Story Poster
Photo by Cal Athletics
Cal Football

A Tribute to Joe Kapp, a True Cal Legend

May 10, 2023

BERKELEY – Cal legend and Hall-of-Famer Joe Kapp passed away from complications of dementia Monday at the age of 85. Kapp was best known at Cal for leading the Golden Bears to the 1959 Rose Bowl, serving as the school's head football coach in 1982 when Cal used The Play to defeat Stanford in the Big Game, and several other signature wins over the Cardinal.

Kapp's success at Cal and beyond led to his election in multiple Halls of Fame, including those of the Bay Area, British Columbia Sports, Cal Athletics, Canadian Football League, College Football, Laredo Latin American Sports and National Hispanic Sports.

In honor of the recently-departed Cal legend, former Cal cornerback Gary Hein has penned a collection of favorite Joe Kapp memories.


Joe Kapp is, without doubt, my all-time favorite Golden Bear! After a long recruitment during my senior year in high school, Joe offered me to come to Cal on a football scholarship in the fall of 1983. I have met a lot of people during my life, but never anyone who appreciated the University of California at Berkeley, which he often referred to as "the center of the universe," more than Joe!

As a child, I had heard many times of Joe Kapp and his (often legendary) career and actions. While not my chief recruiter as a high school senior (head coaches were then, and now remain, more like closers), I have a specific recollection of Joe sitting in a nearly empty high school basketball gym watching me play an away game against a mediocre rival team. Speaking with him briefly after the game brought chills to my skin. During the Los Angeles All-City awards banquet in the late fall of 1982, near the time "The Play" occurred about 400 miles to the north, Joe was the keynote speaker and it quickly became obvious why he had been invited to handle that role. Joe told a few stories (one of his great strengths) that evening, including the several times he animatedly challenged Merlin Olson, Deacon Jones, Rosie Greer and the Fearsome Foursome of the LA Rams defensive line, in fairly colorful language. This "exchange" drew the ire of the Minnesota Vikings center from whom Joe was to receive the snap but seemingly the universal approval of the remainder of his teammates. 

Bear Insider

Perhaps the most impassioned story Joe relayed to a wide-eyed audience that night (he likely had his eyes more squarely focused on Hardy Nickerson from Verdum Dei High School, but he sold this guy, too) involved the time in the late 1950s that he played in a basketball game for Cal and legendary men's hoops coach Pete Newell, after whom our basketball court is named in Haas Pavilion. Apparently, Joe had only come to the team a few days earlier from football and did not expect to play in the NIT game, then an early season affair played at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan.

At that time, MSG had long been considered by many to be a sort of mecca for the sport of boxing. Joe was not afraid of confrontation, and certainly held the venerable arena in that esteem. Not thinking he would be playing at all that soon after coming out from football, Joe noted his extreme glee while staring up at the names and references to famous boxers such as Joe Louis. Apparently, a Cal starter got into foul trouble and Coach Newell, pondering his options, yelled "Kapp" toward the end of the bench. Joe noted that he was wondering to himself at the time, "What the hell does this guy want?!"

Newell proceeded to instruct Joe to enter the game, "use all of your fouls," and, "Whatever you do, don't shoot the ball!" As Joe told the story years ago, it became clear that he did not feel the opposition was giving him enough respect so ... he shot toward the hoop ... an airball. From Joe's comments that night, it seemed clear that Coach Newell did not approve. Ultimately, Kapp used his fouls in a somewhat physical manner and, according to Joe seemingly implying at least a couple ejections occurred, "Their team lost a lot of points and our team lost none." And, he triumphantly exclaimed, "I got to fight in the Garden!" Typical Joe. Always doing everything possible to win, while fearlessly backing down from exactly nothing.

Although not the best head football coach, and facing a coaching talent drain from the USFL at the time, Cal's record dropped after his Pac-10 Conference Coach of the Year award in 1982 where the Bears went a surprising 7-4. Regardless, I and the majority of my teammates always trusted that Joe would do and say only what he thought was in the best interests of the team and winning football games. He was honest, sometimes to a fault, perhaps, but always passionately pro-Cal and brutally honest.

During a football practice in the early fall of 1985, while the offense worked from the goal line heading out, one of our linebackers intercepted a pass and started returning it toward the goal line. Evidently, Joe didn't appreciate the vigor with which the linebacker attached this particular return so our fearless head coach ran to the 2-yard line and stood, wearing no pads and early 50's grey hair, in the path of the 20-something, pad-wearing, 400-pound bench-pressing linebacker. Our defensive player, fearing injury to his head coach, came to stop at the 3-yard line and Joe let loose a violent, double-handed, piston-like punch to the linebacker's shoulder pads, while yelling "Run through the goal line!" We all were a bit confused by the scene but Joe's message was clear: "The Bear Will Not Quit, The Bear Will Not Die!"

A couple weeks later, while I was returning punts and running what amounted to wind sprints down the sideline toward the north end zone in California Memorial Stadium, I saw Joe run out of the zone and plant himself on the 2-yard line. For some reason, I remembered the incident from a couple weeks prior and decided to run over Joe Kapp, my head coach. After knocking him 5 yards deep into the end zone with a forearm shiver at some pace, and seeing blood pouring from the same chin that probably had witnessed a few pops in his lifetime to that point, I immediately regretted the decision to do what Joe had implored the linebacker to do weeks earlier. He made me wait for two full 10-minute periods. Finally, he came up alongside me with a blood-soaked towel held to his chin, stared straight ahead toward the field, and said "You f***** me up, hombre ..." Then, turning his head and looking directly into my eyes, he added, "Good Job!"  Not only was it a huge relief to me, but also a firm reminder that Joe Kapp had his players' backs, and was always interested only in winning!

From play-acting shooting his Santa Claus suit-clad equipment manager with a squirt gun to send the message to his team "There ain't no more Santa Claus, men" after a nine turnover, close loss at home to ASU, to cutting the red tie off the neck of the chancellor in front of the team one day after practice, to teaching his players how to play "Grab-Azz" before practice and use that to perform a five lateral kickoff return for a game-winning touchdown on the final play of our rivalry game while the Stanfurd band paraded around the field, Joe did everything with strong passion and flair. He was beloved by teammates, players and fans for that same mentality.

The final game of my Cal Football career, in fact the last time I ever wore football pads in an actual game, Joe was a lame-duck coach and I was the co-captain of a 1-9 college football team, about to run through the north tunnel for the last time on Senior Day. The Golden Bears had a fantastic game on that glorious autumn Saturday in 1986 and overcame being 17-point underdogs to win the Big Game, 17-11. With Hardy Nickerson leading the Cal band from the conductor's ladder, a teammate and I carried Joe off the CMS field in the aftermath of that awesome game. Not only was I walking out of there for the last time as a Cal Bear football player but, and it's hard to believe this is more important to me, we were carrying Joe off into his well-deserved blue and gold Cal sunset!  

I saw Joe many times since that day. Nothing, however, will ever provide as much evidence for the type of leader and sturdy Golden Bear that man was, as the many wonderful memories I have of Joe Kapp as my recruiter and head coach. My family and friends are all in part due to his enormous impact on my life. Nobody has appreciated and loved Cal more than Joe Kapp. I will be eternally grateful for everything he has given me and many thousands of other Cal people through the years! 

The Bear Will Not Quit, The Bear Will Not Die ... RIP, my friend!

Discussion from...

A Tribute to Joe Kapp, a True Cal Legend

4,205 Views | 4 Replies | Last: 1 yr ago by BearoutEast67
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Wonderful tribute gary.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Thank you for sharing some of your time with Joe with us, Gary. May this truly great Golden Bear rest in peace.
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Since 1964 I have never been able to put my finger on what causes such deep feelings for Cal among all of us and clearly Joe Kapp. Perhaps all/most alum of most schools feel that way, but I'm not so sure of that...perhaps it is the beauty of the place, the quality of the education, the commitment to producing men and women who can think, the light off the buildings late in the day, the myriad characters, the politics, the humanity and likely the gold that is the patina on our youthful memories..... [that is not a particularly clever descriptor is it....]

perhaps some of you can explain this better than I have but feelings are often difficult to make concrete..

but to read about the love Kapp had for this place triggers this indescribable feeling....
How long do you want to ignore this user?
Amazing Cal Alum! Thank you Joe!
Donate to Cal's NIL at
Page 1 of 1
subscribe Verify your student status
See Subscription Benefits
Trial only available to users who have never subscribed or participated in a previous trial.