Raymond L. Willsey
Born: September 30, 1928 (Regina, Saskatchewan)
Died: November 4, 2013 (Hailey, Idaho)
Orange County (California) Sports Hall of Fame (1993)
Santa Ana College Athletic Hall of Fame (2004)
Ray Willsey was a no-nonsense football coach known as the Minister of Defence.
A brief playing career with the Edmonton Eskimos was overshadowed by a long and successful career as a head coach at the University of California followed by stints as a defensive coordinator and assistant coach in the National Football League, most notably with the Oakland Raiders, who twice won the Super Bowl with Willsey on the sidelines.
His eight-year tenure as head coach at Cal, where he had also played football, led many to presume he was a native-born American. In fact, he was born in Saskatchewan to a family living on a farm at a hamlet called Griffin.
As a boy, his family moved to California and he was raised at Tustin, Calif., where he was a four-sport star athlete at high school before playing safety and quarterback for Santa Ana State. He guided the Dons to a 19-2-1 record over two seasons. In 1949, he completed more than 60 per cent of his passes (64-of-106) for 941 yards. In December, Willsey and the Dons lost the Junior Rose Bowl 25-19 to Little Rock (Ark.) Junior College.
Willsey transferred to the University of California at Berkeley where he came under the tutelage of legendary coach Lynn (Pappy) Waldorf, who called him “my defensive brain on the field.” Willsey was mostly used as a defensive back until quarterback Billy Mais dislocated his thumb before the 1952 Big Game against Stanford. Willsey hit Bob beal with a pass that resulted in a touchdown late in the first half as the Bears rolled to a 26-0, including a Willsey touchdown on a short-yardage plunge.
“It was a very good football game,” Willsey told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “a very tight game until late in the fourth quarter, and things worked out for us.”
Willsey also played varsity rugby as a midfielder in his two years on campus. In 1952, the team went 10-1, including three victories against one defeat versus the University of British Columbia.
The B.C. Lions of the Western Interprovincial Football Union acquired his Canadian rights in 1953, a year before the expansion team was to begin play. The Lions loaned Willsey to the Edmonton Eskimos for whom he had a stellar season as a defensive back, snagging seven interceptions and earning all-star honours. He also averaged 7.6 yards in 10 carries as a fill-in running back.
The Lions traded him for quarterback Lindy Berry and kicker Don Lord before the start of the 1954 season. A broken arm suffered when tackling fullback Howie Waugh of the Calgary Stampeders limited Willsey to only eight games in 1954, though he managed to make four interceptions.
He also had another four interceptions in 1955 for 15 in his career. He was a playing coach in that campaign, which ended with his second successive Grey Cup championship against the Montreal Alouettes.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound athlete retired as a player after his third professional season, becoming an assistant coach at the University of Texas at Austin under Darrell Royal, who had coached Willsey at Edmonton in 1953.
In 1964, at age 36, Willsey became head coach at Cal, the same year that give birth to the raucous Free Speech Movement. Meanwhile, the university’s once storied football program had fallen on hard times and was about to be shaken further by the cultural revolutions of the free speech, anti-Vietnam War and black liberation movements.
“When they hired Ray Willsey as coach four years ago,” the Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1968, “Ray’s material was so indifferent he thought they had given him the bridge team by mistake. When he used to step out on the stadium balcony for the traditional post-game address to the student ‘rally,’ it got so he could address it as ‘dear sir’ — or just leave a note.”
In 1968, Willsey faced a challenge from the black players on the football team. Fourteen players boycotted practice to protest the lack of a black coach on Cal’s staff. As well, the players were upset that the head coach pitted black players against one another in the same position, limiting the number who would make the team.
Willsey refused to accept a list of demands from a player respresentative, instead ordering all 14 players to empty their lockers.
“Football’s not like an all-night movie where you can come and go,” he said. “They’re off the team and that’s it.”
Despite the turmoil, the Golden Bears enjoyed their best season under Willset, going 7-3-1 in what was their first Pac-8 campaign, the “Bear Minimum” defence holding Colorado, San Jose State and Syracuse scoreless.
The strife made it difficult for the Bears to lure players to campus.
“We used to tell recruits that if they stood near one of those burning banks, they might be able to reach in and grab some,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “It affected our football program, no question. We ended uo losing a lot of players that under normal situations we probably would have gotten.”
The coach resigned after the 1971 season after being passed over for university athletic director. His record was 40-42-1.
After four years as defensive coordinator for the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and a stint with the Washington Redskins, Willsey joined the coaching staff of the Oakland Raiders as an assistant to John Madden in 1978, and to Tom Flores for the next nine seasons. With Willsey coaching the running backs, the Raiders went 92-60 in those 10 years with championship victories over Philadelphia (Super Bowl XV) and Washington (Super Bowl XVIII).
Willsey spent a season as head coach of the Los Angeles Cobras of the Arena Football League. He was a defensive coach of the World Football League’s London Monarchs when they won the World Bowl in 1991. He became head coach the following season. He later became defensive coordinator of the Scottish Claymores.
After four seasons in Europe, Willsey worked as a player personnel director for NFL Europe until retiring in 2004. He maintained homes in Palm Desert, Calif., and Hailey, Idaho, where he died. Though active, he suffered from dementia late in life.