Big Plays by the Bay No. 5: The Wonder Teams of Cal with a Brick Foundation
College football has been played in the Bay Area for 133 years with numerous great players and games – plus some remarkable stories that have been forgotten. Bay Area Blitz contributor Mark Purdy has picked the 10 best stories. He will count them down in the monthly newsletter leading up to January’s College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi’s Stadium.
Football in the 1920’s was not like football in the 2010’s. The ball was more oval and more bloated. Players went both ways, on offense and defense. Yet you could make a case that the best Bay Area football teams of all time occurred in that era. All of them wore the blue and gold uniforms of the California Golden Bears.
In 1960, the Helms Athletic Foundation attempted to rank the top teams of the previous six decades. Top choice as No. 1 overall? It was the 1920 Cal squad, which went undefeated in nine regular season games and outscored opponents, 424-14, and then shut out Ohio State in the Rose Bowl Game, 28-0. And that was just the beginning of a stunning five-year stretch. From 1920 to 1925, the Golden Bears didn’t lose a game. They had just four ties. They were named mythical national champions in four of those five seasons by at least one recognized ranking organization. And they were collectively given a very cool nickname by sportswriters of the day: “Wonder Teams.”
The man who orchestrated all this was head coach Andy Smith, who had been recruited away from Purdue University by Cal officials in 1915. Smith instituted a disciplined, detailed style of football and almost demonically recruited top-tier California high school players. He found one of the best in his own back yard. Harold “Brick” Muller was a multi-sport athlete at Oakland Tech High and eagerly enrolled at Cal to play for Smith.
Back then, freshmen were ineligible for varsity football. But Muller ran roughshod over the Cal upperclassmen in scrimmages while also excelling in track and field. One month before the 1920 season began, he won a high jump gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Belgium. Then he returned to campus and dominated on the gridiron. At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, with huge claw-like hands to better grip the bulbous football, Muller was used in every conceivable way. During the Rose Bowl Game victory over Ohio State, he threw a 53-yard touchdown pass on a trick play, caught two passes and recovered three fumbles.
In 1921, Muller became the first West Coast player to be named a first-team All-American. He capped off his career the following season by leading the Bears to a 28-0 crush of rival Stanford. Muller passed up a career in pro football, then in its early years, and entered medical school. He became an orthopedic surgeon and Cal’s team doctor. Tragically, his coach never lived to see it. Smith died of pneumonia following the 1925 season. But he and his teams left a concrete legacy. The Wonder Teams were such a gate attraction that their ticket proceeds ended up financing Cal’s Memorial Stadium, which opened in 1924.