It was the late 1970s, and Cal Poly offensive lineman Mike Daum was spending the summer with his parents in North Carolina. Looking for a bargain on a used car, he answered a classified ad and showed up ready to wheel and deal with the older woman who had placed it.
Negotiations revealed that the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Daum played tackle for the Mustangs. The East Coast seller also had a tie to the California university.
“The lady said she was a nurse in Ohio at Bowling Green,” Daum said. “She was one of the first responders.”
That was in reference to the Oct. 29, 1960, plane crash that killed 22 people — including 16 Cal Poly football players, a student manager and a team booster — shortly after takeoff from the airport in Toledo, Ohio, after the Mustangs’ 50-6 loss to Bowling Green.
Daum would also end up forever connected with that 1960 team, but at the time, it didn’t grease the wheels.
“She didn’t cut me a break,” Daum said, “but she did inspire me.”
In 1980, Daum’s senior season, Cal Poly won its first and only national football championship, defeating favored Eastern Illinois 21-13 in the NCAA Division II title game in Albuquerque, N.M.
There was plenty of magic on that field in the 20th year following the plane crash, and because of it, Cal Poly will be fortunate to spend every major anniversary remembering the tragedy that devastated the program while also reveling in its revival. It’s only taken this long for the relationship to become clear.
“That thought really did not permeate any of our understanding, particularly at the time,” said former Mustangs head coach Joe Harper, who left for Northern Arizona following the 1981 season. “The coincidence that it was 20 years before didn’t really sink in.”
Cal Poly honored both of its historic teams in separate weeks this season. Survivors of the crash came back to conduct the coin flip on the 50th anniversary, and members of the 1980 team celebrated their own 30th anniversary with a halftime ceremony three weeks later.
The mood of each reunion differed greatly — one somber, one celebratory — but they felt like fitting bookends.
Cal Poly erected a memorial plaza in 2006 dedicated to those who died in the crash. Eighteen continuously lighted pillars with named plaques stand in a circle surrounding a mustang statue outside Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Building the memorial was paramount to survivor Al Marinai, who spent three-and-a-half years in the hospital recovering from injuries suffered in the crash.
When the Mustangs held their reunion prior to a 41-33 win over St. Francis on Oct. 30, Marinai had a hard time taking his tear-soaked eyes off the bucking bronze mustang known as “Unbridled Spirit.”
“Every year, the 29th to me is a special day, a very emotional day,” Marinai said. “The night before when I’m looking forward to the 29th, I relive the whole thing. There’s not a day that I don’t think about my teammates. I think about them every day, not just once a year.”
Another link between both teams: The 1980 squad is not without its share of lost teammates.
Though he had a reputation for being a grandmotherly driver, Daum’s brother Charles, an All-America tackle drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1982, crashed and died in San Luis Obispo on a night the team was celebrating the fourth anniversary of its title.
Since then, linebacker Jan Kirchhof was killed in a boating accident, tackle Ed Hill succumbed to a fatal disease and linebacker Mel Kaufman, who went on to win two Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins, died of sudden acute pancreatitis in 2009 at age 50 after his one and only season coaching with the Mustangs.
Marinai was never able to rejoin the team on the field, but after the 1960 season was canceled with three games remaining, Cal Poly came back the next year with 35 players, including 10 crash survivors.
“I played the next year,” said Roger Kelly, who went on to coach 29 years at Redwood High in Visalia before moving to College of the Sequoias for the next 16 seasons. “I probably shouldn’t have because I had broken my back and torn my knee, up. Ted Tollner probably shouldn’t have played either, but we wanted to be there the next year.”
Those Mustangs finished 5-3, their only winning season until 1966. Because of safety concerns, Cal Poly didn’t travel out of state for eight years.
It wasn’t until Harper took over in 1968 that the team flew again. The first trip was a 1969 flight to Montana, where the Mustangs fell 14-0 in their first- ever game against the Grizzlies.
Harper ran off 13 straight winning seasons, including an 8-1-1 year in 1972, when the Mustangs lost 38-21 to North Dakota in the Camellia Bowl, which was one of several regional bowl games that helped decide a national champion in the precursor to Division II, the NCAA’s College Division.
There is some debate as to which team is the best in program history.
Prior to his penultimate season as head coach in 1960, LeRoy Hughes guided Cal Poly to a 9-0 season in 1953, when the Mustangs led the nation in scoring with nearly 44 points per game.
The Mustangs were just 7-3 in the regular season 1980, and three of their wins came by three points or less. But they did have four NFL Draft picks and multiple Super Bowl winners.
And only one team won a national title.
“We will always have that to look back on,” said former defensive back Ed Alarcio, an Arroyo Grande native who starred on Cuesta College’s final football team in 1977 before transferring to Cal Poly, “and we can truly say that was the pinnacle of our career when we left Cal Poly. We had done it. There was not another rung to climb.”
Too young to remember the impact the 1960 crash had on the local community, Alarcio — who recovered two fumbles in the title game against Eastern Illinois — can be proud to have played a role on the team that undeniably put the program back on top.
In addition to the playoff run, the 1980 season also included a 23-20 win over Boise State, which then went on to win the Division I-AA playoffs.
Every bit as much a point of pride as the championship game, Cal Poly avenged a 56-14 spanking in Boise from the prior year when running back Louis Jackson carried ball a school record 55 times for 246 yards, and quarterback Craig Johnston led the team on a game-winning fourth-quarter field-goal drive.
Before that game, the hope of winning a national championship in a season that began with a 2-2 record, wasn’t widely held.
“After the Boise game, all of us started to believe that this was a pretty special team,” Alarcio said. “Boise, they were Boise — even back then, they were Boise.”
While racking up double-digit sacks, Cal Poly beat Jacksonville State 15-0 in the first round of the playoffs and took out Santa Clara 38-14 in the semifinals.
Being the local guy on the team, Alarcio said he had an entourage of supporters in the stands. He might not have realized it at the time, but the players of the past were living vicariously through he and his teammates, too.
“The ’80 team, I was so happy,” Marinai said. “I was in San Francisco watching the Santa Clara game in the semis, and they moved on to that and then they won it. My God, I said, ‘I wish that would have happened during my time.’ These are all steppingstones that made Cal Poly what it is now, so, I’m really proud of it.”
During the 1980 reunion before Cal Poly’s season-ending 22-21 loss to UC Davis last week, the proper perspective was finally clear as players began discussing their legacy in the annals of Mustangs football.
“We talked a lot about it over the weekend that when we played that game that day, we weren’t just playing for ourselves,” Johnston said. “We were representing a lot of Mustangs, from the ’60 team which we were all aware of what their situation had been.”
Though it was the first tragic plane crash involving an athletic team in American history, the 1960 crash hasn’t gotten the same publicity as one similar to the one 10 years later that nearly wiped out the entire Marshall football team and inspired a 2006 feature film starring Matthew McConaughey.
“They should have made ‘We Are Cal Poly’ instead of ‘We Are Marshall,’ ” Kelly joked.
It’s too late for the 2010 team to make another championship run, since the Mustangs will more than likely be left out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs this season.
For now, the perfect screenwritten rendition of the Cal Poly football program’s tale would open with the plane crash and fade out with the only national championship in its 105-year history.
And if Division II isn’t good enough for Hollywood, here’s to some added pressure on the 2020 Mustangs.
Joshua D. Scroggin covers college sports for The Tribune.