Dick Norman Remembers: The Big Game of 1959

As we celebrate Big Game Week in 2009, we'd be remiss if we failed to honor the 50th Anniversary (unfortunately in this case a "Golden" Anniversary) of the greatest passing performance by a quarterback in the 111 football games played in the storied rivalry between Stanford and California. We also honor the late local sportswriter Dave Wik, upon whose story we felt we would struggle to improve!

Dick Norman Remembers: The Big Game of 1959

By the late, great Dave Wik of the Peninsula Times-Tribune [A re-print of an article from 1979]

Stanford's football teams, it seems, have always emphasized the passing game, dating back to 1940 when Frank Albert and the T-formation became a topic of conversation.

Of all the quarterbacks who have thrown passes for Stanford – and that includes All-Americans like Albert, Bob Garrett, John Brodie, Jim Plunkett and Guy Benjamin, along with 1978 national passing champion Steve Dils – the one who had the greatest of all days did it in a losing cause. It happened to be the 1959 Big Game played in Stanford Stadium. The final score was California 20, Stanford 17.

And just who was the quarterback who performed so brilliantly? It was Dick Norman, who, at the time, was a 6-foot, 3-inch, 209-pound, 20-year-oId junior from Lynwood, California.

In that particular Big Game, Norman complete
d 34 of 39 pass attempts for 401 yards, establishing national collegiate records for number of completions, total yards and completion average.

The .872 completion percentage still ranks the best in the Pacific Eight Conference record book, shaded only by a perfect 10-of-10 showing by Steve Endicott of Oregon State against UCLA in 1971. What boggles the mind is that with any kind of luck at all, Norman's statistics could have been even more astounding.

Stanford's head coach that season was ("Cactus") Jack Curtice, who is ready to tell anyone that Norman "threw the ball away two times."

All-America end Chris Burford, who caught 12 of Norman's passes that day en route to tying a national receiving record for a single season, remembers the quarterback grounding two of them to stop the clock.

"And," continues Burford, "I know there were a couple of completions called back because of penalties. I know because
I was involved in them!"

Actually, according to the play-by-play, five of Norman's completions were wiped out by penalties. That was 20 years ago.

Today (1979) Norman is vice president of the Associated Sand and Gravel Company, Inc., in Everett, Washington. He and his wife have a daughter, Dana (18), who is enrolled at Stanford.

Norman's memory of the game is still vivid. And, despite the loss, he derives personal satisfaction for a job well-done. Tells Norman:

"I know it's a crummy thing to say, but for me the individual thing has gone on to overshadow the outcome of the game. It's probably the single-most thing people talk to me about in football. It's one of the ironies."

For Norman, it presented him with a batch of records and the national passing leadership, which he surrendered his senior year when he had an entirely new crop of receivers.

As for the Big Game classic of '59, Stanford was favored to win the renewal in what was a battle to avoid the cellar in the five-member Athletic Association of Western Universities. With Washington, USC and UCLA finishing with 3-1 records each, the three-point victory lifted Cal to 1-3 in the final conference standings and left Stanford at the bottom with an 0-4 mark.

For the overall season, the win was sweet for the Berkeley Bears, who needed something nice to cap an otherwise dismal 2-8 year under Head Coach Pete Elliott. The loss dipped Stanford's record to 3-7, which was to follow with a 0-10 record in 1960 when Norman and tackle Dean Hinshaw were the team's senior co-captains.

"That really was frustrating," remembers Norman of the winless campaign, a year when he had received considerable recognition as a preseason All-America candidate.

While Norman has tried to forget 1960, he finds no difficulty in recalling the highlights of the 1959 Big Game. Give a listen:

"Everything just clicked. Receivers like Chris Burford, Ben Robinson, Dick Bowers, John Bond, Irv Nickolai, Mac Wylie and Skip Face – plus time to throw – helped just a bit.

"Pete Elliott, the Cal coach, said there were two approaches to pass defense – "rush the passer or concentrate on coverage. He elected to "cover".

"The success of that coverage pointed out once and for all that there is really only one pass defense and that is to rush the passer.

"I couldn't' begin to recreate the game. I do recall' marching about 100 yards - due to various penalties - at the end of the first half without scoring.  Pretty much the same thing happened at the end of the game.

"On the last play of the game, Pete's strategy to cover paid off. I couldn't find a receiver, attempted to run, became trapped on the sideline and was tackled attempting to get out of bounds as time expired.

"As I recall, I had a reason not to ground the ball intentionally. The defenders may have had me too tied up to throw downfield.

"I do remember second guessing myself for not flipping the ball out of bounds laterally, thus stopping the clock and minimizing the yards lost."

According to the play-by-play, Stanford was on the Cal five-yard line when Norman was tackled after a five-yard gain to end the game. It put a fizzle to a drive, which might have provided one of the greatest comebacks in Big Game history.

After a scoreless first quarter, Cal went ahead 14-0 at the half on two Wayne Crow touchdown passes. Stanford threatened to score just before the intermission, but time ran out with Stanford on the Cal nine-yard line after another Norman pass completion.

In the third quarter, Stanford knotted the score at 14-14 on a three-yard plunge by Face and an 11-yard pass from Norman to Burford.

With 7:53 left in the fourth quarter, Face kicked a 35-yard field goal to put Stanford in front, 17-14. But Cal took command again with 3:21 remaining in the game by taking the kickoff and marching 64 yards in 10 plays, climaxed by Jerry Scattini two-yard run.

On the kickoff which followed, Cal was penalized 15 yards for a personal foul. Stanford started a drive on its own 45-yard line and Norman kept his arm loose.

An 11-yard pass completion by Norman got things going, but then Norman was thrown for a seven-yard loss. A pass to Robinson netted 17 yards, but Norman got sacked again-this time for a six-yard loss.

With second-and-16, Norman completed a nine-yard pass but the next attempt intended for Bowers fell incomplete. With a fourth-and-seven situation on the Cal 32, Norman zeroed in on Robinson for a 14-yard gain to keep the drive alive.

With a first-and-10 on the Cal 18, Norman completed his final pass of the day, an eight-yarder to Burford. It was Burford's 12th
catch of the game which enabled him to tie the national season record of 61 receptions.

With a second-and-two on the Cal 10, Norman passed incomplete and then ran around right end for five yards as the gun sounded.

For Burford, now an attorney in Walnut Creek, California, the game paved the way for him to gain All-America honors. He went on to become a stand-out with the Kansas City Chiefs, while Norman's professional career was short-lived by a two-year stay with the Chicago Bears and a brief trial with the San Francisco 49ers.

"Dick had a great day, a fantastic day;' says Burford of the '59 Big Game. "Up to that time it was the greatest passing show anywhere - real entertainment.

"For me, it was tough to lose the game. But even tougher was the one the year before (1958) when we lost to Cal at Berkeley, 16-15."

While Norman was the nation's passing leader and total offense leader as a junior, he contends "my running was my short-coming. I was too slow;' he declares. Norman credits two other West Coast quarterbacks of his day - Dave Grosz of Oregon and Bob Schloredt of Washington -as being particularly dangerous in mixing their passing ability with better-than-average running. "At Stanford we had two basic sets;' says Norman.

"One was the quick drop and jump, those "one-two" throws. The other was the standard, drop back seven or eight steps and throw.

"There was supposed to be a third element, where I roll out. But I was too slow, so we never really used it."

In that memorable 1959 Big Game, Stanford had a total offense of 429 yards to 360 for Cal. Stanford netted just 28 yards rushing on 30 attempts while Cal's offense was fairly balanced - 202 yards rushing, 158 passing.

It is interesting to note that Stanford's leading rusher for that '59 season was the versatile Face with 362 yards, or 39 less than what Norman gained through the air against Cal. 

Norman maintains the preparation for the '59 Big Game wasn't anything out of the ordinary regarding play selection.

"Jack (Curtice) might have put in a couple of extra plays, but nothing unusual" says Norman.

It was just a case of the team starting to jell in the late season, according to Norman. "The whole thing really started the week before at Corvallis when we had a very productive afternoon, beating Oregon State 39-22."

The '59 season began as frustratingly as it ended. Stanford lost the opening games by scant margins before bouncing back to defeat Pacific, 21-6.

Then there were three straight losses, bowing to Washington 10-0, Washington State 36-19 and losing another heartbreaker to USC, 30-28.

Norman put plenty of points on the board in a 54-38 romp over San Jose State, but UCLA took much of the wind out of Stanford's sails, 55-13. Then came the win over Oregon State, the last football triumph until the start of the 1961 season (Tulane).

For 1959, Norman completed 152 of 263 passes for 1,963 yards, a .578 completion average and 11 touchdowns. Career-wise, he ranks No.4 - behind Plunkett, Benjamin and Boryla on the Stanford charts for total offense and passing yardage.

"In spite of the loss, I would be kidding to say the time wasn't perfect," adds Norman of the '59 Big Game. "You know,.. 85,000 people and all that. For me, it was great."

That special day in his life was a day when everything seemed to go right. Practically all of his passes found their mark.

"As Arthur Ashe said after winning Wimbledon, quotes Norman of the pro tennis star: "'We on the tour have a thing called 'the zone', a time when the ball looks like a basketball and the lines look like Broadway."

"We have no control over when we are in our 'zone'. For many players it happens in Toledo. For me it happened at Wimbledon."

For Norman, his Wimbledon is and probably always will be... the 1959 Big Game.

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