BERKELEY - Ray Willsey, the former football and rugby player at California who served as head coach of the Golden Bears football team from 1964-71 during a 50-year coaching career, died this week at his home in Hailey, Idaho, at the age of 85.
Willsey, who also resided in Palm Desert, Calif., coached in the National Football League, Canadian Football League, NFL Europe/World League and Arena Football League after playing collegiately for legendary coaches Miles “Doc” Hudson and Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf at Cal.
On the gridiron, Willsey lettered twice as a quarterback and defensive back on Waldorf's 1951 and ’52 teams, guiding the Bears to their biggest Big Game victory margin in 30 years when they won 26-0 in 1952 on their way to a 7-3 season.
On the rugby pitch, Willsey was a midfielder who earned his first letter on the 1952 team that went 10-1, beating Stanford twice and winning 3-of-4 against British Columbia, and his second in ’53, playing alongside a host of other two-sport standouts including Paul Andrew, Jim Fetherston, Matt Hazeltine and Les Richter.
Willsey graduated from the University with a business degree in 1953 and went on to play two years with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL before beginning a storied coaching career in football.
“He loved Cal rugby, it was definitely one of his passions,” said his daughter LeeAnn Willsey Fairfield. “If he could have made a living in rugby as he was able to do in football, it might have been a tossup as to which way his career went. He was just a heck of an athlete.”
"Coach Willsey was always such a generous and kind man when we would meet," said Bears rugby head coach Jack Clark. "It means the world to us that he was proud to have played rugby at Cal."
Willsey served as an assistant coach under Darrell Royal at both Washington and Texas before becoming the first Cal alumnus to be named the Bears' head football coach in 38 years when he was hired in 1964, taking over for Marv Levy. Coaching during the '60s, he is credited with preserving the tradition of the program under a tumultuous period of the University's history.
After handing the reins of Cal football to another rugby and football alumnus in Mike White, Willsey served as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Raiders in the NFL, followed by head coaching posts in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe, and consultant roles in the NFL. During his career, Willsey was associated with two Super Bowl championships, two Grey Cup titles and three NFL Europe/World League crowns.
Ray Willsey was born September 30, 1928, in Regina, Saskatchewan, and moved to Orange County, where he played defensive back and quarterback at both Tustin High School and Santa Ana College.
Willsey was inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame in 1993 and in 2002 he received the University’s Glenn T. Seaborg Award, named after former Cal chancellor and 1959 Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and given to a former Cal football player for his career accomplishments.
Willsey is predeceased by his former wife, Barbara Bigelow Willsey, whom Ray met and married while they were both at the University; and survived by their three daughters – LeeAnn Willsey Fairfield of Bellevue, Idaho; Louise Willsey Poole of Boise and Janet Willsey Johnson of Oklahoma City – and his partner of 30 years, Joanne May.
A memorial service is planned for this spring in Berkeley, with details to follow.