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UCLA Football: Looking Back at Heroes from the 1937 Team

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This month, the 2015 UCLA Vintage Football Calendar features a program from the 1937 season. Let's follow suit with a closer look at two Hall of Famers from that season.

Francis Wai, #49, with his brother, playing for UCLA
Francis Wai, #49, with his brother, playing for UCLA
UCLA Bruins

The 2015 UCLA vintage football calendar includes the 1937 season for two months. The graphics may be good, but the team unfortunately did not follow suit. The Bruins only won two games that season. But there were four persons from that team who are in the UCLA Hall of Fame. We will look at two of those four in this article, and will save the other two for a later date.

First up is the coach of that team, William Spaulding. Spaulding came to UCLA in 1925 from the University of Minnesota. When he took over, UCLA was in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which is still an active D-III conference (Cal Tech, Oxy, Redlands, Whittier, etc). Spaulding transitioned UCLA to the Pacific Coast Conference, the forerunner of the Pac-12.

The PCC had been started in 1915 by Cal, Washington and the two Oregon schools. Washington State joined next in 1917, followed by Stanford in 1919. Southern Cal joined in 1922 and left the conference in 1924 for reasons unknown (presumably something to do with downtown apartments), before rejoining in 1925. Idaho also joined in 1922, and remained a PCC member until the conference disbanded in 1959 (I did not know about Idaho's long tenure in the conference). Montana joined in 1924, and remained a member until 1950. And UCLA became the 10th member of the conference in 1928.

UCLA started playing football in 1919. The Bruins played in the SCIAC from 1920 through 1927 and never won a conference title. It was under Coach Spaulding, and as a member of the PCC, that the Bruins won their first conference championship, in 1935. Coach Spaulding's final team, in 1938, was the first squad to be invited to a bowl game.

In Coach Spaulding's 14 years, the Bruins won 72 games. For those who think that shear number of wins is all that matters in assessing a coach, regardless of how many games are played in a typical season, 72 is a pretty solid number, given that the normal season back in the day was eight games, which could end in a tie. Coach Spaulding had only three losing teams in his 14 seasons. And the 72 wins continues to be the second highest total for any UCLA coach, behind only Terry Donahue's 144.

Perhaps the fact that the Bruins only played eight games back in the day instead of ten was the inspiration for the notion that an 80 yard practice field should be acceptable. Whatever the reason, Coach Spaulding was clearly not an 80% coach. The field named for him should not be an 80% field.

The other member of the 1937 team who we will highlight today is one of the greatest individuals to attend UCLA, let alone play football for the Bruins. Francis Wai was a member of the 1937 and 1938 teams, and also played basketball, track and rugby.

Wai graduated with a degree in Banking and Finance in 1939. A native of Hawaii, Wai returned to Hawaii after graduation and joined the Hawaii National Guard. He was called into active duty before the US entered WWII. He was one of the very few Asian-Americans to receive an officer's commission.

And it is during WWII that he became a true American hero. In October 1944, Captain Wai led one of the units which landed at Leyte, in an attempt to drive the Japanese back from the Philippines. He took command of disorganized troops who were under fire, and led the troops to knock the Japanese out of their positions. Wai personally led the charge, in the open without cover. He died leading the assault on the last Japanese position on that long day.

Wai was posthumously awarded the Distinguised Service Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor. To this day, Wai is the only Chinese American to receive this highest honor. Here is an excellent article from the UCLA website which provides more detail on Wai's extraordinary life.

One thing which continues to drive me crazy about Blockero is their collective inability to grasp the role that athletics can play in the life of the university, and the modern day heroes who can translate their success on the field to success in all spheres of life after their playing days are over. There is no better example of this than Francis Wai.

Here is to Coach Spaulding and Captain Wai. All Bruins should be proud of their contributions at UCLA and beyond.