John Ralston, a former Broncos head coach whose positive demeanor made him an odd fit in pro football but also landed him in the College Football Hall of Fame, has died at the age of 92.
After graduating from high school in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Ralston joined the Marines and served in the South Pacific in World War II. Following the war, he enrolled at Cal and was on a team that played in three consecutive Rose Bowls.
Football was his passion, and he went from playing to coaching, first at a high school in the Bay Area and then as an assistant at his alma mater. He got his big break when Utah State hired him as head coach, and he made the most of it: Before he arrived Utah State had never been ranked in the AP poll, and by the end of his third year Utah State was the No. 10 team in the country.
He then moved on to Stanford, and he again made a major impact, building a team that won back-to-back Rose Bowls after the 1970 and 1971 seasons.
After that second Rose Bowl, he was hired by the Broncos, leading them, in his second season, to their first winning record in the 14-year-old franchise’s history. Despite some success, he resigned under pressure after a 9-5 season in 1976 when a group of players complained to ownership that his laid-back coaching style wasn’t getting enough out of the team. The next year, the team Ralston helped build went to the Super Bowl.
Ralston would later coach the Oakland Invaders of the USFL in the 1980s and San Jose State in the 1990s.
As a coach, Ralston took an unconventional approach, delegating most decision making to his assistants and attempting to lead his team through self-help philosophies like the power of positive thinking. So serious was Ralston about self-help that when he left the Broncos, his next job was not in coaching but in teaching a Dale Carnegie course.
Ralston told Sports Illustrated in 1973 that being positive wasn’t a coaching tactic, but simply John Ralston being his genuine self.
“You don’t fake this sort of thing,” he said. “If you put up a false facade of positive thinking, people will see through it. I’m just this way all the time. . . . I’m the team’s No. 1 cheerleader. I make sure I talk to anybody who’s just made a key mistake and tell him not to worry about it.”
That kind-hearted approach may explain why Ralston found more success coaching young men in college than grizzled veterans in the NFL, but it’s an approach that made Ralston an admirable coach who won’t be forgotten by his players.