By Joseph Beyda
Tim Conway ’74 and David Suliteanu ’75 were caught off guard at the Big Game rally on Monday night. It wasn’t star linebacker Shayne Skov’s “Macho Man” Randy Savage accent as emcee, or the fireworks that were periodically launched from Angell Field during the show.
The biggest surprise was the Stanford Axe. It felt heavy.
A lot can change in 40 years.
On Nov. 20, 1973, Stanford students Conway and Suliteanu stole the Axe in the lead-up to Big Game, earning the nickname “The Infamous Three” for themselves and Conway’s brother Matt, their fellow conspirator. But after the Axe was returned to Cal moments before kickoff, Conway and Suliteanu never picked it up again.
Not until they hoisted it at this week’s rally, that is.
“The highlight was getting our hands on that Axe again,” Suliteanu said. “Being able to carry it out on stage and show it, it was perfect…Think about that. Forty years, almost to the day.”
Though the Axe still changes hands on the playing field regularly — Stanford won the trophy back just hours after The Infamous Three gave it up — Conway and Suliteanu are the last people to successfully engineer its heist. Maybe that’s why that Thanksgiving Week back in 1973 is still such a high point.
“After 40 years of being out there in the working world doing whatever you do, there’s a lot of neat things that come along,” Conway said. “But when you look at the whole big picture it definitely stands out as a really big part of our lives.”
With Conway and Suliteanu, that’s saying something. Besides his day job working in construction labor relations, Conway has operated a wilderness camp in Alaska for 30 years; Suliteanu, meanwhile, served for 13 years as the president and CEO of cosmetics retailer Sephora. They’ve stayed in touch the entire time, and this year they’ve taken trips to Alaska and wine country to celebrate Suliteanu’s 60th birthday.
Suliteanu claims he’s told the story of the heist 100 times. Once, he was interviewing with a job recruiter from Home Depot who had a policy against asking candidates questions — instead, he just wanted to hear their life stores. Suliteanu obliged, and when he got to his college years, he mentioned that he had stolen the Stanford Axe.
That’s when the recruiter — the one who usually refuses to ask questions — broke in. He had gone to Cal, and he wanted to hear everything. Thirty minutes later, Suliteanu had the job.
The tale of the heist is as dramatic as it is legendary. Conway hatched the plan only a couple of weeks before Big Game. Matt, then a student at San Francisco School of Law, would impersonate Cal head coach Mike White over the phone and ask the Cal student union manager to hand over the Axe to two of his “players” — Conway and Suliteanu — who needed it for a press luncheon at Ming’s Restaurant in Palo Alto. Conway completed the disguise by telling a friend on the Golden Bears baseball team that he needed two Cal letterman jackets for a costume party.
But when Conway and Suliteanu arrived at the student union on that fateful Tuesday, the Axe wasn’t there — it was being safeguarded at the Berkeley police station for Big Game week. With a policeman stationed right outside the manager’s office, the impostors could only sit and wait for Matt to call again.
“I felt a little bit trapped,” Conway said. “When we were sitting there in that office, I remember thinking, ‘What are we doing here? This is not a good place to be.’”
Finally, the phone rang; it was Matt. The manager explained the predicament, but “Coach White” was insistent — he needed the Axe, and he didn’t want his “players” to be late.
The Cal Rally Committee retrieved the Axe, but they wouldn’t just hand it over. Instead, four members agreed to take the Axe in a separate car and follow Conway and Suliteanu all the way to Ming’s.
“We had to drive from Berkeley to Palo Alto, with the Axe in a car behind us,” Suliteanu remembered. “Two of us, four of them. We had one hour, approximately, to think about what we were going to do, and how. And basically, we just looked at each other and said, ‘You know what? We came this far. No matter what, we’re going for it. Whatever happens, we’re going to try to get our hands on it.’”
When Suliteanu and Conway pulled into Ming’s, they saw some of their Theta Delta Chi fraternity brothers tossing a football in the parking lot. Matt had run out of toll money for the trip back, but he had called for backup.
As two of the Rally Committee members helped him cover the Axe from the rain, Conway grabbed the trophy, yelled out and took off running. Suliteanu instinctually bear hugged one of the Cal students, leaving Conway to fend off the other three. But the bulk slowed him down, and they eventually tackled Conway onto a pink Cadillac that was sitting in the parking lot.
The Axe slid out of his hands and onto the top of the wet car, where one of the Rally Committee members grabbed it. Just moments later, however, a swarm of Conway’s fraternity brothers arrived to snatch it for good.
After some group photos at Theta Delta Chi, the Axe was quickly spirited away to Suliteanu’s grandmother’s house. The conspirators had no choice; they had been spotted by the media at Ming’s. But even though Conway and Suliteanu were soon contacted by the police chief and University officials, the Axe remained safe.
“Think about the temptation,” Suliteanu said. “You’ve got this thing, and what you really wanted to do was go grab it and go run around with it…Our thinking was, ‘Let’s stay away from it.’”
The Infamous Three submitted a list of creative demands — among them, $6,000, admission to the Stanford graduate school of their choice and Thanksgiving dinner with University president Richard Lyman — before eventually exchanging the Axe for Big Game field passes. They drove into Stanford Stadium on Saturday morning and handed the trophy over to the police chief, Sports Information Director Bob Murphy and Cardinal head coach Jack Christiansen, and Stanford’s captains returned it to Cal during the pregame coin toss.
Besides the scuffle at Ming’s, a couple of brief photo sessions and the pregame exchange, the Axe remained safely under Suliteanu’s grandmother’s bed the entire week leading up to the 1973 Big Game. That’s part of the reason why Monday’s rally was so special to Conway and Suliteanu. They hadn’t just waited 40 years to hold the Axe again; they had waited 40 years to truly celebrate with it.
But the two surviving members of The Infamous Three aren’t celebrating alone this week. On Thursday night, over Conway’s barbequing and tri-tips, their tale was told one more time at Theta Delta Chi to fraternity brothers young and old.
“What a great excuse to reconnect with them and get them together,” Suliteanu said. “You’ve got these guys who are in the fraternity now, and truthfully, they don’t know much about us, they don’t know much about [the heist]. And so you can put [this] huge, giant generation gap together for one evening, in the house where we lived.”
About 50 fraternity members from the ’70s are in town to celebrate the heist’s 40th anniversary with the barbeque, a private dinner Friday night and a tailgate Saturday morning. They’re not the only ones for whom the memory of November 1973 still holds meaning; the story is a sense of pride for the Stanford community as a whole. Jim Cost, one of the Palo Alto police officers who investigated the theft, even lists the case on his LinkedIn page.
But to call the tale of The Infamous Three just a great memory is, itself, minimizing. That’s because of the trio’s outlandish demands, one — their request that Stanford create a display case for the Axe — was actually implemented by the University soon after the heist.
The Axe hasn’t been stolen since.
Contact Joseph Beyda at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.