Inside the prank after ‘The Play’: Daily staffers print fake Cal paper

Feb. 23, 2023, 5:25 p.m.

Nobody in California Memorial Stadium knew exactly what had happened. With no cell phones and no instant replay, murmurs rippled through the stands. Each fan, sporting either navy and gold or cardinal red, came up with their own, often different explanation for what had just happened on the field. 

To one side of the field and its fan base, the events that had just unraveled in Berkeley, Calif. bore jubilation. In the words of the Daily Californian, it was a “miracle.”

The other side of the field felt differently. The finish was heart-shattering, concluding what the Stanford Daily’s front page headline described as “a disastrous weekend.”

“This was an insult to college football,” John Elway told reporters on Nov. 20, 1982, moments after the game. The future-Pro Football Hall of Famer’s words were etched on the front page of newspapers all over the country after he watched his team fall on the wrong side of what ESPN’s SportsCenter deemed 37 years later as the second-best moment in sports history, now known simply as “The Play.”

The Saturday afternoon crowd bore witness to something the game of football had never seen before. While the officials half-heartedly signaled a game-deciding touchdown, spectators, having just seen a player weave through 144 band members on the field, were unsure what the outcome of the game was really going to be.

Shock and confusion followed the final whistle for minutes, until the cannon on Tightwad Hill went off. Just like that, Cal had officially claimed the Axe and defeated Stanford in the 1982 Big Game. 

For many, the stunning finish was all the Stanford-Cal rivalry had to offer that year. But for one Stanford junior, who had just viewed the madness unravel from up in the press box, this was just the start. 

To him, revenge was an inevitability. And he was going to make sure that it came sooner rather than later.

The idea

The day after “The Play,” Adam Berns ’84 was back on Stanford campus. As he did on many Sunday nights, the third-year student sat in the multi-level Memorial Auditorium where the school projected films for students to view. While most people were occupied with the movie, Berns sat in the auditorium with his mind elsewhere, stuck on an idea that he couldn’t leave alone.

Berns continued on with his Sunday ritual by heading to The Stanford Daily’s offices, a place all too familiar to the junior. Having served as the student newspaper’s sports editor the two previous quarters, Berns was now editor of the weekly football issue published for every home game. But his active role didn’t require him to be in the offices — he was there for a different reason.

Tucked away in the corner of the building, Berns looked at his source of inspiration. Posted on the wall was an issue from seven years prior, which had a phony article claiming that Cal’s Chuck Muncie was ruled ineligible in advance of the Big Game. 

“I always thought in the back of my head, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, it would be fun one day to do a prank. But it never happened,” Berns said. Pranks had been done before, but they never took place after-the-fact. That was about to change. “After the game I thought, ‘You know what, let’s do a fake paper saying the NCAA had given the game back to Stanford.’”

The following morning, Berns walked back into the Daily’s offices where he pitched his idea to then-Editor in Chief Richard Klinger ’83 JD ’84. Out of concern with the administration’s response, plus legal and financial repercussions, Klinger met the prank with some resistance. But after discussions with the Daily’s advisory board and even a lawyer, he cautiously gave Berns the go-ahead. Berns’ next task was to recruit the team he needed to make it happen.

The convincing

Students had kept busy the previous week with annual Big Game Week traditions. But academic reality soon came back, especially for those with midterms. 

Mark Zeigler ’85, who was the Daily’s feature editor at the time, was one such student. So when his close friend Berns approached him with the idea for the fake newspaper, he initially turned Berns down.

“It was just like one thing after another and I got no schoolwork done,” Zeigler said. “Friday night is in the city. Saturday, all day is at the game. Sunday, I’m putting out the paper. I’m like, ‘I’ve got no time for this, I’ve got midterms.’”

But Berns wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Fifty years from now when we’re on our yacht in the Greek Islands, we are not gonna remember the midterms that we blew off, but we’ll definitely remember this prank,” Berns told Zeigler. That was all the sophomore needed to hear.

“From then on, we pretty much lived in the Daily,” he said.

The Lead Story

The pair had their plan laid out: they crafted the framework of a four-page wraparound replica of the Daily Californian, Cal’s student newspaper. The plan was to have it ready for print on Tuesday evening so that it could be distributed on Wednesday morning. And with Thanksgiving break beginning the next day and thus no scheduled Daily Cal print until the following week, the publication would have no opportunity to respond.

Berns and Zeigler were eager to put it together, but still had their work cut out for them to produce The Daily’s regular print. On top of school, too, they knew they would need help to execute the plan. So they turned to one of the biggest supporters of the prank, who wasn’t even a Stanford student.

Thomas Mulvoy was a frequent face at the Daily’s newsroom that fall. Thirty-nine years old at the time, Mulvoy was deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe, but called The Farm home during the 1982-83 school year for a yearlong Professional Journalism Foundation fellowship (now known as the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship). He had gotten to know Douglas Jehl ’84, the Daily’s Managing Editor, who told Mulvoy about the fake newspaper.

Mulvoy offered to write up the lead story for Berns and Zeigler. His previous experience as deputy sports editor at The Boston Globe coupled with the information he gathered covering the real game that weekend, it only took the fellow five minutes to draft. Headlined “NCAA awards Big Game to Stanford,” Mulvoy’s piece cited a made-up NCAA rule that allowed for the controversial finish to be changed, drawing upon what the article calls “many illegalities in the play” for justification.

“There were so many questionable situations that unfolded on that last play that could easily have given rise to a penalty,” said Steve Odell ’83 JD ’88, the Daily’s head sports editor at the time. “That’s what made that [fake] Daily Cal so believable.”

To supplement Mulvoy’s story, the team included a doctored photo of the game’s final moments that — after some craftsmanship from the photo department — showed a referee signaling the play dead. 

“If you look at it now, you’re like, ‘That is so cheesy. That is awful,’” Zeigler said about the lead picture. The photo department used a blade to cut out a picture of an official from another picture and stuck it in the back of the fake issue. “Now with photoshop and the capacity you have in desktop publishing, you could do that in two seconds and make it look really, really good. But back then, people would accept that at first glance.”

The layout

The rest of the paper looked like any other Daily Cal issue. At the time, The Stanford Daily was one of the only college papers in the country with a sophisticated on-site computer system, and with the help of such a resource, entertainment editor Tony Kelly ’86 was able to replicate the typeface of the Daily Californian and turn the four-page wraparound into a reality. 

With the lead story out of the way, it was up to Berns and Zeigler to fill up the other three and a half pages. Each story was given the byline of a real Daily Cal staffer — only, each name was off by one letter. Bill Bunz became Bill Kuns, Andy Altman became Andy Allman and, much to the amusement of Berns and Zeigler, Mandalit del Barco became Mandalit Embargo. The issue included wire stories from the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. It had letters to the editor. It even contained an advertisement from Cal’s student association calling for a protest in wake of the Big Game decision. Of course, all of these were made up. The Stanford students’ favorite gimmick was a two-for-one coupon for the student bookstore. 

Beneath Mulvoy’s story was one titled, “Bears shocked, appalled,” which included factitious quotes from Cal’s athletic director and many players. To its left was a story headlined, “Decision stuns Joe Kapp.” The brainchild of Zeigler, it detailed the supposed reaction of Cal’s head coach, who was not shed in a pretty light. 

“One could almost see the tears brimming in his eyes on the phone,” the article read. “… Joe Kapp hung up the phone a new man, a broken man.”

The writing of the supplementing stories took the pair hours. Working on one article after another, they stayed up until 4 a.m. that Monday night and continued on again through Tuesday.

“It was a lot harder than I thought,” Zeigler said of writing the extra articles. “Because usually you have all the information in front of you, right. Stats, the quotes and, you know, you saw a game and you have notes. I had none of that. I had to make it all up.”

The paper was all laid out by Tuesday night, and all was going to plan. Berns sent a small group to Berkeley that evening to scout out where the Cal student newspaper’s physical drop boxes were around campus. At the same time, the fake paper was driven down to the printer in San Jose — the very same publishing house that the Daily Cal used.

The next morning

When Berns and Zeigler went to pick up the fake paper early in the morning, the prospects of successfully pulling off the stunt became a whole lot better.

“When we went to pick it up, they said, ‘By the way, the Daily Cal is really late,’” Zeigler said. “We were just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got an incredible opportunity here.’ If they’re not going to get their paper out until 10, we’re gonna have [a few] hours to a captive audience and they’re gonna think it’s the real Daily Cal… We got totally lucky on that.”

Before their five-day hiatus from printing for Thanksgiving break, the Daily Cal was set to run a particularly important 36-page issue with an advertising supplement that would bring in a lot of funds for the self-supported student newspaper. But the uncharacteristically thick paper was the likely cause for the delay as the night before it was reportedly delivered to the printer a few hours later than normal. Meanwhile, it just so happened that there was another Daily Cal issue headed for the Berkeley campus. 

The sistribution

With 10,000 copies of the fake paper in hand, Berns, Zeigler, Kelly, Klinger and eight other Stanford Daily members drove up to Berkeley in a fleet of cars — including Kelly’s 1971 Plymouth Duster with a Cal Bears decal on the back window, courtesy of his brother-in-law — for a 6 a.m. arrival.

“It was like a little espionage,” Berns said.

The group, with some sporting natural colors and others even wearing Cal’s blue and gold, scurried around campus to distribute the paper. Issues were left at Sproul Plaza, various dorms and the previously-scouted drop-off locations, which were vacant due to the Daily Cal’s delay at the printer.

However, 40 years down the line, the other side of the operation remembers things differently. 

“Our distribution was on par with any normal day,” said David Lazarus, now an award-winning columnist previously with the Los Angeles Times who was a staff writer for the Daily Cal at the time.

Members of the Stanford party recall the Cal newspaper being multiple hours late, some even stating it was eight hours delayed.

“[The paper] was later than it was supposed to be out there, but it was earlier than The Stanford Daily got there,” said Dan Woo. Woo, who was Editor in Chief of the Daily Cal at the time, acknowledges the papers were late, but he contends they were not far off schedule and that the original papers were tampered with as a part of the scheme. “They threw out the Daily Cal’s and substituted theirs.”

A story ran by The Oakland Tribune the following day reported that the real Daily Cal papers didn’t start appearing until 10:30 a.m. 

“I saw empty boxes,” Kelly said. “So either their paper was wildly popular and people were emptying those boxes the minute it showed up, or it was a little late.”

“There’s no way in hell their paper was out,” Zeigler said.

In either case, the Stanford group’s efforts concluded shortly after sunrise, when it wasn’t long until Cal students began reading the papers. 

“I just kind of went off and sat like an arsonist and watched the fire burn,” Zeigler said.

The reaction

The sight of the paper rendered utter disbelief for many. Most paused in their tracks. Others fell to their knees. It inspired an assortment of reactions, all of which the Stanford students were there to observe.

“Almost everybody believed it. There were people crying and people pissed off,” Berns said. ”It was so unbelievably funny.”

Uncertainty filled campus that morning as rumors circled and students headed to class shocked at what they believed to be true.

“We saw a cheerleader cry. We saw a football player [who] kind of looked like he was tearing up,” Zeigler said. “You could see that it was working. Everyone would pick up the paper and start walking, and then just stop. Just completely stop.”

The fake paper’s impact quickly extended past the confines of the university, and readers from the nearby area were upset by the alleged news.

The Berkeley student association received a number of calls from worried readers. The Daily Cal’s offices did too, many of which had callers described as “irate” by Marty Rabkin, general manager of the publication at the time. One such call reportedly came from Cal’s Athletic Department, but some in the department claim they didn’t bat an eye at the news.

John McCasey, Cal’s sports information director that year, told the Associated Press that he hadn’t met anyone who fell for the parody.

“We didn’t give it any time or thought whatsoever when we first heard about it,” McCasey said. “I went to my athletic director, Dave Maggart, and we both agreed. We hadn’t heard from the Pac-10 and neither of us had heard from the NCAA… The Stanford newspaper was known for doing stuff like this a lot. It was not uncommon for them to pull off some kind of hoax.”

Other parties from that side of the Bay maintained a similar stance.

“I don’t think anyone thought it was the real Daily Cal,” Woo said, who dismissed the paper immediately and was instead occupied with locating the real paper, which contained his newspaper’s important ad supplement. 

But despite not working on producing the paper, a number of other Daily Cal staffers still believed the news.

“I was mad as hell when I first saw it,” Rabkin told reporters that day. “People picking it up were thinking it was the Daily Cal, no doubt about it. Some people on campus were furious. I had one bank manager call and threaten to sue me.”

Soon enough, people located the disclaimer Berns and Zeigler included, which was tucked away on page two in fine print. But word had spread quickly before the prank was debunked, and for many Cal students it was too late. The student bookstore saw an influx of people trying to use the two-for-one coupon that Berns and Zeigler included in the paper. Others gathered at Sproul Plaza to protest the NCAA’s decision after reading the call for a rally in the hoax issue. 

Four decades later, pulling something off like this seems almost unfathomable.

“There’s no cell phones, TV isn’t what it is [today], there’s no way to verify that this is true. People are used to getting their information from newspapers primarily,” Zeigler said of the time period. Obviously, things have changed since then. “I don’t think you could do that in this day and age the way we did it.”

The Aftermath

When the first wave of people from the operation got back to campus and at the Stanford Daily office, the phones were already ringing. Radio stations, newspapers and television channels were calling, trying to get commentary on the story that had already broken to local news outlets. 

One call though, was not from a news organization. Instead, it came from someone in the Stanford administration — they wanted to speak to who was responsible for the paper.

Berns nervously picked up the phone. On the other end was Donald Kennedy, then-president of Stanford University, calling to personally congratulate the junior on the stunt. Not long after, Fred Hargadon, the Dean of Admissions and a popular faculty member among students, came by the Daily offices to congratulate everyone. The fake paper had quickly cemented itself among the many legends in Stanford history, and its influence rippled through not only Stanford sports fans, but the community as a whole.

“I had professors come up to me afterwards just saying, ‘Look, this was a great thing to do for the school, given it’s for spirit purposes and just rooted in cohesion,” a Daily editor recounted. “People I didn’t expect, like emeritus history professors and such.”

And yet, the prank was much more than just a campus-wide story.

The next day, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle read: “Big Game Newspaper Hoax.” The story was picked up by The Associated Press and wired to publications all across the West Coast. USA Today ran a story on the operation. But the Stanford students didn’t digest how big of a deal it would become until the following Sunday when Brent Musburger, all the way across the country in New York City, held up a copy of the paper on CBS’s “The NFL Today.” 

“He starts reading my story on Joe Kapp,” Zeigler said. “I’m just like, this thing is way bigger than we ever imagined it was gonna be.”

The response

Immediately, the paper became a collector’s item. Everyone wanted to get their hands on a copy, and issues reached commodity status. The Stanford Daily ended up doing a second press run of 1,500 papers, which they sold around campus for $1 per copy in hopes of covering the printing costs. In an effort to get back at their counterparts, Daily Cal staffers reportedly drove down to Palo Alto and resold them for $5 back at Berkeley. Cal’s student newspaper raised about $1,500 from reselling them, and the funds went towards minority journalism scholarships.

The first day back from Thanksgiving break, the Daily Cal published their own bogus article. Included in their normal Monday print was the article, authored by Lazarus, claiming that members of the Stanford Daily apologized for the prank. It contained a fake interview with Kennedy, in which the university president says: “I guess this shows once and for all that higher tuition fees do not breed higher standards.”

Lazarus was happy with how it turned out, giving his school and newspaper a chance to respond and clap back. But he knew it wasn’t anything more than just trying to “save face a little bit.”

“Make no mistake. We were playing catch up at that point. What the Stanford crowd had done was so ambitious and so well-executed,” he said. “I mean, they just owned us that day. There was no question.“

The Greek Islands

Since then, the stunt has gone on to live a life of its own. A copy of the paper resides in the College Football Hall of Fame. ESPN and Sports Illustrated have ranked it as a top-five sports prank of all time. The story has been included in documentaries produced by HBO, CBS and Pac-12 Network. Those involved say they’re contacted periodically by media outlets covering it for multiples of five and 10-year anniversaries. 

Although Zeigler does remember the midterm he blew off, which he indeed failed, he holds no regrets in choosing to partake in the prank. As for Berns, he plans to uphold his promise by taking Zeigler to the Greek Islands — and take a copy of the fake paper with them.

The story has proven immortal from the sands of time for the duo. After his first year in law school, Berns spent an entire job interview talking about the newspaper and nothing else — needless to say, he got the job. Zeigler once spotted a fan at a Stanford game sporting a shirt with a picture of Joe Kapp. Beneath it were words from Zeigler’s article, perhaps the most famous of the fake quotes.

 “Life’s not fair — I swear to God it isn’t.” 

Zach Zafran was the Vol. 262 managing editor for the sports section. Now a senior staff writer, he has previous experience reporting and writing with SFGATE. You can find Zach around campus wearing swim trunks no matter the weather. Follow him on Twitter at @ZachZafran and contact him at sports 'at'

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