Ray Willsey, a remarkable football coach during a turbulent time at UC Berkeley, died suddenly on Nov. 4 at his home in Hailey. He was 85.
Born on Sept. 30, 1928, in Saskatchewan, Canada, Ray’s achievements in football spanned the globe, including Canada, the United States and Europe. He is best remembered for his years as head coach of UC Berkeley during the 1960s and with the Oakland Raiders during their championship era in the 1980s. Ray served in the Coast Guard, stationed in Kodiak, Alaska, for three years. After being discharged, he attended Santa Ana College, and as quarterback led the Dons to a pair of conference titles and an appearance in the Junior Rose Bowl. He then transferred to UC Berkeley and played for legendary coach and mentor Pappy Waldorf. Upon graduation, Ray had three championship seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos as a player in the Canadian Football League. Ray then transitioned into coaching as a charter member of Darrell Royal’s University of Texas staff.
In 1964, at the age of 36, Ray became Cal’s head football coach for eight seasons. During this tumultuous time, tear gas and anti-war protests were the norm on campus. Craig Morton, Cal’s quarterback, best sums it up: “To do what he did at Cal during those times was absolutely incredible. Nobody could have faced such odds and achieved the success he did. He will truly be missed.”
After four years as defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals, Ray returned to the Bay Area as an assistant coach with the Oakland Raiders. His nine years with the Raiders included two Super Bowl titles. Following the Raiders, Ray joined NFL Europe for four seasons. His teams won three World Bowl titles. He left the sidelines to work at NFL headquarters in New York as Director of Player Personnel, NFL Europe League. In 2002, UC Berkeley honored Ray with the Glenn T. Seaborg Award, given to a former California football player for his career accomplishments. Ray was also inducted into the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame and the Santa Ana College Athletic Hall of Fame. In 2004, Ray retired to Hailey. He also had a home in Palm Desert.
Ray is survived by his partner of 30 years, Joanne May; daughters LeeAnn Willsey Fairfield and husband Dick, Janet Willsey Johnson and husband Keith, Louise Willsey Poole and husband Colin. He leaves behind five grandchildren, a niece and great-nephew.
He was preceded in death by his former wife, Barbara Bigelow Willsey, and his sister Audree Willsey Kenton.
In memory, donations may be made to “Pappy’s Boys” to fund football scholarships at Cal. Mail to: 3010 Rossmoor Parkway, No. 1, Walnut Creek, CA 94595 or Shriners Hospital for Children, 2900 Rocky Point Dr., Tampa, FL 33607, ? Office of Development, in memory of Raymond Willsey.
A memorial will be held in Berkeley in spring 2014.