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Ohlone’s little-know legacy

Back in 1977, Friday afternoons at Ohlone College were full of excitement and enthusiasm. It was all about football.

By that time, the Renegades were a total football powerhouse, winning the Coast Conference Championship, the Northern California Championship, and even finished the season ranked second in the state after losing 29-21 against Taft Community College in the State Championship final. 

However, before this amazing run, Ohlone's​ football team was synonymous of losing. In 1975, the Renegades had the nation’s worst losing streak in junior college, with a total of 31 losses in a row.   

The Ohlone football program was a disaster, to the extent that the administration was ready to shut down the program due to the lack of interest in the team. In that year, the Renegades​ finished the season with a record of 1-9, with just 25 players left in their roster.   

Nevertheless, in 1976, in a last attempt to revive the team, the Ohlone board appointed Mike Cowan as the new Renegades head coach. 

Cowan was coaching the six-time conference champions Ohlone Wrestling team at the time, and was also a part of the football team as an assistant coach. 

In a  recent interview, Cowan said that after being given the job, the college president, William Richter, called him to his office and said, “I don’t care how you do it [win], I just want you to do it.” 

Moreover, Cowan recognized that the main problem of the team was its lack of talent. “They played well, they just didn’t have the talent,” said Cowan. “In football, you can’t win without talent.”

One of the first moves Cowan made to resurrect the team was scouting the missing talent. “I had a lot of contacts. I recruited some of my better talents from Sunnyvale High School I coached there from 1974 to 1976,” said Cowan. “A big change was coming, better discipline, better players.”

Unfortunately, Cowan's first year as the head coach wasn't as great as the school was hoping it’d be. 

The team only managed to win one game out of eight overall against Monterey Peninsula College, leaving Ohlone with the same losing reputation. 

However, not everything was bad fortune for the Renegades. Hope emerged over the team as they finished the 76 season with a total of 68 players on their roster, a new system, new talents, and most importantly, a rejuvenated interest. 

The following year, the change that everybody was expecting finally arrived. Cowan emphasized that 1977 was the best year of his five-year stay as the head coach of the Renegades. “Definitely, the ‘77 season was the best among all,” said Cowan.

First, the Renegades clinched the Coast Conference Division title after beating Menlo College 21-20 with a two-point conversion remaining just 10 seconds left on the clock. 

This win not only meant a title for Ohlone — it also meant breaking the unsuccessful reputation that the team had built for themselves after winning just one game over the last three years.

Surprisingly, the Renegades finished the regular season with a divisional record of 4-1 and an overall mark of 8-2. Even more surprising, this current record of victories surpassed the total win combined over the past eight years for the team.

After beating Menlo College, Siskiyous College and the Northern California Championship Final was the next stop.

A lot of speculation was built towards this game. A crowd of 3,200 filled the Tak Fudenna Memorial Stadium at Washington High School to watch the Renegades. 

The fans got what they expected — a close and competitive final. 

The match was scoreless through three quarters until Ohlone managed to score three touchdowns in seven minutes, and earning what seemed impossible for the Renegades: becoming Nor Cal Champions. 

Cowan acknowledged the happiness that surrounded the team at that moment. “We were excited because at the beginning, we couldn’t win and now all of a sudden, we were playing a state championship,” said Cowan. 

Ohlone kept their adventure rolling all the way to the State Championship, where they faced the unbeaten (9-0) Taft College. 

As mentioned before, here’s where the Renegades’ fairy tale ended. “We were very disappointed,” said Cowan. “We felt that we had the same chance as everybody else, but we lost to a team that was physically stronger than us. Overall, we did a great job in that game.”

Regardless of not winning the State Final, the impact that Cowan made to the football program was astonishing. 

The influence didn’t just impact the school, it also impacted some of the players’ lives to the extent of making a Super Bowl Champion. 

In 1978, Cowan recruited a “little guy” named Gary Plummer from Mission San Jose High School as a linebacker. Quickly, Plummer started making a name for himself in the team. When comparing his work-ethic to his teammates, Cowan said, “Gary was like a Jaguar, the rest were Toyotas.”

After spending two years at Ohlone, Cowan brought Stanford’s defensive coordinator George Seifert to meet Plummer. When Seifert saw Plummer, he was shocked. He shook his head and said “You can’t play in the Pac-10. You’re too small.” 

For Plummer, being rejected from Stanford was a tough pill to swallow. The fact of being “too small” broke his dreams of becoming a professional football player.

Plummer’s reaction caused Cowan to become an encouragement and help achieve his dream. “We started working out,” said Cowan. “We started doing everything together, I would not let him quit.” After his hard work, Plummer was accepted to the University of California at Berkeley.

After two years passed by, Plummer still wasn’t recieving offers to play in the  NFL .

Nevertheless, he didn’t quit. In 1983, he went to play with a semi-pro football team known as the Oakland Invaders. 

Plummer’s biggest dream came true in 1986 when ex-Oakland Invaders head coach signed him to play for the San Diego Chargers. 

Seven years later, George Seifert signed him to play for the San Francisco 49ers, where he earned the title of Super Bowl Champion after the 49ers beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX in 1995.

Back on campus, Cowan quit as the head coach of the Renegades football team just before the program was shut down in 1982. Now, 35 years later, Cowan is teaching a golf course at Ohlone, but still has regrets of leaving the football team. 

Ohlone’s football legacy is still thriving in the memories and memorabilia that fill Head Coach Cowan’s home. Hopefully the stories will always be a part of the campus history.

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