Advertisement

When They Were Kings : Cal Lutheran Threw a Little Magic Into Its Ethnic Mix to Win National Title in 1971

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Members of the 1971 Cal Lutheran football team would have made an interesting study in sociological diversity.

They included home-grown heroes, Vietnam veterans, a large contingent of former Orange County high school standouts--some of whom were self-described rednecks--and a small but talented group of African Americans trying to find cultural identity in a mostly white, developing suburb.

Along the way the melting pot nearly boiled over because of racial turmoil, but the team hammered out its problems during an emotional late-season meeting. The Kingsmen drew closer, then went out and whipped three formidable foes to complete an unbeaten season and win the small-college national championship.

African Americans trying to find cultural identity in a mostly white, developing suburb.

Advertisement

Along the way the melting pot nearly boiled over because of racial turmoil, but the team hammered out its problems during an emotional late-season meeting. The Kingsmen drew closer, then went out and whipped three formidable foes to complete an unbeaten season and win the small-college national championship.

Cal Lutheran has never duplicated the feat, and the 0-4 start of this season’s team indicates just how far removed the present is from the past.

The 25-year anniversary of Cal Lutheran’s NAIA Division II title will be celebrated Saturday at the Kingsmen’s 1 p.m. home game against Occidental, providing 1971’s players and coaches--who have been invited to participate in a halftime ceremony--with a chance to reminisce and get reacquainted.

Barely a day goes by that former Coach Bob Shoup doesn’t think about that magical season.

Advertisement

“I don’t think I’ve lost much of the glow of that year,” said Shoup, 64, who teaches part time at Cal Lutheran and helps out as an assistant football coach at Thousand Oaks High.

Memories of 1971 still burn bright for the players as well. Being part of an unlikely championship team enriched their lives and inspired many to stay in the game as coaches.

Mike Sheppard, a wide receiver on the 1971 team, was a Cal Lutheran assistant for three years before embarking on a successful coaching career that has included stints as the head coach at Long Beach State and New Mexico State and his present position as receivers coach with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

“Those years, for most of us, were as special a time as we can remember in our lives,” Sheppard said of his playing days at Cal Lutheran.

Jim Bauer, the coach at Littlerock High, said he frequently draws on the 1971 season when addressing his players. “That’s one of the reasons I’m coaching--so hopefully the kids I’m working with now can experience some of the kinds of things we did,” he said.

Another former player, Art Green, said Shoup deserves much of the credit for keeping Cal Lutheran’s ship afloat in 1971.

“The only word you can use to describe Shoup, I guess, is the magician, for getting all these people together to win a championship,” said Green, an assistant track coach at Moorpark College.

The culmination of the 1971 season was the most exciting, and exhausting, time in Shoup’s 28 years as Cal Lutheran coach. Aside from preparing the Kingsmen for their two playoff games against Montana Tech and Westminster College of Pennsylvania, he also handled administrative and publicity responsibilities as athletic director and sports information director.

Advertisement

The whirlwind of activity included expanding the seating capacity of the school’s playing field so the Kingsmen could play host to the playoff games and dealing with unprecedented media interest.

Channel 4 televised both playoff games locally, with Ross Porter and Tommy Hawkins announcing, and The Times’ Jim Murray, whose daughter Pam was Shoup’s student secretary, wrote a column describing Cal Lutheran’s game against Montana Tech as a throwback “to the days when we all thought Yale-Harvard was for the world championship.”

Those were heady days for a school that had fewer than 1,000 students.

The Kingsmen also received enthusiastic support from the Thousand Oaks community, which 25 years ago had a small-town atmosphere distinctly different than the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles and its suburbs.

“Thousand Oaks was really rustic back then,” said Shoup, who has lived in the city since 1962, the year he began coaching at Cal Lutheran. “It was just starting to get things like a hospital and shopping center. There was no city transit. It was really a sleepy town.”

For amusement, Cal Lutheran students went to movies at the recently closed Melody Theatre, drove to the beach or played pingpong in the student union. Those activities took a backseat in November 1971, when the playoff-bound football team became the center of attention. “It’s almost like the games were anticlimactic,” Shoup said. “The players couldn’t believe all the excitement.”

But the games lived up to the hype, especially the championship game, in which Cal Lutheran came from behind to upset defending champion Westminster, 30-14, and finish 8-0-2.

The victory was particularly sweet for Shoup, whose career record was 185-87-6. He felt Cal Lutheran had not received the respect it deserved in previous seasons from the NAIA powers who controlled ratings and playoff invitations.

Advertisement

Before the 1971 season, Cal Lutheran had been passed over for the playoffs six consecutive years despite averaging nine victories a season.

Shoup expressed his frustration in the media guide: “The NAIA wisemen from the East recognize Cal Lutheran, but evaluate West Coast football with all the objectivity of a lynch mob.”

The coach’s words set a brash tone for the Kingsmen, who made their mark early in the season with a 24-14 victory over Cal State Fullerton, a previously unbeaten NCAA team that featured an outstanding quarterback, Mike Ernst.

The teams had to share a restroom at Thousand Oaks High, where the game was played. Before the kickoff, Ernst walked to the mirror and carefully inserted his contact lenses.

Ralph Miller, Cal Lutheran’s 6-foot-4, 260-pound tight end, came in, looked down at Ernst and bellowed, ‘We’re gonna kick your butt.’ ”

Miller’s defiant attitude emerged again later in the season, while Cal Lutheran prepared for its final regular-season game against Pacific Lutheran. The Kingsmen had to win to earn a Division II playoff berth.

Three days before the game, all but one of the team’s six black starters missed practice, including Miller. Shoup was told they were in the cafeteria cooking soul food for Black Awareness Day.

After Shoup told the missing players they would not start in Saturday’s game because they violated a team rule, Miller confronted the coach, asking him what kind of racist he was, Shoup said.

The blow-up led to a team meeting Friday night in which the players, black and white, vented their feelings.

“God, I’m feeling chills talking about it,” said Charles Young, an African American who played defensive back. “That was the night we really became a team. We stood together. We said, ‘If everybody doesn’t play, nobody would play.’ That’s what we told the coaches.”

Bauer said the meeting was the best thing that could have happened to the Kingsmen. He played defense for two seasons but moved to the offensive line as a senior in 1971 because of a shoulder injury.

Said Bauer: “The team was kind of divided up into three groups--one that thought blacks and whites weren’t getting the same treatment, one group who thought that wasn’t what happened, and another group that just wanted the whole thing to go away.

“It was four hours of soul searching between players, coaches and some alums.”

Bauer became choked up at the memory.

“I’m getting emotional just talking about it,” he said. “I’m 46 years old and it’s been 25 years, and I’m sitting in my kitchen crying. It was incredible.

“After that, we were really a team. We were ready to roll--and we rolled. From that point on, I knew we weren’t going to lose.”

Cal Lutheran pulled together and dominated Pacific Lutheran, 27-6. During the game, “You would have thought we were the closest team on the planet, instead of a team about to come apart,” Shoup said.

The day after the victory, Shoup got a call informing him that Cal Lutheran had received a berth in the four-team NAIA Division II playoffs. As if to make up for past injustices, the fourth-seeded Kingsmen were also asked to play host to Montana Tech.

However, there was a stipulation: Cal Lutheran had to expand the seating capacity of Mt. Clef Field.

Fortunately for Shoup, his wife worked as a baby-sitter for a Pasadena family that owned many of the portable bleachers used for the Rose Parade. With the Tournament of Roses Committee’s blessing, Cal Lutheran rented the bleachers for a good price and increased its seating capacity to about 4,000, Shoup said.

The Kingsmen’s other challenge was finding a way to stop Montana Tech running back Don Heater, who had rushed for 1,797 yards and 25 touchdowns in 10 games.

Cal Lutheran found the answer in middle linebacker Sam Cvijanovich, who dogged Heater the entire game and finished with 12 tackles in a 34-6 victory. Cvijanovich, nicknamed Jawbone for his ferocious play, was later named NAIA District III player of the year.

“We were tough and disciplined on the field, and off the field we learned to respect other people’s ideas,” said Cvijanovich, whose younger brother, Steve, was the starting center in 1971. “But it didn’t happen overnight. We had our struggles, but we learned we were all people, all wanting to strive toward the same goal.”

The Cvijanovich brothers, sons of longtime Santa Clara High basketball Coach Lou Cvijanovich, are co-owners of Sam’s Saloon, a sports bar in Oxnard.

While Jawbone took a bite out of Montana Tech’s offense, quarterback Bruce Drake had the Oredigger defense on its heels after connecting with Miller on a 51-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter. Miller, easily the largest player on the field, buried five Westminster defenders on his way to the end zone.

Miller loved to catch the ball at Cal Lutheran but was drafted as a guard and blocked his entire five-year pro career, spent with teams in the National, Canadian and World football leagues.

After dispatching Montana State in the semifinals, Cal Lutheran braced for Westminster, which had not lost a game in two seasons.

*

As the top-seeded team, Westminster normally would have played host to the championship game. But NAIA officials were encouraged by the attendance at Cal Lutheran’s first playoff game and discouraged by the frigid weather in western Pennsylvania.

“They were really a good team,” Brian Kelley, who played linebacker for Cal Lutheran, said of Westminster. “They had a mystique about them. But we felt they were coming to our place, and we had confidence in ourselves.”

Playing before an enthusiastic, capacity crowd, Westminster took a 14-7 lead early in the fourth quarter before the game turned. Kip Downen fielded a kickoff and handed the ball to Lance Calloway, who returned it 93 yards for a Cal Lutheran touchdown.

Those were the first of 23 unanswered points scored by the Kingsmen. Sheppard broke a 14-14 tie with a 14-yard touchdown run on a fake field goal. The Kelley brothers, Richard and Brian, finished the scoring--Richard kicking a 25-yard field goal and Brian returning an interception 33 yards for a touchdown.

“In the fourth quarter, we just couldn’t do anything wrong,” Shoup said. “It was almost like it was destined.”

Sheppard, who was part of another championship team as an assistant at Idaho State when it won the NCAA Division I-AA title in 1981, was named lineman of the game. Brian Kelley, who enjoyed an 11-year NFL career with the New York Giants, was selected back of the game.

A banquet for both teams was held immediately after the game at the Holiday Inn in Thousand Oaks. The only thing wrong with it, Shoup said, was that Westminster had to endure several more hours of Cal Lutheran celebrating.

“Westminster’s coach, Harold Burry, was a magnificent gentlemen,” Shoup said. “I’m sorry he and his players had to go through that.”

The party continued after the banquet at a house shared by several Cal Lutheran players.

“Our living room was so full of people, if you were drunk and wanted to pass out, you couldn’t have fallen down,” Brian Kelley said.

Another celebration, a banquet of champions, was held in February 1972, at the Hollywood Palladium to honor the Kingsmen and the Dallas Cowboys, who had won their first Super Bowl in January. The Cowboys were then training at Cal Lutheran. Coach Tom Landry spoke at the banquet.

It was a special ending for a special team, one that superstitiously touched a pair of blue slippers that hung over the locker-room door before every home game. A few seasons before, the slippers were found in a visiting locker room and accidentally taken back to Cal Lutheran after an upset victory on the road. Shoup considered them good luck.

“There’s always all kinds of magic at small schools,” Sheppard said. “Coach Shoup had everyone believing, including himself, that those slippers had some significance attached to them. It seemed as though every time those slippers were there and we touched them, we won. If not, we’d lose. It was remarkable.”

For the Kingsmen, though, most everything about 1971 was magical.

*

Correspondent Lauren Peterson contributed to this story.


Advertisement