Ray Willsey, who coached Cal’s football team amid campus unrest in the late 1960s, died Monday at his home in Hailey, Idaho, his daughter said.
He was 85.
“He loved his Cal days. Those are his fondest memories,” said LeeAnn Willsey Fairfield.
Willsey played quarterback and defensive back for Cal for legendary coach Pappy Waldorf in 1951 and ’52, leading the Bears to a 26-0 Big Game victory over Stanford as a senior.
He coached his alma mater for eight seasons, compiling a 40-42-1 record, including 7-3-1 in 1968 during the height of the student-protest era on campus.
Willsey sometimes came home after practice having been exposed to tear gas that police used against protesters, his daughter recalled.
“Being able to keep the football program going during such a tumultuous time was a source of pride for him,” LeeAnn Fairfield said.
“Recruiting was really tough. He would sit in the living room with parents and they would switch on the nightly news when he was trying to convince them to let him take their son.”
The ’68 team posted three shutout victories and held eight of 12 opponents to 12 points or less, its defensive unit earning the nickname. “The Bear Minimum.”
Former Oakland Tribune columnist Dave Newhouse, who interviewed Willsey by phone about that team last week, called it “one of the most remarkable coaching jobs you’ve ever seen. Parents didn’t want to send their kids to Cal because of everything that was going on in Berkeley.”
Willsey suffered from dementia late in the life, but still was active, his daughter said. He also owned a home in Palm Desert.
After graduating from Cal, Willsey played two seasons for the Edmonton Eskimos in the Canadian Football League. He then began his coaching career as an assistant under Darrell Royal at both Washington and Texas.
He was a co-head coach of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals for two games in 1961 (winning both), and in ’64 became the first Cal alum in 38 years to take over as the Bears’ head coach.
Willsey returned to coach in the NFL in 1973 and from ’78 through ’84 was an assistant for the Raiders, part of Super Bowl victories both in Oakland and Los Angeles.
He was head coach of the London Monarchs in the World Football League in 1992 and served as an assistant for the Scottish Claymores of the WFL in 1996 at the age of 68.
In 2002, Willsey was honored by his alma mater with the Glenn T. Seaborg Award, given to a former Cal football player for his career accomplishments.
Willsey is survived by his partner of 30 years, Joanne May, daughters LeeAnn Willsey Fairfield, Janet Willsey Johnson and Louise Willsey Poole, and by five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his former wife, Barbara Bigelow Willsey.
A memorial service is being planned for Berkeley sometime in the spring, his daughter said.