My old man grew up a couple years behind the Casanova brothers on the outskirts of Ferndale in the early 1900s. All through my growing up my dad admired them both, even though Johnny Casanova was no longer alive. When he talked about Johnny, my dad would tear up and get shaky.
Leonard Casanova was the second-best athlete from these parts; his little brother Johnny was the best. Casanova said later in life that he liked growing up as a farm boy and an underdog, and it taught him useful lessons. As a kid, he delivered newspapers and he worked at the meat market in high school.
Casanova, known to most as Cas, was a high school star in all sports. His four older sisters stayed after him constantly to be a good student and make his mark in the world. As student body president at Ferndale High School, he graduated in 1923 and left that summer for Santa Clara University on scholarship to play football and baseball, which landed him in the school's hall of fame. His younger brother Johnny followed him a couple years later and was another multi-sport superstar. On a visit home to celebrate his signing a major league baseball contract, Johnny died from internal injuries suffered in a collision while riding in the car's rumble seat. Casanova, seated beside him, was unhurt but emotionally scarred.
Casanova had made his first national headlines for a punt, in 1924, during the Big Little Game between St. Mary's College and Santa Clara University at the packed Kezar stadium in San Francisco. Primarily a halfback, he was also the star punter. In high school, after drop kicking a field goal from 45 yards against Arcata High School, his coach gave him a ball to practice with at home.
At Kezar, standing 5-yards deep in his own end zone, he bombed a punt that traveled 102 yards and downed at the 3-yard line, still rolling. Officially it was 97-yards and the longest punt in NCAA history.
He rarely referred to the punt in interviews. The night before he was to speak at our grammar school, my dad told me to ask him about it. When I did, he laughed in his deep, comforting voice and said, "I got a lucky roll."
Casanova graduated Santa Clara in 1927 as team captain of two sports and began teaching and coaching in the Bay Area. While coaching the Sequoia High School league championship team, he met a young kindergarten teaching candidate from St. Mary's College named Dixie Simmers on a blind date and married her a year and a half later.
Casanova became the assistant coach at Santa Clara under the tutelage of Buck Shaw, who soon became coach of the 49ers at Kezar stadium. When World War II broke out, Casanova left for the Navy. When it ended, he was discharged as a full naval commander and went on to become head coach at Santa Clara in both baseball and football.
After three years of coaching upsets over major teams, his biggest victory was in 1949 when Santa Clara beat Kentucky in the Orange Bowl. Kentucky Coach Bear Bryant, who'd served under Casanova in the war, stated after, "I had better men at my disposal but Casanova got more out of his players than I did."
Two years later, Casanova became head football coach of the University of Oregon's Webfoots (now the Ducks). He took over a dismal program and from 1951-1966 became the most winning coach in Oregon history.
The first years were tough but Casanova's kind, persuasive aura made him a great recruiter. Years later at a banquet in his honor at Redwood Acres, he talked of arriving home after a heartbreaking loss early on at Oregon. His daughter Margo said, "You lost again? You ain't much of a coach."
Casanova replied, "My only recourse was don't say 'ain't.'"
As a coach at Oregon, he mentored George Seifort, John McKay and John Robinson. He coached the first nationally televised college football game, against Nebraska in 1953. His wins against major football powers included an upset against Stanford University in 1957 in which the Ducks had no interceptions, no fumbles and one 5-yard penalty. And, of course, there was the 1958 Rose Bowl.
That season, the Ducks allowed an average of five points per game and had only one game where they allowed more than seven points. Still, they entered the Rose Bowl as 21-point underdogs against the top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes coached by Woody Hayes. Despite the heartbreaking 10-7 loss, Casanova still considered it his most exciting game.
My dad "watched" the radio every time the Ducks played and sometimes "Cas" would call him after to talk. Mel Renfro was my dad's favorite of all the Oregon players and meeting the future hall of famer was a lifetime highlight.
Dixie Casanova had said that being married to a college football coach was a hard life, but she loved it. Dixie always loved the charm and loyalty of Ferndale and wished to someday live there. When she died at the age of 51, she was buried in the town's Catholic Cemetery.
Every Memorial Day when we cleaned the cemetery family plots and laid out flowers, my mom made sure we had a special bouquet for Dixie's grave up a little hill path with a view of the valley.
Casanova remarried a few years later to Margaret Hathaway, another marvelous woman. After his coaching career, he served as Oregon's athletic director, responsible for the completion of the new athletic facility and Autzen stadium. He was a master fundraiser and entertainer. The athletic facility was named in his honor and he was elected to the NCAA Hall of Fame.
Casanova remained with the college for numerous projects in his later years. In 1992, I was on a recruiting visit to Oregon with a couple of track athletes I coached and stopped by his office with them. At the age of 82, he was sharp and personable as ever. He told the young track stars how when I was in high school he'd sent me special running workouts from his friend and colleague Bill Bowerman, of Steve Prefontaine and Nike fame.
When he died in 2002 at the age of 97, he left a legacy that included tributes from Mike Belloti, Dave Wilcox, Bill Moos and many others, and he was remembered as the foundation for Oregon athletics. Robinson said, "He was mentor to us all who set an example. He loved us and we loved him. He cared about us and we cared about him. He made us go to church and if you missed school, he would darn near punch you out."
Oregon Duck fans in our area may be unaware of where some of their family's loyalty comes from. If you go to Autzen stadium next fall, stop and reflect at the Casanova plaque as you enter the arena.
Rod Kausen (he/him) is a retired teacher and coach.