Hoover principal Floyd Johnson was thinking of making a change when he met with football coach Bob Kirchhoff before the 1954-55 school year.
Johnson was dissatisfied. A 1953 season that began with much promise was sullied by a 4-4-1 record that included a 39-0 loss to rival San Diego High.
Johnson would retire after the 1955-56 school year. He had been at Hoover since it opened in 1930 and had guided the East San Diego school as it became one of the most respected academically and athletically in Southern California.
The Cardinals had their share of victories against San Diego High in all sports but football.
After an 0-8 beginning in 1948, Kirchhoff had built a strong program, including a 28-13 win over the Cavers in 1949. Five successive losses followed.
“Floyd Johnson hated San Diego with a passion,” said a rival coach who remembered Johnson as a powerful community figure who would sit on the players’ bench during basketball games and walk the sidelines at football games.
Johnson posed a direct question to Kirchhoff: “Are we going to beat San Diego this year?”
Kirchhoff, aware of his tenuous position, was confident: “Yes, we’ll beat ’em. We have the team to do it this year.”
Hoover was returning more than 30 players and a letterman at every position.
Johnson would give Kirchhoff one more chance. “If we don’t win it, I’m going to make a change,” the principal promised.
Rumors had circulated that Kirchhoff’s line coach, Herbert (Hub) Foote, a 1941 Hoover graduate, would be the next coach. Foote thought he had a promise from Johnson.
But events that began a couple years before would work against Foote…and Kirchhoff.
Stan Williamson, the coach at San Diego’s Naval Air team, had completed a military deployment and was returning to his pre-Korean War job as head football coach at Santa Barbara State.
The Gauchos’ football and baseball coach since 1950 was Roy Engle, who would be out of a job.
Engle was a Johnson favorite.
Engle scored the Cardinals’ first touchdown against San Diego and was the pivotal figure of their first victory over the city rivals when Engle led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to a 7-6 victory over the Hilltoppers in 1935.
After graduating from USC, Engle returned to Hoover. He was the 24-year-old head coach of the 1942 baseball team that was led by future major leaguer Ray Boone and won the Southern California championship.
Engle now returned to Hoover a second time in 1953, appointed by Johnson to teach science and biology. Kirchhoff’s coaching assistants were Bill Mathie, Don Henson, and Hub Foote.
It was with this backdrop that the Cardinals and Kirchhoff embarked on the 1954 campaign.
CARDINALS OFF FAST
–Hoover passed its first test, a big one. The Cardinals fell behind, 13-0, at Santa Monica, then rolled to a 34-20 victory over passing ace Lee Grosscup and dealing the two-time defending SCIF champion Vikings their first loss since 1952.
–Point Loma, middle of the road but tough, also took a 13-0 lead, but John Adams, the 6-foot, 2-inch, 215-pound fullback who was the prized recruit in Southern California prep circles, and quarterback Gene Leek brought the Cardinals back to a 20-13 victory.
–Adams, a member of Hoover’s City League-champion 880-yard relay team could cover 100 yards in 10 seconds.
Adams bruised La Jolla for three touchdowns and 160 yards rushing and ran his Southern California-leading scoring total to 101 points in a 27-0 victory.
(Adams’s La Jolla thrusts were preceded by equally explosive efforts in routs of Kearny, 45-0, St. Augustine, 66-0, and Pasadena Muir, 39-14).
–Hoover now was 7-0 and its destiny, and Kirchhoff’s future as a football coach, would be decided against the 6-1 San Diego Cavemen.
–A crowd of more than 15,000, largest in the series since 1949, turned out on a damp evening and braced for the most compelling battle in the history of the heated rivalry.
(Although contested in Balboa Stadium, on the San Diego campus, the game was the feature of Hoover’s Homecoming Day).
–The Cardinals and Cavers sparred through the first half, Hoover stopping San Diego on its seven-yard line in the second quarter, while Hoover did not strike beyond San Diego’s 37 until the third quarter, when the game changed.
–On third down from the Cardinals’ 29 halfback Dan Bonetti raced to the 35, then lateraled to big Adams, who sped down the sideline, headed for a touchdown.
–San Diego’s Leonard Kary made what Jim Trinkle of The San Diego Union described as a “desperate, diving tackle” on the 2-yard line after Adams’ 63-yard run.
–San Diego linebacker Tom Collins stopped Adams at the one-foot line on the next play .
HOLDING AND NO PASS INTERFERENCE
–Trinkle wrote: “The next two maneuvers—in the mind of Hoover coach Bob Kirchhoff—will live in infamy in Hockerville.”
–Denny Hill crossed the goal line at right tackle but Hoover was penalized for holding, pushing Hoover back to the 15.
Kirchhoff contended the penalty was called after Hill scored and should have been assessed on the subsequent kickoff, which meant that Kirchhoff was misreading the rule book or the newspaper report was inaccurate.
You can’t have a holding penalty on a scoring play, count the touchdown, and then assess the penalty.
–The next play was a pass into the end zone from Leek to John Vanderlinde. “If there was interference it wasn’t detected by the officials,” wrote Trinkle.
–A photograph of the play was in the column next to Trinkle’s report on the front page of the Union‘s sports section. The right arm of San Diego’s Art Powell is clearly inside the left arm of Vanderlinde’s.
–The official on the play was Jack Garner, a friend of Kirchhoff’s who worked with Kirchhoff and former Hoover player George Stephenson as part of the chain crew at Chargers games for more than 20 years.
–“He told me, ‘How could I make the call in that situation against San Diego High?’” Kirchhoff said years later.
–Joe Banks pushed over from the one-yard line with 6:16 to play for the game’s only score, set up by Pete Gumina’s 25-yard completion to Powell.
–Hoover moved to the Cavers’ 12 late in the game, but tackle Don Hiler sacked Leek for a 16-yard loss and and the Cardinals were done.
–The favored Redbirds were beaten on the scoreboard and in the statistics. San Diego led, 9-5, in first downs and in total yardage, 238-127. Adams had 103 yards in 16 carries.
Willie West led San Diego with 118 yards in 13 carries. Leek was 0 for 7 passing and Gumina completed 5 of 9 for 87 yards.
–Hoover beat neophyte Lincoln 14-7 in its final regular-season game the next week.
The Cardinals’ sonambulent performance was partly influenced by Kirchhoff’s playing the game under wraps, with scouts from potential CIF Southern Section playoff opponents on hand.
–Leading, 12-0, at halftime, Hoover dropped a 20-18 decision to Compton in a first-round playoff shrouded in fog at Hoover the next week.
–The fog was a sadly prophetic omen for Kirchhoff, who had coached his last game and would be replaced by Engle.
(Adams ended the season with 17 touchdowns and 108 points but scored only one touchdown in the season’s final 3 games).
Bob Kirchhoff coached again, as head coach at Brown Military Academy in 1957 and accepting the position of track coach when Clairemont High opened its doors in 1959. Clairemont stunned heavily favored Point Loma and the Chieftains won the Western League dual meet championship.