The most controversial football story of the year broke last month when Ronnie Knox, star freshman quarterback in 1953 and previously a high school All-American, abruptly transferred from the University of California to U.C.L.A. The action cost young Knox a year of eligibility and brought charges that Ronnie's stepfather, Harvey Othel Knox, a handsome ex-haberdasher, was attempting to exploit the boy. Harvey was accused of interfering with Ronnie's coaches, of counseling other players to sell their services dearly and of making extreme monetary demands on the university. Now, for the first time, Harvey Knox tells In his own words his own side of the story.
First off, let me say that I am familiar with most of the charges made against me and Ronnie. We have been called the "Migratory Knoxes" and have been painted as a couple of Ozark hillbillies careening along the road, hawking our football wares. I've been charged with not only ruining Ronnie's football career but also his life. But Ronnie said to me, "Dad, why don't you be the hero of this story instead of the heel the papers make you out?" I think that's pretty good advice, and I always act on good advice. So let's begin at the beginning.
About me: I guess I'm what you might call a cynic. I've seen a lot of life, from an Arkansas orphanage to the finest haberdashery store in Hollywood, which I built up myself and lost myself. I've been around enough to know you don't get something for nothing. I also know that a lot of people try.
A PRETTY GOOD LOOK
I got wise to football scholarships as a kid, when I got one at Ouachita Baptist College. I won't say I was fooled at Ouachita. Let's say I wasn't pleased. I had set a state pass-catching record in high school. But at Ouachita I had to wait on tables three times a day. I had to break off practice at 4:30 every afternoon. The coach never got a square look at me. And when I transferred to the University of Arkansas I wasn't any better off. I quit college in my third year and by then I'd got a pretty good look at the way college athletics were working. I made a vow then that if I ever had a son who was a good football player I would see to it that he never got a fleecing. This vow lives.
I married Ronnie's mother in 1942. She had a daughter, Patricia, who was two years older than Ronnie, who was seven then. Pappy Waldorf, the coach at California, has been quoted as saying, "It looks like Harvey's only business is managing his kids." The way he says it, it sounds like something dishonest. Well, I'd like to tell you how I got my daughter Pat a movie contract at the age of fifteen.
She was going to Beverly Hills High School at the time and she got the lead in a couple of plays. I dropped over to watch rehearsals. I saw something in Patricia. I went to work.
In Hollywood, that which they can't see and can't have, they can't live without. I got a school cop stationed at the door of the auditorium "to keep talent scouts off." Up to then, the talent scouts hadn't heard of Pat. But the school authorities didn't know that; I told them they were pestering her.
Pretty soon the agents were trying to sneak into rehearsals. One day Billy Gordon rings me up, the talent scout for 20th Century-Fox. Patricia got a contract, $150 a week, with yearly options. A year later, when she went down to court to get her contract approved (you have to do that with minors according to California law), she found she was taking a salary dip—to $125 a week. Fox had done nothing with her.
So I dressed Patsy up in a glamour dress and went to court with her. I informed the photographers, "Boys, I don't know who she is but there's some girl upstairs who is the most gorgeous doll I ever saw." I nearly got trampled in the rush. Patsy made page one all over town. A very big producer spotted her and a little later he put Pat under personal contract, which she is to this day. If helping your kids isn't a career, what the hell is it?
It was in 1944 that I first saw Ronnie throw a football. He was only nine, but I immediately saw that he had a great arm and a good eye. So the tutoring process began. I sharpened his football playing by organizing touch-football teams all over the area. Most of the players were high school kids, bigger than Ronnie, but already he was passing them silly.
THE MEN FROM THE BOYS
As a sophomore at Beverly Hills High, Ronnie went out for the varsity football team. I dropped in at the field to watch practice. The coach announced, "We're going to separate the men from the boys." So he had the backfield men and linemen charge each other. After a couple of collisions, I observed that Ronnie was lining up with the tackles and the guards. After a further inspection, I discovered that Ronnie was out of his head. I immediately took him to Dr. Hunter Brown, a brain specialist, who diagnosed Ronnie's ailment as concussion. Were it his boy, Dr. Brown said, he would never let him play football again.
Nevertheless, Ronnie returned to the squad after five weeks and in five games he threw seven touchdown passes and ran for another. He scored 48 of the 60 points scored by the team, winning two and losing three. The losses certainly weren't Ronnie's fault. The coach's alibi was: "The boys here at Beverly Hills are different from other kids elsewhere."
I recommended to Ronnie that we move to Santa Monica as it was very plain that the coach there, Mr. Jim Sutherland, was the coach in high school football. Santa Monica had beaten Beverly Hills 52-7 in Ronnie's sophomore year.
Ronnie said, "No, Dad. Let's move to Inglewood. They also have a well-coached team and I can't wait to beat Santa Monica."
See what I mean? I'm supposed to be leading this boy's life but you can see he used his own head in this matter. We moved to Inglewood.
There Ronnie found a coach—Marty Ernaga—who was as smooth as silk. He played the game with a slide rule—that's how close he played it to his vest. For the first four games he alternated guards on every play, sending in a new play every time with them, which he called from the bench. Naturally, this was annoying to Ronnie and boring for me. After all, it's a kid's game, and the kids should call it.
The battle cry was, "Beat Santa Monica!" That was the big game of the year. When it came, it started out in a thick fog. It was impossible to see more than 15 yards in any direction.
Ronnie was on his own for the first time. The coach couldn't even see who had the ball. But he still sent in his alternating guards—to find out what was going on. He was informed after five minutes of play, two touchdowns, 12 points! That's how quickly Ronnie and the boys slickered those guys.
Then the instructions came from the bench: do not pass any more. Hit the line. Ronnie did. He sent his fullback straight up the middle 27 times. Santa Monica threw short passes and used their regular wide-open attack. Final score: Santa Monica 26, Inglewood 12.
NEWS FOR THE COACH
I visited the dressing room after the game. It was pretty hard to take—two boys knocked cold, the rest crying. I noticed Ronnie sitting dry-eyed in a corner. He was, shall we say, mad? I said, "Hello, superman, can't you cry?" He turned to me. "Why should I cry when the coach lost the ball game?"
I was forced to agree, and so informed the coach the next day. He said, why did we move to Inglewood anyway? They hadn't asked us to. I said, I got news for you. If you don't give Ronnie at least one quarter to call his own plays next week, he will refuse to play for you.
Well, the next week was against Bell who'd just won the championship of their league the week before. Just for kicks, Ronnie threw seven touchdown passes to seven different players. He refused all instructions from the bench. The following week we played San Pedro and he threw for five and ran for two, just to show it was legit. For the balance of the season, every fourth time he threw the ball it was for a touchdown, with a completion average of 69%. The team was the high-scoring team in the nation that year.
And Ronnie, with a record of 20 touchdowns and a year average of 59% pass completion, nevertheless did not receive one honor—not one honor! Can you figure that? Could it be that the coach did not recommend him?
The day after the season ended, after Ronnie and I had talked things over, we agreed to move to Santa Monica. Ronnie found it tough at Santa Monica. Our scrimmages on Wednesday were rougher than the games on Friday. But Coach Jim Sutherland was an honest, straightforward, fair-minded man. And I'll say this: I can't ever recall seeing a Santa Monica player being carried off the field.
Ronnie was very fortunate. He set a California Interscholastic Federation passing record—27 touchdowns and 12 conversions. He ran for three touchdowns. The team scored 30 touchdowns passing and 30 running.
So now the colleges came after Ronnie. And with them came the "Curbstone Cuties." That's what I call those alumni proselyters, and they're real sharpies. The first thing they say is, they'll get the boy a car. Next they say they'll assign a "sponsor" to him. A "sponsor" is supposed to be a guy who pays the bills. But he turns out to be a guy who thrusts a ten dollar bill into your hand at Christmastime after you have made the team, sweated through the classrooms, worked in a soda fountain and have generally gone through hell for dear old Alma Mammy.
Ronnie got plenty of offers and promises. He's always wanted to make writing his career—a California alumnus promised him a definite job on the Berkeley Daily Gazette. There would be other chances in radio and television, he was told. Other colleges got in their bids. One of the biggest laughs I had was when a head coach in the Pacific Coast Conference phoned Jim Sutherland, not knowing that Jim despised him. This coach said, "Jim, what's the current going price on Ronnie Knox?" Jim thought he would have a little fun. "From what I hear," he said, "it's $300 a month for four years." "What!" screams the coach. "Why the hell should I pay $300 for Ronnie when I can get two big tackles for that?"
A NEW CHALLENGE
One night after we'd won the C.I.F. championship, Jim Sutherland came to my home. We talked. Jim told me he wanted to get in the big time. "I want to meet a new challenge," he said. "I want to see if my stuff will go in the colleges." So I told Jim, if that's what you want, I will help you and I won't charge you for it. I called Frank Storment, our local Cal "genie," and ascertained that he felt as I did that California could use a slight change in their offense. Mr. Storment contacted Mr. Lynn Waldorf, head coach, and in due course an appointment was arranged for Mr. Waldorf, his assistant, Mr. Wes Fry, and Mr. Jim Sutherland. Jim wound up with a salary that was still below his high school figure, but he sold his home in Pacific Palisades and moved bag and baggage to Berkeley where he bought a new home. Mr. Waldorf had Jim photographed with all the new quarterback prospects and announced in the papers that he was the new Cal aide to coach quarterbacks and ends. And that was the last that anybody heard of Jim Sutherland. He became the forgotten man.
Ronnie still had a couple of big summer games to play before he enrolled at Cal—the annual North-South Shrine game in Los Angeles in August and the big All-American high school game at Memphis, Tenn. In the Shrine game he threw two touchdown passes and was voted the outstanding player. I was given to understand that Cal didn't want him to go to Memphis—Pappy Waldorf was afraid he might get hurt or something—but he played anyway and I got my expenses paid to go down and watch him. In the South we have a saying: just be tough enough and they'll give you candy and fan you while you eat it. Ronnie was also voted the outstanding player in the All-American game, although the East won, 19-13.
The day Ronnie finally enrolled at Cal with all those rosy promises in mind, the disillusionment started. He was told to report to the stalwart in charge of the job program. "Why, son," this gentleman said, "if you went to work on the Berkeley Gazette, that would make you ineligible!" The big TV jobs melted too. I sat down and tried to figure it. It struck me like a bolt out of the blue. Wasn't old man Knox such a rabid football fan that as long as Ronnie was given the opportunity to be a big star he would go along and give his all for the game? Well, I guess they know now. I am not as easy as I appear.
Ronnie's letters also showed his disappointment at the scrimmages. Three days before the Stanford-Cal frosh game he wrote to me: "Dad, we're in for an awful lacing Saturday. We haven't got enough ammunition." I wrote back and advised him to use his own noodle and if he couldn't win with the plays he'd been taught at Cal, to call time out and make up his own he'd learned in high school.
Well, Stanford made 14 first downs before we made one and the score going into the middle of the second quarter was 12-0, their favor. Then Ronnie called time out. He told Terry Prindiville, a converted tackle at right end, "Go three yards and look at me." In three plays, Terry is standing in the end zone with a touchdown pass in his arms. A similar series of plays produced another six-pointer.
Ronnie then observed that the defensive safety man was slowly creeping up behind the line. He called time out again. We do not have a pass pattern to go behind the safety man as Cal's system does not provide for one. So Ronnie tells Delton Morris, a nine-seven sprinter, "On the next play go right past the safety." Zoom! Six! Conversion. Final: Cal 19, Stanford 12.
I decided then and there to have a little talk with Coach Waldorf. After all, it was his system Ronnie was playing under. He said to come over to his house at 9 o'clock. I brought along my good friend Jim Sutherland. Waldorf said to me, "Harvey, just what do you want for Ronnie?" I said, "Pappy, it's simple. Just what you promised him." "And what do you want for Harvey?" I said, "Nothing." "Third, what do you want for Jim Sutherland?" I replied, "Just what you promised Jim when you hired him: 1) to incorporate his offense into yours; 2) to give him a chance to coach offense; 3) to put it in the papers that he definitely is the quarterback and end coach." It took us nine hours to cover these points—until 6 a.m. Pappy just sat there in his chair while I needled him. "Open the wound, Harvey," he'd say, "open it wide," and he'd throw his hands out.
A short time later, Sutherland was given a raise and in spring training it was announced that he was Waldorf's new passing and offense coach. It looked good. But the fact remains that Jim coached 60 minutes of the entire spring training program, no more. And Ronnie still complained of being limited in his offense. He finally went up to see Waldorf of his own volition and told him of his dissatisfaction. Waldorf informed him that he would go out the next day, send all his assistants into the stands, and take charge himself. He did. For my dough, it was the worst scrimmage they ever had at Cal.
TIME TO GET OUT
That same night, a Bay Area newspaperman tipped me off that one of Waldorf's assistants had said that as long as he was on the staff Ronnie Knox would never make the first club. This did not perturb me. I had suspected as much. But I determined that although Ronnie would lose a year of eligibility, there had to be a day of reckoning.
I decided that Ronnie would get out of Cal.
We talked about the transfer for five days. Anyone who knows what it means to a 19-year-old to give up a year of eligibility will know how disgusted Ronnie had to be with conditions at California. We talked about three things: 1) His grades; they had fallen off sadly. 2) His progress in the writing profession; it was almost nil. 3) His athletic prowess; as anybody in his right mind could see, he could prove nothing at California since Pappy Waldorf apparently believes that the quarterback is merely the eleventh man on a team. Anyone knows a winning team must have a thinking quarterback.
After the discussion, Ronnie decided he would like to pursue his education in Southern California. I was able to secure a job for him at Allied Artists. And it was decided that Ronnie would go to U.C.L.A., which is the southern metropolitan campus for the University of California and I suppose the rival Cal would most like to beat next to Stanford. Ronnie may have some interesting afternoons later when we meet Cal.
A PIECE OF ADVICE
So that is the story of the "Migratory Knoxes." I will close it with one small piece of advice to any young athlete who is being rushed by several universities:
Last year a boy who was an outstanding fullback in junior college came to me, troubled. He'd been offered a down payment on a car and all kinds of well-paying jobs from a certain school. "I can't figure how I could make that kind of money and be eligible," he said. "I've also heard this school doesn't live up to its promises. What should I do?"
I answered as follows: "Son, it is relatively simple. Next time this Curbstone Cutie calls, tell him that if you accept even a promise over and above what is sanctioned, you are ineligible. Tell him you even doubt the promises.
"However, tell this cutie that if he will bring over $1,500 in cash to be worked out over the years, and if he will arrange for you to get the maximum allowable per month under the rules, you will consider enrolling at his college."
Well, this boy did as I told him. Needless to say, the proselyter blew up. He spent two hours and fifteen minutes on the phone trying to find out who the blankety-blank this kid had been talking to.
It happened to be Harvey Knox.