A Half Century of Football for John Ralston
Nov. 21, 1996
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) _ John Ralston marveled as the high school football coach strolled past his grandparents' house in remote northern Michigan. By age 11, he knew that's what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Fifty-eight years later, after a career that took him from Utah State to ``Coach of the Century'' at Stanford to the NFL and USFL and the College Football Hall of Fame, Ralston is preparing for his final game this Saturday.
He turned the Denver Broncos into winners for the first time. He taught Bill Walsh about coaching. He scoured East Germany and the Soviet Union for big, strong kids that wanted to learn the American game of football.
And he did it all with a caring, gentle style that his players and fellow coaches remember far better than any of his 139 victories as a college and pro head coach.
``He really has no ego. And he loves to laugh,'' said Oakland Raiders coach Mike White, who played for Ralston in college and worked under him at California and Stanford. ``He loves his players. He really, genuinely loves and supports his players.''
When Ralston coaches San Jose State in its finale Saturday at home against UNLV, he'll close a 45-year career that has spanned nearly the entire modern era of football _ from two-way players to nickel defenses.
He has played a role in many of the changes.
Ralston coached the Broncos shortly after they joined the NFL from the AFL. He coached the Oakland Invaders and was president of the Portland Breakers of the short-lived USFL. He was the coordinator of Operation Discovery, which sought foreign players for the World League.
``I remember all the games,'' said Ralston, who turns 70 next April. ``It hasn't been a long road. It's been a short road in a long period of time, when you enjoy coaching as much as I do.''
Ralston was born in Oakland, Calif., but spent much of his childhood in tiny Norway, Mich. His father had played a little football at Michigan State, and Ralston quickly became interested in sports.
``I got a football at Christmas,'' he said. ``We didn't get much at Christmas then.''
He was playing guard in the fifth grade and tight end as a seventh grader. He was a Cal linebacker at 178 pounds, and then went into coaching.
His first job after graduation in 1951 was as an assistant coach at Mount Diablo High School, east of Oakland. Ralston got his first high school head coaching job two years later.
He went back to Cal as an assistant from 1956-58, making White a graduate assistant.
``My introduction to coaching was getting ice cream for John Ralston,'' said White, one of many Ralston assistants _ including Walsh, Jim Mora and Dick Vermeil _ who went on to NFL coaching jobs.
Ralston went 31-11 in four seasons as head coach at Utah State, where he coached Merlin Olsen. Then he had a 55-36 record in nine years as head coach at Stanford, including two Rose Bowl titles.
Walsh and White were among his assistants at Stanford, where Ralston was named Coach of the Century in 1991. Jim Plunkett was one of his quarterbacks.
He spent 1972-76 as head coach and general manager of the Broncos, leading Denver to the first three winning seasons in franchise history. One of his players was Rubin Carter, now a defensive line coach at San Jose State.
``As a player, I considered myself a part of his family. He made you feel that way,'' Carter said. ``Being a coach on his staff, I can see what type of a sensitive person he is. He gives players a chance to express themselves, both athletically and as people.''
Ralston became offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1978, vice president of the San Francisco 49ers in 1979-80. He worked in the USFL from 1981-85 before returning to the NFL, and then the World League, as a scout. He also worked in pro volleyball and tennis leagues.
Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992, he took the San Jose State job a year later hoping to rebuild the program. Though he managed just a 10-34 record in four years with the Spartans, players said they felt privileged to be around Ralston.
``I've been playing for a lot of coaches and they don't praise too much. He really focuses on the positives we get out of the game,'' said safety Jarrett Robinson. ``He's really a nice guy. He just won't always talk about football because there's more to life than football.''
Part of that positive attitude came from Ralston's work as a Dale Carnegie motivational instructor.
``He'd say things like, `Today is the greatest day of my life and tomorrow will be even better.' He was always upbeat,'' White said.
After this season, Ralston said he'll probably stay at San Jose State in some capacity. And he won't rule out another coaching stint.
``If I'm alive, I'll coach again,'' he said. ``I'll get a quick fix in Europe coaching some national team. I'll go back to my Moscow Bears or to Holland. I'll get opportunities if I need to coach.''