When Stanford students rewrote Cal history

Four days after The Play, Stanford students produced and distributed a fake Cal newspaper. ESPN.com Illustration

For the Stanford pranksters, the best part of the whole hoax might have been watching some Cal students cry.

Or, it could have been making up a bogus NCAA rule. Or fake-quoting Golden Bears football coach Joe Kapp as saying, “Life isn’t fair. I swear to God it isn’t.” Or getting kudos from Brent Musburger on national TV. Or creating a two-for-one ad for the Cal bookstore that created havoc later that morning.

Thirty years after several Stanford Daily newspaper staffers produced a fake, four-page “Extra” Daily Californian that reported the NCAA had overturned Cal’s famous, last-second, lateral-filled kickoff return against Stanford four days earlier, they still have trouble picking out their favorite part.

But lurking on the Berkeley campus that Wednesday morning of Nov. 24, 1982, posing as Cal students while watching real Bears faithful pick up the fake Daily Cal, is definitely at or near the top.

“Oh, it was a total crackup,” says Adam Berns, 50, who came up with the idea, sold it to the paper’s editor-in-chief and business manager and recruited his best buddy on the staff, Mark Zeigler, to write most of the stories with him. “People were everything from being really super pissed off to a couple crying to, you know, all sorts of reactions. In fact, Mark and I probably stayed later than any of the other people [at Cal] ... to watch the reaction of people, which was really funny.”

Says Zeigler: “Obviously we were never going to change that outcome, but this was probably the next best thing.”

It’s said that history is written by the victors, but in this case it simply was rewritten by the losers.

That Saturday, the Bears had pulled out an improbable 25-20 victory over Stanford in the annual Big Game, using five laterals on a kickoff return with four seconds left after the Cardinal had just kicked a field goal to take the lead. “The Play,” as it’s known, ended with Kevin Moen barreling over a Stanford trombonist on his way to the end zone.

Four days later, Cal students on their way to early morning classes reached into Daily Californian racks to pull out papers with the screaming headline, “NCAA awards Big Game to Stanford” and the news that, upon further review, the game’s outcome had been overturned the night before because it was discovered that one official had ruled during the play that a runner was down. “Three days later, it’s 20-19,” read the headline kicker.

As proof, a large, crudely doctored photo (long before Photoshop, remember) showed an official, almost lost in the melee, signaling the play dead as Moen headed for his touchdown.

“Bears shocked, appalled” and “Decision stuns Joe Kapp” were the other front-page headlines.

“People would pick it up and then just stop,” recalls Zeigler, now a sports writer for U-T San Diego. “They’d look at it and then stop whatever they were doing and sit down and start reading it.”

Quickly, most realized it was a hoax. For others, it took longer.

But for a while at least, the Stanford students got the last laugh. And, in fact, with the 30th rendition of the Big Game since The Play coming up this Saturday at Cal’s Memorial Stadium, they’re still laughing.

The bogus paper has stood the test of time. Today, the fake editions are collectors’ items. In 2007, a Sports Illustrated story ranked it No. 5 on the list of best college sports pranks ever. And an upcoming HBO documentary series about fan reactions to great sports moments is doing a segment on it.

Berns says it “clearly, clearly, clearly, clearly” is the highlight of his college life.

“Any die-hard fan of Stanford and Cal sports knows about it, certainly anybody who went to school at either Stanford or Cal during this period of time knows about this,” says Berns. “So yeah, it’s pretty cool knowing we’re part of that Cal-Stanford legacy.”

How it came about: Stanford had put out fake Daily Cals previously, including one about 10 years earlier that reported Golden Bears star Chuck Muncie had been declared ineligible. So Berns had always had it in the back of his mind to do one, too. Sunday night, the day after The Play, he was watching a movie on campus when it hit him: The time had come. So the next morning he met with the paper’s editor, Richard Klinger, and the business manager to sell them on funding “this little venture,” and they immediately agreed. Berns also recruited Zeigler (who combined with Berns to write nearly all the stories), designer Tony Kelly and a photo editor. In addition, 40-year-old Thomas Mulvoy, deputy managing editor of The Boston Globe who was at Stanford that year on a journalism fellowship, helped write the main story.

Putting it together: The task was difficult, because not only did the little group have to put out the four-page bogus paper, but it had to contribute to the regular Stanford Daily that week while also going to class (though they admit that became an afterthought). Plus, the faux edition had to be complete: It needed stories, ads, photos, personals and news briefs. In the early days of computers, they were able to re-create the rival paper’s typefaces, logos, ad styles and general appearance. Zeigler and Berns stayed up all night Monday writing the stories, with everything coming together Tuesday. The section was sent off to the printer in San Jose and several thousand copies were picked up about 5 a.m. Wednesday in time to distribute on the Berkeley campus.

The details: Aside from the main story, there were several others about the bogus NCAA ruling. Also included was a cartoon from the fake Daily Cal of a decade earlier (as an homage, says Berns), letters to the editor (that took a few shots at Cal’s campus and students) and a “today only” two-for-one coupon for the student store that promised, “Buy any two new records and receive a blank cassette tape free.” Also, Daily Cal staff bylines were copied (each misspelled by one letter) to help make the paper look familiar to readers.

Greatest hits: Two items that attracted the most attention were the NCAA rule invented to justify overturning Cal’s victory, and Zeigler’s story about Kapp reacting to the news.

• “Rule 65, Section C of the amended bylaws to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.’s Code of Conduct states that ‘Whenever the executive director of the commissioners or certain other supervisory officials of the several conferences constituting the national body have reason to believe that an injustice has been done to a member institution by virtue of official negligence, incompetence or inadvertence, then the Oversight Committee on Athletics shall take such steps as necessary to repair the injury done to justice.’”

• Zeigler invented a late-night interview with Kapp, supposedly waking him to deliver the news. An excerpt: “Joe Kapp, the grown man, the head football coach at Cal and the leader of young men, was crying. … ‘This has to be the worst moment in my life,’ he said in a soft, hushed voice. ‘Why now, why me, why Cal, why Big Game, why in front of 77,666 fans in Memorial Stadium … why did it have to happen to my boys? It’s just not fair.’” Later, Kapp (never) said: “Life isn’t fair. I swear to God it isn’t.” Four years later, when Kapp was fired, T-shirts appeared in the Bay Area with Kapp’s photo and that quote.

Distribution day: Berns got a scouting report on the location of Cal’s newspaper boxes Tuesday night and created a map so the pranksters could quickly distribute the papers Wednesday morning -- the day before Thanksgiving. They recruited about 10 staffers (some dressed in Cal sweatshirts) to help deliver them, then got lucky when the Cal paper that day was late. When the Daily Cal folks showed up, Zeigler says, it was a kick to watch.

“The real newspaper people, they were like, ‘That’s not our paper,’” he recalls. “So they start picking them up and taking them ... and students would be sprinting after them, grabbing them out of their arms. Because they realized they’d be collectors’ items or something they weren’t supposed to read.”

Aftermath: By the time the Stanford students got back to Palo Alto, newspaper and radio stations were calling, wanting to talk to the perpetrators. That weekend, Brent Musburger on a CBS telecast held up the paper and read from the Kapp story. “For a sophomore in college to have a fake story written, read by Brent Musburger [on TV], that was like the crowning achievement,” says Zeigler.

It’s great on a résumé: For Berns, a lawyer and businessman in Los Angeles who helps start tech companies, The Prank is something he never tires of talking about. “Frankly, it was a hell of a lot of fun,” he says. Stanford President Donald Kennedy called to congratulate him that day, and it paid dividends after his first year of law school when he applied for a job with a federal district judge -- who just happened to be a Stanford football fan. “I didn’t get a single question about anything except this, and obviously ended up getting the job,” he says.

• • •

Today, David Lazarus is a business columnist for The Los Angeles Times, but 30 years ago he was on the newspaper staff at Cal. He remembers the glory of The Play and the strange papers that later appeared on campus.

“I remember seeing our racks filled with not-exactly Daily Cals,” he says, laughing. “You had to look twice.”

Mostly, he jokes now about “that sad, silly newspaper’s attempt to get attention.”

“I remember that it was an illustration of the sad desperation that our friends at the Stanford Daily were feeling at the time,” he says. “The almost pathetic sense of inferiority that they needed to reach out in such a way. I looked at it primarily as a cry for help more than anything else.”

The Daily Cal wrote “some snarky story” in retaliation, he says, but he can’t remember exactly what it said.

“All kidding aside,” he says. “They nailed it. What can you say?”

Billy Gallagher, born 10 years after The Prank, is now editor-in-chief at Stanford and is well aware of it.

He’s seen the fake edition in the paper’s archives, and he and other staff members have talked about it. This week, the Stanford Daily will run 30-year anniversary stories on The Play -- and will touch on the fake paper, too.

But times have changed. Now the newspaper staffs from the two schools collaborate on a Big Game pregame issue, and technology has advanced to the point that putting out a fake paper is “something we couldn’t do now,” he says. One Google search on a smartphone and the whole caper would be cooked.

Still, Gallagher applauds the staffers of ’82.

“I wouldn’t say we wonder how they pulled it off,” he says. “I would say we’ve marveled at it. It’s a pretty funny and cool thing to do.”

Looking back, Zeigler says the whole escapade was fueled by a sort of righteous indignation that Cal had stolen the Big Game. Even now, he can’t look at film of The Play without pointing out where it should have been blown dead.

Putting out the mock paper became a sleepless adventure in creative writing and silliness, but he’s glad Berns talked him into doing it instead of his classwork.

Berns, too, remembers that conversation.

“I said something to him like, ‘Hey, Mark, you know 30 years from now when we’re sitting on our yachts in the Greek islands, we’re not going to remember what tests we flunked, but we’ll certainly remember this,’ or something like that,” says Berns.