliott. I certainly pledge to do everything I can do remember him, showing what he did for not only myself but a lot of great Cal athletes."
What are your thoughts on Jack Clark, your former player with Cal football who is now nearing the completion of 30 years as head coach for Cal rugby?
"One of my great recruiting coups as a football coach was at Orange Coast College, where I went in and the illustrious Jack Clark was a great junior college football player. We recruited him on a full football scholarship and the rest is history. He was a very, very good football player as well as rugby player and he has had unbelievable success as the head coach of a major sport at Cal. After seeing him on the football field early in his career as a transfer, I went up to him and said, `You ought to give rugby a try.' He wasn't sure whether I was complimenting him or relegating him to another activity because of his lack of football prowess. Really I'm just kidding, but I think Jack's career got started with not only a good football career at Cal, but an unbelievable transition into rugby as a player and coach.
"Rugby is a great activity. It takes great coaching and Jack Clark's proved that. It takes discipline. Rugby players as a group have always been as close-knit a group as any that I can remember. There's just something about the camaraderie you have for each other as rugby teammates. Jack Clark has done an unbelievable job, far above any other rugby coach in the history of college rugby and probably internationally also. He has taken those concepts and built teams with great character and great people that represent Cal and themselves.
"As an aside to that, I hate to say that I've been to several memorials or several funerals where Jack Clark would have his whole rugby team there in coat and tie paying their respects and learning what life's all about.
"Here's a story that shows his dedication to coaching. It involves another gentleman that means so much to me, and that is Pete Newell, a great basketball coach at Cal. I went out for basketball one year and certainly wasn't a factor but I was able to play for the legendary Pete Newell. Many years later, Jack Clark called me and said he'd always wanted to meet Pete Newell. One thing led to another. Pete in his later years lived with one of his ex-players, Earl Schultz, and a couple of his sons in Rancho Santa Fe and wasn't doing too well with his health. But I called Earl and we got together with Pete.
"Pete Newell's Cal basketball loyalty is legendary. His dedication and results are something that we all admire. I had been to a basketball get-together the year before and Pete's health had been failing. He'd come out and say hello to us but then he'd need to go rest. We were down there for a weekend retreat for Pete Newell's NCAA teams. I was a little reluctant [to set up a meeting] but I said I'd see what I could do. Well, once thing led to another, and Earl Schultz and the boys said Pete would like to see us on a particular day. I told Jack that the last time I saw Pete it was for only two minutes and his energy was waning. But we meet at the Rancho Santa Fe Country Club and Jack's eyes are so big and proud to be in front of such a prominent person.
"Three hours later, we finished. It was the most amazing thing. Jack was like a little kid, asking questions, and Pete Newell, even with his health being what it was, sat there and related things in his career that made him what he was, and the people that he knew, and the relationship that he had with Pete Elliott and all the other experiences he had in his basketball career. It was unbelievable. That to me sums up Jack Clark. He's always trying to get better and respects people who have been successful. His enthusiasm and his passion for his job and his players is legendary and Jack Clark will go down as one of the great coaches in the history of college sports. I'm proud to know him. I do claim I discovered him. I really didn't but I felt like I did. He got an opportunity to go to the University of California and make an impact in the University, and he has, through the thick and thin and the ups and downs. I think we all know that Berkeley is a complex institution. Jack Clark, through all of it, has maintained class, integrity and obviously tremendous success. He's a good friend and I'm glad I have the relationship I do with him."