Dual history: Cal’s differing legacies of popularity, accolades

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Phillip Downey/File

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If one were to ask the average Berkeley-ite to define the success of Cal athletics throughout history, their thoughts would likely jump directly to football and basketball, conjuring up old memories of Jason Kidd and Aaron Rodgers.

But those two icons only come to mind because of the sports they play — indeed, Cal has produced far more professional and Olympic athletes outside of football and basketball than many other institutions.

Simply focusing on more profitable sports would do little justice to the numerous lesser-known programs that have found huge success for decades.

The fact that those sports garner less attention does not discount their achievements — which are enough to grant Cal fans boasting power among some of the top athletic programs in the nation.

Sports with smaller viewership fall to the wayside, overshadowed by their counterparts with larger cult followings. Such is and has been the case with Cal’s athletic history.

While the Cal men’s basketball team hasn’t won a national championship since 1959, and the football team hasn’t earned one of its own since the 1920s, Cal teams have owned the rankings in a variety of other sports.

To name a few, the Bears have dominated swimming and diving, water polo, rugby and rowing for much of their history. While those sports aren’t the headliners in the minds of most West Coast fans, they have served as the pinnacle of Cal’s true athletic accomplishments.

Perhaps the most significant example of this is the Cal men’s water polo program. Since 1969, the Bears have won 14 national championships and have boasted countless Olympians along the way, the most notable being Matt Biondi, a four-time All-American who helped lead the program to three championships.

The trend continues in swimming and diving, in which Cal’s men and women have been among the top teams in the nation for decades. Renowned Olympian Ryan Murphy has become a household name among Cal students, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Cal’s talent in the water. The 2016 U.S. Summer Olympics team was stacked with an eye-popping 19 former and current Bears — from Nathan Adrian to Kathleen Baker to Josh Prenot.

The Cal rowing program has been among the top two in the nation for nine of the past 13 years, and eight former and current Cal athletes performed for a wide range of national teams at the Rio Olympics.

And Cal has become arguably the most prominent university in the nation when it comes to men’s rugby — a program to which players come from all over the world to compete under head coach Jack Clark.

The Bears have played to the tune of 33 championships since rugby its inception in 1882, and their dominance isn’t likely to wane anytime soon.

While you can measure the success of many of Cal’s sports based on the number of national championships they’ve won, basketball and football are admittedly under entirely different circumstances.

Despite their lack of hardware, there are nonetheless shining moments in the history of these Cal teams, the most obvious being none other than The Play — a sequence that many consider the single greatest play in college football history.

Cal has a lot to boast about — and while it may not have the storied success of Alabama football or Duke basketball, it can brag about having a wider breadth and depth of talent, which has earned it national championships in a plethora of programs.

Sophie Goethals covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected]

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that rugby has won 28 championships since it became a collegiate sport in 1980. In fact, rugby has been a sports at Cal since 1882. Additionally, the team has won 28 championships in 15s alone since national championships began in 1980.