The miracle which is television appears destined never to cease, and on New Year's Day of 1959 its bounteous blessings finally overflowed. Anyone equipped only with a long arm with which to reach forth occasionally and twist a dial could emerge, after 6½ hours, as a self-admitted expert on eight of the finest college football teams in the land. Without once in the preceding four months buying a ticket, talking to a coach or reading a newspaper or magazine, thousands of viewers were able by sunset last Thursday to state unequivocally that:
1) LSU, the nation's No. 1 team, was vastly overrated, and in the Sugar Bowl lucky as blue blazes to beat Clemson 7-0. The Tigers from Baton Rouge had no passing attack and Billy Cannon couldn't outrun your little sister.
2) Syracuse had a miserable line, it couldn't throw and what was it doing in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma in the first place?
3) TCU and the Air Force were both lousy.
January 12, 1959
4) Iowa is undoubtedly the best college team alive. If the Hawkeyes only had a passing attack to match that great line and those two wonderful halfbacks, Willie Fleming and Bob Jeter, they could be ranked among the finest of all time.
Now an expert is an expert, and who is to say that one penetrating burst from the cathode ray is not worth a season spent trudging up and down sidelines? Yet a football season is more than what happens on January 1, and in order to keep this one in its proper perspective perhaps a few reminders would not be amiss.
Take the Sugar Bowl. In Clemson, LSU met a team with a ponderous and ornery and very good line. In such a situation the key man was not Cannon but Warren Rabb, LSU's fine-passing quarterback. It was imperative that he loosen up the Clemson defense so that Cannon and Johnny Robinson, the other fleet halfback, could run. Yet on the third play of the game Rabb broke a bone in his pitching hand. After that, twice in the first quarter, Cannon was in the open for touchdown passes and Rabb overthrew him badly. This is not like Rabb at all, and how would you like to throw a football with a broken hand? So by half time Rabb was out of the game to stay, and LSU had to slug it out on the ground against a much bigger line. As for Cannon, he still gained 51 yards in 13 carries, passed for the only touchdown, kicked the extra point, punted magnificently and also defended very well.
In the Orange Bowl, Syracuse was simply shocked badly in the first half by Oklahoma's speed and awoke too late to catch up. It was not the Syracuse interior line which was at fault—Oklahoma did its damage with quick pitchouts around end and running halfback passes—but the linebackers and secondary. As for the Syracuse passing attack, the question is not why it didn't work but why it wasn't used. In Chick Zimmerman, Coach Ben Schwartzwalder had a passer who hit 60% during the season, yet he chose to run inside tackle most of the day. For this, there are almost certainly two reasons: 1) the Syracuse running game was going very well—although perhaps not quite fast enough to make up a three-touchdown deficit; and 2) Zimmerman had not compiled a 60% completion average with opposing tacklers hanging around his neck, as Oklahoma persisted in doing all day, nor with his receivers covered like a blanket by that same old demoralizing Oklahoma speed.
TCU and the Air Force are both good football teams, although it must be admitted that a scoreless tie is not the most exciting way to prove the point. Even so, there can be little criticism of the way either team operated within the 20-yard lines. They moved the ball very well, Air Force in the first half on the passing of Rich Mayo, and TCU in the second half behind the thunderous running of Jack Spikes. Once past the 20, however, they didn't have time to make touchdowns. There were 13 fumbles in the game and both teams were far too busy retrieving loose footballs to score.
There are several considerations in assessing Iowa's foot race against California at Pasadena. The Hawkeyes won in a rather convincing manner, true; it is a bit hard to be more convincing than 38-12. Yet it is quite possible that the competition was not the very best. Earlier in the season another Big Ten team, Michigan State, beat California 38-12—and Michigan State didn't win a Big Ten game all year. As for the marvelous running of Fleming and Jeter, it might be noted that other Iowa backs named Horn and Jauch and Furlong and Nocera and Gravel were having a successful day, too. With the holes the Iowa blockers were opening, they simply couldn't help themselves. And if the Iowa passing attack was newsworthy chiefly for its absence, let no one forget that Iowa would never have been in the Rose Bowl without the season-long marksmanship of Randy Duncan. There were a lot of Big Ten Saturdays when Iowa had no such superiority up front and Fleming and Jeter were just two little guys having a hard time getting started. When this happened, Duncan had the answer.
If the bowl games were a bit out of focus in presenting a picture of the season just past, however, they offered a popping good preview of the one to come. Perhaps never have so many outstanding sophomores and juniors paraded across the screen on New Year's Day.
Prentice Gautt, the big Oklahoma fullback, is a fine example. Except for the fact that he is the only Negro ever to play for the Sooners, Gautt would have been just another number among Wilkinson's legions when the game started. When it was over, he was the Orange Bowl's outstanding player. Carrying 195 pounds with a sprinter's speed, Gautt scored the first touchdown on a 42-yard run, rushed for 94 yards in only six carries, blocked and defended like a demon.
There is also Jeter, of course, whose 81-yard run and 194-yard total set two Rose Bowl records, and Fleming, who is at least as good. There are Mayo of the Air Force, and Harvey White, the Clemson quarterback, and Curt Merz and Don Norton, the two fine Iowa ends.
And then there is LSU, one of the great sophomore-junior teams of all time. Only three seniors are listed on the squad, and all the famous names—Cannon, Robinson, Rabb, Max Fugler—will be back. But few people outside the Southwest realize that TCU is in virtually the same pleasant condition—and TCU meets LSU in the second game of the season. Jack Spikes, who slashed through the Air Force for 108 yards, and Don Floyd, the All-America tackle, are the prize names on the list.
Maybe New Year's Day wasn't an illusion after all. The armchair expert gained by meeting some of the cast for next fall.