It is Alhambra High School’s Homecoming this weekend with a football game, class reunions, and perhaps most beloved of all, the annual Homecoming Parade down Main Street this afternoon. It is also Big Game Weekend for fans of Cal and Stanford football of which there are many here in town. Aside from sharing the same fight song and changing the Big Game from its traditional mid-November date to mid-October’s Homecoming season this year because of a gi-normous Pac-12 league television contract, the high school and the university’s football programs are historically linked in a way few probably realize.
The story is one of the legendary tales of Cal football over the years. The 1929 Cal football team was so good that it was chosen to represent the West Coast in the 1930 Rose Bowl. The Golden Bears met Georgia Tech in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. Team captain and center Roy Riegels undoubtedly participated in the coin toss but the rest of his day was not a good one and would follow him his entire life.
At some point the ball was fumbled and Riegels recovered it and headed for the goal line as fast as he could run. The crowd roared so Riegels couldn’t hear his teammates madly chasing him yelling that he was going the wrong way! He reached the goal line but instead of scoring a touchdown, his team was assessed a safety for possessing the ball on the opposition’s goal – two points for Georgia Tech and eventually the victory by an 8-7 score. He never lived it down – he was “Wrong Way Riegels” even at his 50th class reunion in 1981. My mother who attended felt badly for him although she thought he was a good sport about it.
What I and even the local Cal “Old Blues” in Kiwanis didn’t know until this week is that Roy Riegels was the physical education teacher and coach at Alhambra Union High School 75 years ago during the 1936-37 school year.
He came here after coaching at two high schools and a Southern California junior college. He inherited a team two years after a stellar championship season in 1934 with only two veteran players. Everybody tried really hard apparently but the Alhambra Panthers lost every game. Coach Riegels coached basketball with more success and his track team took second place in the Contra Costa Athletic League Track Meet that year.
The “Wrong Way” tag followed him to Martinez – the Contra Costa Gazette noted in late November that he would miss a couple of games early in the basketball season because he was invited to go to New York to be interviewed on the radio about his Rose Bowl misadventure.
Riegels surprised the town and the school trustees in June by resigning to move to Sacramento to farm and to work in the fruit packing business in the Sacramento Valley. The Gazette wrote an article expressing the community’s regret at his leaving and appreciation for being an excellent and inspirational coach.
“Since coming to Martinez, Riegels has made scores of friends who will hate to see him leave. Now that Alhambra High is in the league, and the coming football season looks quite promising, his friends had hoped he would be here to pilot the Panthers toward a grid championship. Riegels did wonderful work last year with his basketball team and also guided the Alhambra track team through one of the finest track seasons in Alhambra history. He conducted the Martinez relays this year and the affair was a pronounced success….His likeable personality won him many friends in Martinez, and he bears their wishes for success in his new venture.” (CC Gazette – June 12, 1937)
If any of you are puzzled by the 1937 Alhambra teams being described as “Panthers” check my blog for August 17, 2012 where the story is told about how Antioch and Alhambra union high schools shared mascot and colors that were “divvied up” in a way that still riles a few old Alhambra football players who think that Antioch got the best of our local school by snatching up the Panther mascot while we were left with the blue and gold colors.
Although copious newspaper stories exist recording the 1946-47 events without any public evidence of a nefarious plot by Antioch, Bill Francis, Alhambra ’43, told me after he read it that while the “public facts” were undoubtedly true as far as he knew, there quite possibly could be a “back story” to bolster the suspicions of Alhambra old timers.
Alhambra class of ’27 graduate Chet Arthur, a Walnut Creek businessman during his adult life, swore to his dying day that the actual decision about which school would keep the mascot and which the colors was made in a meeting attended by the principals and football coaches of both schools some time in 1946 or 47. It was handed to Martinez as a fait accompli without any public input or questions, Arthur charged, with even his former coach, Alhambra principal Butch Knowles meekly accepting it.
Arthur, a member of the 1926 county championship team from Alhambra, told Francis that iconic longtime Antioch head coach Jack Danilovich got his way on this matter as he did on just about any issue regarding interscholastic football in Contra Costa County. So which school retained the mascot or the colors was decided according to Arthur behind closed doors by a "vote" that was basically “Coach Danilovich in favor… therefore all Aye!” Bill plans to track down the legendary coach’s grandchildren who he thinks live in Antioch and find out if he ever told them the story. In the meantime, whether Arthur’s tale is fact or myth, it still proves there’s always a “back story”.
The 2012 Homecoming Parade will leave the high school parking lot at 3 p.m. marching down Alhambra to Main Street. This year the classes of 1912, 1937, 1962 and 1987 will be given special mention. And by the way, I keep meaning to try and find out when the first Homecoming parade and celebration was held. If anyone thinks they know even approximately, please put it in the comment box.