University of California, Santa Barbara 1968-1975
The 49ers opened their first training camp at Santa Barbara with a new head coach, Dick Nolan, and a fresh staff of assistants, Ed Hughes, Ken Meyer, Jim Shofner and Paul Wiggin. Nolan believed the UC Santa Barbara campus would allow his team to remove themselves from family distractions and concentrate on football. He prepared to meet the players for the first time on July 8, 1968, but a sudden glitch altered their plans. The NFL Players Association went on strike. The players major grievance centered on the NFL pension plan.
While the 49ers veterans remained home, 48 eager rookies reported to Goleta, Calif. for the first day of camp. Unfortunately, the rookies were not allowed to practice until the dispute was settled. They were advised by coaches to stay in shape by running and stretching on the UCSB field. Some of the first-year men later admitted they spent the bulk of their time playing cards and swimming in the campus pools.
The usual nervous tension associated with training camp was alleviated by Santa Barbara’s temperate climate, access to beautiful beaches, and non-stop games of gin rummy. The town’s mellow vibe was felt on campus and players soon began calling their UCSB camp “The Country Club.” Meanwhile, Nolan was chomping at the bit while waiting to get his men on the field.
“Even though the rookies are around camp here, you really don’t get to know them until you can hold team meetings and see what they can do out on the practice field,” Nolan told reporters.
Less than 72 hours later, the NFL owners approved a temporary plan allowing for rookies to workout with their coaches during the strike. But in giving their blessing to the rookie-only camp, the owners made it known they planned to play their preseason games as scheduled using just rookies if the strike was not settled.
Nolan, a tough defensive back during his nine years in the NFL, sympathized with the veterans. But he told the press he was prepared to field a team from the nearly 50 rookies he had in camp, and he would have put together a formidable squad. Among the newcomers were at least five future starters—center Forrest Blue, linebacker Skip Vanderbundt, defensive back Johnny Fuller, and defensive ends Bill Belk and Tommy Hart. Bob Toledo, a well-known local quarterback who starred at San Jose’s Lincoln High School then San Francisco State, walked on as an undrafted free agent and was ready to take on the signal-calling duties.
Camp began with two-a-day 90-minute practices. The morning sessions kicked off at 10 a.m. and afternoon practices began at 3:30 pm. On opening day, Nolan singled out two of his prized newcomers, Belk and Vanderbundt, for their hustle and enthusiasm.
In late July, the strike settled and the exhibition games began with the usual veteran lineup. Defensive tackle Roland Lakes, defensive backs Jimmy Johnson and Kermit Alexander had just returned from their military reserve duties and sat out the first contest. The one surprise was at quarterback where George Mira got the nod over Brodie in a 30-18 loss to the San Diego Chargers.
Nolan, a disciple of Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry, ran practices with a stoic precision. After the preseason loss to San Diego, he tightened up his training schedule, but a couple of old-salts knew how to ruffle his feathers.
After one lackluster morning practice on the UCSB Gauchos field, fullback Ken Willard received a minor tongue-lashing from Nolan. The Pro Bowler tried to ease the tension at the afternoon session with a Groucho Marx impression.
“Ken showed up at practice wearing those fake glasses with the big nose and mustache,” Wilcox said. “That really cracked up Nolan. We were all little kids at heart. But it was the guys that played the hardest that were usually the biggest pranksters.”
By 1970, Nolan had put together a winning framework. At the Santa Barbara training facility that summer, the team’s elder statesman sensed a change in the 49ers fortunes.