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Norway native Ralston — coached at Stanford, in NFL — dies at 92

NORWAY — John Ralston, a Norway High School graduate who made his name coaching football at Stanford and for several NFL teams, died Saturday in Sunnyvale, California. He was 92.

Ralston coached Stanford to two Rose Bowl victories in the early 1970s and spent five seasons coaching the Denver Broncos.

Born in Oakland, California, “Jack” was 10 years old when he, his mother and brother George moved to the Upper Peninsula community of Norway in the summer of 1937.

He became fascinated with the game of football, trying to learn as much as he could about the game. While playing alone, he would try to simulate scoring plays, setting up imaginary offensive and defensive players.

He dreamed of being a football coach someday, according to information presented at John Ralston Day in Norway during July 2008.

After playing on the junior varsity team for three seasons, Ralston broke through and made varsity as a senior at Norway. He was a hard-nosed guard despite being only 165 pounds, earning All Menominee Range honors in 1943.

Long-time Norway resident and 1943 graduate Andy Hamlin recalled Ralston’s desire to make the varsity team.

“When I was a senior (in the fall of 1942), he was so small but worked as hard as he could. (Alan) Ronberg kept him on the JV team, though,” Hamlin said. “Basketball, he made the team as a junior, but Ronberg didn’t use him enough, in my opinion.”

After graduating in June 1944, Ralston joined the Marine Corps, serving in the South Pacific during World War II.

Two years later, he went to the University of California-Berkeley, playing football under coach Lynn “Pappy” Waldorf. Ralston was a linebacker on two Rose Bowl teams while earning a physical education degree in 1951.

His coaching career began in 1952 at two California high schools over the next three seasons.

Waldorf brought Ralston back to Cal in 1955 as an assistant coach, a position he kept through 1958. Cal appeared in the Rose Bowl after the ’58 season and hasn’t been back since.

In 1959, he became head coach at Utah State University. Ralston went 31-11-1 in four seasons, leading the Aggies to two bowl games. Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Merlin Olsen, who later became a TV actor, played under Ralston during that time.

In 1963, Ralston was hired as head coach at Stanford. Over nine seasons, his teams went 55-36-3. In his last two seasons, the Cardinal won consecutive Pac-8 titles, culminating in back-to-back Rose Bowl victories against Ohio State 27-17 on New Year’s Day in 1971 and Michigan 13-12 in 1972.

Under Ralston’s tutelage, Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett won the Heisman Trophy in 1970. Among prominent coaches to work for Ralston at Stanford were future Super Bowl-winning coaches Bill Walsh, Dick Vermeil, Jim Mora Sr. and Mike White.

On Jan. 5, 1972, only four days after winning his second straight Rose Bowl, Ralston resigned to become head coach of the NFL’s Denver Broncos. He also was the team’s general manager from 1973-76.

His overall record as Broncos head coach was 34-33-3, being named UPI’s AFC Coach of the Year in 1973 after leading Denver to its first-ever winning season at 7-5-2.

But his tenure with the Broncos came to a stormy end in early 1977 after about a dozen players met with then-Broncos owner Gerald Phipps, demanding Ralston’s resignation. Phipps stripped Ralston of his GM duties in a public attempt to get Ralston to resign, according to a Dec. 28, 1981, article in Pro Football Weekly.

“I’m not a quitter,” Ralston was quoted as saying. “We’ve gone too far in the last five years to not see this thing through.”

In the end, though, Ralston did resign.

In 1978, he became offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles under his former assistant Dick Vermeil. That year, the Eagles reached the postseason for the first time in 18 years.

Ralston joined the San Francisco 49ers organization in 1980 as vice president for administration under another former Stanford assistant, Bill Walsh.

He coached in 1983 and ’84 in the short-lived U.S. Football League as head coach of the Oakland Invaders.

San Jose State University was his last coaching stop from 1993-96 before becoming assistant athletic director there from 1997-2013.

Ralston was inducted in to the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 1974, College Football Hall of Fame in 1992, Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1996, Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 1997 and San Jose Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.

Among those praising Ralston was fellow U.P. Sports Hall of Famer and Iron Mountain native Steve Mariucci, a Northern Michigan University national championship-winning quarterback.

Mariucci said Ralston was instrumental in setting up a 1996 game between Mariucci-coach California and Ralston’s San Jose State that was dubbed the Yooper Bowl and won by Cal.

“John Ralston was as highly respected of a person and coach as anyone I’ve ever known,” Mariucci said Tuesday by telephone. “No matter what community he lived or coached in, he was a class act, a gentleman, Bart Starr-type of a man.

“He and I had many of the same connections in the Bay Area. We saw each other often up until recently, which I always looked forward to. He deserves to be remembered and recognized as one of the greatest Yoopers of all time.”