Big Plays by the Bay No. 6: Santa Clara's Glory Days and Perfect Bowl Record
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 and will count them down in the monthly newsletter leading up to January’s College Football Playoff National Championship at Levi’s Stadium.
Only one Bay Area college football program owns an undefeated bowl record. Only one has played in a Sugar Bowl. And only one ever defeated legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant during his career, in a bowl game or otherwise.
Santa Clara University owns the trophies to prove all of it – even if the school no longer has a football team.
You can check the record books. For a significant stretch in the first half of the 20th century, the Broncos were a nationally-known gridiron force. This was especially true during the coaching tenure of Lawrence “Buck” Shaw, a dapper Iowa native. Shaw’s first two teams at Santa Clara, in 1936-37, reeled off a combined 17-1 record. After each season, the Broncos received an invitation to travel via train to New Orleans and face LSU in the nascent Sugar Bowl.
Santa Clara accepted both invitations and won both games. On New Year’s Day of 1937, the sixth-ranked Broncos held second-ranked LSU without a first down for the game’s first 25 minutes en route to a hard-fought 21-13 decision. Santa Clara quarterback Nello “Flash” Falaschi, scored the clinching touchdown on a freak play. He recovered a mid-air fumble from his own teammate inside the 5-yard line and smashed into the end zone to secure the upset.
A year later on the same field, undefeated and ninth-ranked Santa Clara knew LSU sought revenge. But on a hot and rainy Louisiana day, Shaw alternated his first and second units throughout the game to keep his players’ fresher. The Broncos grinded out a 6-0 victory thanks to two defensive goal-line stands from inside their own 3-yard line.
The two victories made Santa Clara a hot attraction for its home games at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco, played on Sunday afternoons to avoid competition with Stanford and Cal on Saturdays. In 1946, the 49ers’ pro franchise was formed and hired Shaw as its first head coach. But the Broncos managed further glory under Shaw’s successor, Len Casanova. In 1949, Santa Clara compiled a 7-2-1 record and earned an Orange Bowl invitation to face 9-2 Kentucky. The 11th ranked Wildcats were led by Bryant, who would go on to win national titles at Alabama.
But following the Broncos’ four-day train ride to Miami, broken up by practice sessions at various towns along the way, they outmaneuvered Bryant in a 21-13 victory before a crowd of 64,000. Upon returning home, the team was met at the Santa Clara depot by a huge crowd that included California Governor Earl Warren, the future Chief Justice of the United States.
Just three years later, Santa Clara football was gone. School administrators decided the team could not compete with the 49ers for fans at Kezar. The Broncos’ program was revived in 1959 at the Division II level and had some success before folding permanently in 1991. But nothing matched the heady times of the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl years that left Santa Clara with a 3-0 postseason record and a unique niche in Bay Area college football lore.