Looking Back at The Single Year of Triton Football

Looking Back at The Single Year of Triton Football

UC San Diego, as you might have observed, does not have a football team. Given that UCSD isn’t known for its focus on athletics, you might be forgiven for assuming, like I did for three and a half years of my time here, that we’ve never had one.

Or so I thought. The truth, as usual, turns out to be infinitely more fascinating.

In 1968, during the first few years of the existence of the young UC campus, UCSD played its first season of intercollegiate football: a seven-game schedule that pitted it against a collection of universities who have mostly also abandoned their football teams by now. That includes the hapless Caltech Beavers, a historically poor football team that had lost 34 games in a row to that point — nobody on the team had ever played in a Caltech win — and their quarterback was also their kicker, punter, and defensive back.

And of those seven games, how many did our fighting Tritons win? Zero. And that first 1968 season of college football would also be UCSD’s last.

So maybe it’s understandable that this single, successless season of mediocre football is not even a footnote to UCSD’s history —  only discovered if you look for it. But I’m here to tell you that just because this 54-year-old season might seem like a heap of futility, there is still a captivating story to tell.

This summer, by digging into dozens of newspapers by the Triton Times (now The UCSD Guardian), contemporary news coverage, documentary footage from the early days of UCSD, and other sources, I tried to tell the story of that singular Triton football team. 

Initially, I planned to make an article, maybe two, about the subject, but as I read through those 54-year-old pieces of student journalism, it turned out that the football team was just one part of what might have been the most interesting year in UCSD history. So now, a few months later, I’ve made a 71-minute long documentary about the football team and the university it inhabited, and you can watch it here.

In this article, though, I’d like to tell you about some of the highlights, especially as they pertain to the football team. 

The football team at UCSD came to fruition after a student petition calling for the establishment of a team reached over a thousand signatures. Responding to the requests, the university made its coaching hire, picking up Walt Hackett, a San Diego Chargers defensive line coach and a born-and-raised native of San Diego County. Hackett shocked the team by informing them that they wouldn’t be starting with a couple of warmup years in the junior varsity ranks like some programs, but that they’d be going right into varsity contention.

Things started rough. The Tritons scored first in their first match with a touchdown against the University of La Verne, but it would be their final mark on the scoreboard. Final score? 41–6. The rest of the Tritons’ games had similar score lines — after all, the small roster forced many players to play on both defense and offense, making fatigue a major factor. While reports on Triton fan morale were positive, the most commonly mentioned note is that the all-new cheerleading team struggled to spell UCSD, chanting “U-S-C-D” in the season opener.

The exception, of course, was the game against Caltech. I break down this game and the circumstances surrounding it in finer detail in my documentary, but long story short, the Tritons only lost the contest by three points. Had they not thrown a key interception to the Caltech quarterback/cornerback/kicker/punter and missed four point-after attempts, this would be a very different story. As for Caltech, the campus went wild after the win, with bonfires raging in Pasadena and the Caltech players attempting briefly to hoist their coach on their shoulders.

Ultimately, the football team was a short-lived experiment. The Triton players weren’t given scholarships or even physical education credits, and increasing numbers of them, along with the more successful basketball team, were planning on transferring or not playing the next season. After a student referendum to allow private — not even school-sponsored — scholarships to athletes failed, the football team was disbanded, never to return. The Tritons remain undefeated since then.

This is just a meager summary of the team’s history, but even just telling the story of UCSD in 1968 would be an injustice. While reading those old newspapers, I learned that the football team wasn’t even close to the most interesting thing happening at UCSD that year. Protests abounded over academic freedom and the Vietnam War on campus, with figures like Governor Ronald Reagan, the father of the New Left Herbert Marcuse, and activist and master’s student Angela Davis all converging in La Jolla. 1968 was a tense, eventful year all over the United States and at UCSD, and trust me, it was not because of football.

If any of this has sounded interesting to you, give the documentary a watch. (Or add it to your YouTube “Watch Later” playlist and let it sit there for months until you work up the desire to watch it — that’s what I’d do.) There’s dozens of fun little UCSD stories in there, and given that I and most students I know are aware of very little from the early history of the university, I hope it can give you a much fuller idea of what this university used to look like. At a school that is spending millions of dollars to market itself as one of the future, flaunting its own “nontradition,” there may yet be some value in looking into the past.

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    wordle unlimitedOct 15, 2022 at 1:46 am

    The article seems to analyze very well about Triton’s shadow background and achievements.

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