Bruce Snyder, who brought toughness to Cal football and coached the Golden Bears to their only New Year's Day bowl over the past 50 years, died Monday at his home in Phoenix following a 10-month battle with cancer.
"When he came into my living room to recruit me, he was talking about toughness," recalled Mike Pawlawski, the quarterback on Cal's 1991 team that beat Clemson 37-13 in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1992. "As he was going through the illness, he still walked the walk. That was one of the big themes that we learned under him. And he was tough right to the end."
Snyder, 69, was diagnosed with cancer last June. He went through multiple series of chemotherapy treatments, and in March underwent three brain surgeries.
In an interview last fall with the Arizona Republic, Snyder said, "If all of a sudden I'm gone in a year, it's been a damn good life. And I've lived a healthier, longer life than most."
His family posted the news of his death Monday afternoon on the CaringBridge.org Web site, which chronicled his battle with cancer over recent months.
"Words cannot express how much we will miss our father, husband, brother and best friend," his family wrote. "We miss his smile, his captivating stories, his advice, his laugh and big bear hugs. But one of Coach's ideas in the past few weeks was to really think about a 'life well lived.' ... I think we can all agree that Bruce Snyder lived his life well."
Former Cal star running back Russell White called Snyder's passing "a sad day."
"He's a man who had pretty much transformed my life," said White, who came to Cal despite a deficient academic record, overcame a learning disability and earned a diploma.
White said he cried when he got the news of Snyder's death. "He was the type of guy you would walk through fire with," White said.
Snyder was 29-24-1 in five seasons at Cal, taking over in 1987 after Joe Kapp's final campaign produced a 2-9 record. The Bears' 17-15 win over Wyoming in the 1990 Copper Bowl marked just their second bowl appearance in 32 years, and their victory in the Citrus Bowl the next season remains the program's only New Year's Day victory since the 1938 Rose Bowl.
"He made people believe you can win at Cal," said San Jose State assistant Kent Baer, who was Snyder's defensive coordinator for five seasons in Berkeley.
The '91 team beat Pacific 86-24 in the season opener and finished 10-2 with a No. 8 national ranking in the Associated Press poll. The season featured a titanic midseason battle of unbeatens against Washington, the eventual co-national champion, which escaped sold-out Memorial Stadium with a 24-17 victory.
"That Washington game really showed the change in the mentality of the players," said Troy Auzenne, an All-America offensive tackle who later played six seasons in the NFL. "I just remember the disappointment after, and that was the difference."
Snyder was gone to Arizona State the next season, as then Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath failed to act quickly enough to sign him to a contract extension. Snyder's 1996 Sun Devils were 11-0 in the regular season, and Snyder finished his 20-year college coaching career with a record of 120-106-5.
Baer, who spent 14 seasons working under Snyder at three schools, recalled the group of young coaches that Snyder assembled at Utah State in the 1980s, including Rod Marinelli, Denny Shuler, Bill Laveroni and Terry Shea. Steve Mariucci and Ollie Wilson came on board at Cal.
"He kind of taught us all how to coach," Baer said. "I don't think Bruce ever got enough respect for just being a pure football coach."
Snyder was honored this past February with the College Football Foundation Hall of Fame's Lifetime Achievement Coaching Award.
Snyder was remembered for different reasons by former players.
"He had a specific, individual relationship with each guy," said Auzenne, stressing how unusual that is on a football team. "I played for Mike Ditka (with the Chicago Bears), and I might have talked to him six times in a year."
"He was a great man who molded a lot of boys to become men," former Cal linebacker David Ortega, now a member of the university's athletic department, wrote on the CaringBridge Web site.
Pawlawski called Snyder a father figure and someone he always could trust.
"The rest of my career, I got soured on coaches," Pawlawski said. "I can't say with Bruce that he ever said something that wasn't the truth. He wasn't a salesman, he was just honest."
Auzenne said Snyder taught his players to be tough, a word the coach used with such enthusiasm he would practically spit it out.
"He constantly pushed you to go beyond that point where you'd think you couldn't go anymore," Auzenne said. "He's basically the reason why I played professional football."
Snyder is survived by his wife, Linda, their three daughters, a son-in-law, two grandchildren, four sisters and two brothers.
Contact Jeff Faraudo at email@example.com.