Before the Aggie football team started going to bowl games on a regular basis and recording double-digit wins in a season, there was a short stretch nearly six decades ago when Utah State had some of its best success on the gridiron.
There is a four-year stretch that is still the best in program history when looking at that many seasons in a row and calculating winning percentage. Guiding the Aggies during that run was legendary coach John Ralston. While he only spent four seasons in Logan, he had fond memories of Cache Valley and returned when he could.
Ralston, who was at the USU helm from 1959-62, passed away last Saturday in Sunnyvale, California. He was 92.
He was inducted into the Utah State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2007, joining some of his outstanding players already in the Hall of Fame. Others have joined him since.
“I’m honored,” Ralston told The Herald Journal at the time. “I had a wonderful experience during my four years in Logan, Utah.”
During his four years at USU, the Aggies went 31-11-1 (73.3 percent, which is the best of any Aggie football coach with at least three years at the school) and played in two bowls. Many long-time fans still argue the 1959-62 era as one of the best in football.
“I didn’t think anyone would remember me,” Ralston said back in 2007. “That was a number of years ago. I truly enjoyed everybody and had some wonderful friends. It was a pleasure to work under Hy Hunsaker, who was the AD (athletics director).”
Back in the 60’s, teams only played 10 games, 11 if they made it to a bowl or played at Hawaii. There is a stretch from 2011-14 when USU won more games during a four-year span — going 37-17 (68.5 percent) — but those Aggie squads also played more games.
“We had good coaches; I enjoyed them all,” Ralston said. “They (coaches) were the center of our great success.”
Tony Knap, who was Ralston’s assistant, succeeded Ralston at USU, coaching the Aggies to 25-14-1 mark over the next four seasons. Ralston was always complimenting those around him, players and coaches. Back then, coaching staffs consisted of five guys.
“I had seen his (Knap) high school team (in the Bay Area) and persuaded Tony to come to Logan with me,” Ralston said. “What a great coach. In my mind, he was one of the all-time great coaches.”
And of course he had the good fortune of coaching a local talented player named Merlin Olsen. Olsen, Tom Larscheid and Lionel Aldridge all earned All-American status at USU during the Ralston years, but Olsen was the coaches’ favorite.
“Merlin Olsen was the finest player I’ve been around,” Ralston said. “He was a complete player. He ended up being one of the Fearsome Foursome (in the NFL for the Los Angeles Rams) and played defense for 13 years in the NFL.
“I always thought he would have been better on offense. He was so good either way. I had a Heisman winner in Jim Plunkett at Stanford, but Merlin Olsen was the most complete player.”
When he was inducted into the USU Hall of Fame at the age of 80, Ralston was still involved with college football as he was advising at San Jose State, the last stop of his coaching career.
USU was Ralston’s first head coaching job, and he came by it by chance. He heard through a friend, who was at Idaho State, the job was open while at a coaches’ convention. Hunsaker just happened to be there also. At the time, Ralston was an assistant at California.
After several interviews, he and another perspective candidate were brought to Logan. He asked to be the first interviewed.
“I remember it like yesterday,” Ralston said in 2007. “... I talked about building up the program. Anyway, a lady on the board of trustees told the others, ‘don’t bother to bring the other guy in, this is the one.’ I could have kissed her.”
And so he took over the Aggies in 1959, going 5-6 in his first year at the helm. But the next three years were all winning records. He guided USU to back-to-back bowl games in 1960 (Sun) and 1961 (Gotham). Success, however, led to other opportunities.
After leaving USU, Ralston went to Stanford, where he was the head coach for nine years, guiding the Cardinal to a pair of Rose Bowl victories. From there it was off the NFL, where he coached the Denver Broncos for five seasons. In 1993, he took over and coached San Jose State for five years.
Born in Oakland, California, Ralston spent much of a long coaching career in the Bay Area.
Ralston’s 1961 squad is the last team in USU history to go undefeated during the regular season as the Aggies went 9-0-1 mark before losing to Baylor, 24-9, in the Gotham Bowl.
Olsen was one of 11 Aggie players coached by Ralston who went on to play in the NFL, joining Buddy Allen, Clyde Brock, Mike Connelly, Doug Mayberry, Clark Miller, Mel Montalbo, Bill Munson, Len Rohde, Jim Turner and Rich Zecher.
Ralston, who led the Aggies to a pair of conference championships, has the second-best winning percentage in USU coaching history, trailing only Fred M. Walker, who went 11-2 (84.6 percent) in his two seasons at the helm (1907-08). He also has the fourth-most wins in school history.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1992. Ralston left the college ranks for the NFL in 1972 and in his five seasons with Denver, he led the Broncos to a 34-33-3 mark. He later coached the Oakland Invaders of the United States Football League from 1983-84 and at San José State from 1993-96.
Ralston served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the South Pacific during World War II, achieving the rank of corporal before attending school at Cal, where he was a linebacker, playing in two Rose Bowls under coach Pappy Waldorf.
Among the prominent coaches who worked for Ralston were Super Bowl winners Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil, along with Jim Mora Sr. and Mike White.