Willsey Traces His Roots of Success to Old Coach : O.C. Hall of Fame: Pappy Waldorf was there to guide him through his salad days.


Cal Coach Pappy Waldorf used to call him "my defensive brain on the field," one of those slightly back-handed compliments coaches reserve for over-achievers who usually aren't the fastest or strongest. But on this day, defensive back Ray Willsey turned into an offensive whiz kid.

It was the 1952 Big Game, Cal vs. Stanford, and for senior Willsey, it became the biggest game. With Billy Mais sidelined because of a dislocated thumb, Waldorf named Willsey the starting quarterback.

It seemed as if the first half would end in a scoreless tie when Willsey retreated to pass, eluded a strong Stanford rush and fired a pass to a streaking Bob Beal that ended in a 62-yard touchdown play and jump-started the Bears to a 26-0 victory.

In the second half, Willsey scrambled and weaved his way through the Stanford defense for a long run that set up another touchdown and later scored on a short plunge.

Willsey, who played both defensive back and quarterback at Tustin High School and Santa Ana College, went on to play three years of professional football in Canada and was an All-Pro selection each season. But, as Waldorf had recognized before Willsey ever considered it, Ray Willsey was more coach than player.

It's eloquently evident in his description of the highlight of his college career, the day the little defensive back became the biggest man on campus:

"It was a game that worked out well for us and worked out exceptionally well for me," he said. "I had played quarterback in one or two other situations prior to that, but Billy was hurt and they moved me over from defense.

"I was excited about the opportunity and it was one of those things where things clicked for us. It was a very good football game, a very tight game until late in the fourth quarter, and things worked out for us."

Thirty years of preaching that one guy doesn't win a football game will do that to you. And for the 62-year-old Willsey, who will be inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame Sunday, the genesis was Waldorf.

Darrell Royal first hired him as an assistant. Pete Newell gave him his first head coaching job at Cal. Don Coryell named him assistant head coach in charge of defense with the St. Louis Cardinals. And Al Davis made him Raiders' backfield coach and owner of two Super Bowl rings.

But it all started with Waldorf.


"A lot of coaches have influenced my career, but Waldorf made me aware that football coaching was a serious profession for intelligent people," Willsey said. "Back then, people thought if you were a player, you could be a coach. But as I got to know him, I realized this was a very bright man.

"He was extremely well organized and he knew how to handle people. He quoted literature and poetry. He was knowledgeable about music, plays and military history. And when it came to food and drink, he was a gourmet.

"I don't think there's any question that had he decided to go off into the corporate world, he'd have been president of the company in a very short period of time."

Willsey was only 34 when he became president of his own "company," returning to Cal as head coach in 1964. It seemed a natural progression.

After ending his playing days at Cal, he hooked up with the Edmonton Eskimos and figured life couldn't get any better.

"I had been playing football for 15 years or so and now they were paying me to play," he said. "And we were making more than the guys in the NFL. We had a lot of players jumping to our league because we got paid more."

An elbow injury in the Canadian All-Star game marked the end of his career in helmet and shoulder pads after three seasons, however. He had met Royal in Canada and Willsey agreed to take his first paid coaching job when Royal, at 28, became the head coach at Washington.

Willsey then helped Royal turn Texas into a national power in the late '50s and later got his first NFL experience in the early '60s as defensive coordinator with the St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Redskins.

When Newell offered him the head job at his alma mater, Willsey figured it was the right time and the right place, because "I thought I knew the situation."

Recruiting at Berkeley turned into a bit of a problem in those days, however. Student unrest at Cal was part of most evening news telecasts.

"We used to tell recruits that if they stood near one of those burning banks, they might be able to reach in and grab some," Willsey said. "It affected our football program, no question. We ended up losing a lot of players that under normal situations we probably would have gotten."

As a result, the Bears were 40-42-1 in eight seasons under Willsey, who resigned after the 1971 season.


Willsey didn't have much time to ponder what went wrong at Cal. Coryell, busy innovating the way the NFL played offensive football, handed him the reins of the Cardinal defense.

It was a heady time, watching Coryell's genius at work and working with a staff that included Jim Hanifan and Joe Gibbs, both NFL head coaches in the developmental stages.

"Don was a great guy to work for," Willsey said. "He let me do whatever I wanted on my side of the ball. And it was a great staff, great fellows to be around. It was a very enjoyable time."

The Cardinals were 42-27-1 in five seasons under Coryell and won their division twice. But, after a 7-7 record in 1977, Coryell and his entire staff were fired.

Willsey, never one to be out of work for long, joined the Raiders as backfield coach for the next season. He helped plan victories for the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV and the Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII.

OK, so what's it really like to work for Davis?

"Well, you know everybody is a little different and Al is a little different," he said, "but I really enjoy Al and I still count him as a friend. I think he probably knows more about all facets of professional football, from the front office all the way down to the field, than any man I've ever met.

"I think he's misunderstood."

After 10 seasons with the Raiders, Willsey left to become head coach of the Los Angeles Cobras of the Arena Football League in 1988.

"They offered me part ownership of the franchise and I thought it might be a good deal," Willsey said, "but then everything fell apart and the lawsuits were flying, so I didn't mind relinquishing my ownership rights. I didn't want to be on the end of one of those suits.

"But I still think it's a good game. It's very intimate and it's doing pretty well around the country now. I think there's more to it than just novelty."

At the moment, Willsey is being paid by the NFL to make sure that American football remains more than a novelty in Europe. After two years as head coach of the London Monarchs--he led them to the World League title in 1991--he spends much of his time putting on clinics and lecturing in England, Spain and Germany.

The World League is now under the umbrella of the NFL and there has been a budget submitted for putting a strictly European division back on the field in the spring of 1995. What's ahead for Willsey?

"It's never a good idea to look too far down the street," he said, falling back on tried-and-true coach-speak. "If something develops, great, if not, I've had a pretty good run."

Hall of Fame Induction Facts

What: 13th Orange County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony

Where: Gate 6, Anaheim Stadium

When: 11 a.m. Sunday

Highlights: Ceremony inducting Bert Blyleven, Gary Carter, Maurice (Red) Guyer, Hal Sherbeck, Jerry Shipkey and Ray Willsey will take place outside Anaheim Stadium. The public can then gain admission to the newly opened Hall of Fame for $3.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World