Hello, hello," Tommy Prothro barked into the telephone headset. "It doesn't work," he said, turning to a telephone maintenance man. "It's got to work, how else can I run my team?"
"They haven't plugged their set in on the field," the phoneman said.
Moments later Prothro was connected with Doug Bradley, the Oregon State backfield coach. Bradley's job was to relay Head Coach Prothro's instructions to Bob Watson, his first assistant, who was in charge on the field. With Prothro in the Los Angeles Coliseum radio booth was Ron Siegrist, co-captain and blocking back on Prothro's first Beaver club in 1955.
Prothro was tense. This was to be the last meeting between these old rivals until November 16, 1963. Only three times since 1916 had Oregon State defeated USC, and never in the five-year reign of Tommy Prothro had Oregon State won in Los Angeles. Only one starter from Prothro's so-so 1959 team was playing, Wingback Art Gilmore. Most of the rest were sophomores, and 16 of them would be playing in their first varsity game.
September 25, 1960
"Hello, Doug," Prothro called. "Stay right here with me from now on. Don't leave for any reason.
"You got those quarterbacks with you? You'd just better have them so when we get the ball we're ready to go.
"Man," he said a few seconds later, "let's get going."
It was 8:02 p.m. "Doug," Prothro remembered with a start, "have the manager give you the extra-point tee, the rubber one. Have it with you all the time. We might need it."
It was 8:04 p.m. when Amos Marsh, an end from Wallowa, Ore. kicked off for Oregon State to the USC 23. "He's been kicking off into the end zone for two weeks," Prothro said, "I guess he's more nervous than I am."
Prothro had good reason to be nervous. Last spring, after passage of the "wild card" rule, he and his staff devised an intricate card system intended to keep track of substitutions. They wanted most to conserve the Beavers' limited manpower and to keep the 16 first-year men from playing both on defense and offense. This system was in the charge of Bud Gibbs, a pre-Prothro letterman end at OSC. Line Coach Bob Zelinka, ex-UCLA, was to handle the defense.
In front of Prothro as play began were elaborate game plans charted on yellow, legal-size paper. A newly lighted cigarette smoldered in the ash tray in front of him. Another was in his mouth. His lighter snapped on brightly as USC ran its first play.
"We didn't play that sweep inside out, Doug," Prothro snapped over his phone. "Let's get straight now."
USC made little progress in its series of downs, and Marlin McKeever, the All-America end making his debut at fullback, punted dead on the OSC 36.
"What's Gilmore doing on the bench?" Prothro asked frantically. "He's supposed to be in the game. Get him in.
"Fullback 11, Fullback 11," Prothro repeated as the Beavers took over on offense.
"You've got to run them in a little quicker," Prothro added as the first shuttleman went in. Fullback Hank Rivera got seven yards on a sweep around right end.
"Fullback 12, Fullback 12," Prothro called, repeating to be sure Bradley heard correctly.
Don Kasso, a junior tailback from Berkeley, Calif., swept around right end for 21 yards and a first down on the Trojan 35.
"Quick sweep, quick sweep," Prothro told the bench, directing the tailback to go wide around the end farthest from the near sideline. "He [Kasso] made a fine move on that one," Prothro said a moment later, turning to Siegrist, whose binoculars were trained on USC's defensive alignment.
Kasso got only two yards cutting in at right tackle on the sweep play. But Oregon State appeared to be marching.
"Fullback 11, Fullback 11," he called. This got the Beavers seven yards at left end, due mostly to a fine fake and cut by Halfback Art Gilmore.
Two quick plays, a sweep by Kasso for seven yards and a buck up the middle by Rivera, left Oregon State with third and one on the USC 16.
"Quick sweep right," Prothro yelled. "That's the block, that sprung him," he said to no one in particular as Kasso turned the corner for the touchdown. "He's in, he's in, Doug!
"Send Mason in to hold, Ankerson kicking." Grimm Mason, a senior tailback from Watsonville, Calif., held the ball as Tim Ankerson, a sophomore quarterback from Santa Ana, Calif., kicked the extra point, and after five minutes and 27 seconds of the game Oregon State led 7-0.
Prothro knocked on the wood under the Formica-topped work counter.
"That's more like it, Doug, more like it," he said next as Marsh got off a high kickoff which Halfback Jerry Traynham took on the Trojan 20.
"Oh boy, who was that? He put his head down. Keep it up, boy, keep it up. You've got to see 'em to hit 'em," Prothro said angrily. A moment later he shouted: "Fumble! Fumble! Our ball, Doug, our ball." Oregon State had recovered on the USC 29.
"Fullback strong end hook," Prothro called. Sophomore Tailback Terry Baker was trapped for a four-yard loss.
"Who's that hurt?" Prothro asked anxiously. "Gilmore? Tell Bud [Gibbs] that when Gilmore goes back in he's got to go back free. He's used up his entries." Prothro was referring to another substitution rule that permits any player to re-enter the game once in each quarter. He can go in subsequent times only as a wild card.
"Doug, tell 'em to be sure and go by that man with the orange arm [the check-in official for substitutions] when they go in.
"Strong right option," Prothro snapped. The play went for five yards to the Trojan 28 but it was fourth down and nine yards to go. Prothro ordered a field-goal attempt: "Send in Mason to hold, Marsh kicking.
"Nope. No good," he sighed as the ball fell short and to the left. "Doug, what's wrong with Gilmore? Is he hurt bad? Find out. Let me know.
"Oh, he's O.K., fine, fine. Remember he's got to go in free."
USC started a drive on its own 28 that seemed destined to reach the end zone. It moved down to the Beaver five. When it was second and goal to go, Prothro slowly got to his feet.
"I've got to stretch or I'll die," he said, getting up with great care. He was protecting his back, which he had strained a few days before. A moment later his bad back was forgotten. "Fumble! Fumble!" Prothro yelled as USC Quarterback Al Prukop lost the ball, and OSC recovered on its own seven.
"Be ready, Doug, I might say punt," Prothro warned as he called play 11. It was a wingback reverse and Gilmore picked up 14 yards. But Oregon State failed to gain any more yardage.
"Punt," Prothro ordered. "Now Doug, tell Bud the next time we get the ball I'm going to send in one man to quick-kick.
"Don't send any offensive personnel in. Get a center with you. Have him tell Mason [the tailback] to line up at wingback, buck the end and cover [protect the kicker].
"Our team sure looks tired, Ron," Prothro said to Siegrist. "But maybe they're a little tired too."
With a minute to go before the half ended, Prothro painfully pushed himself up from his chair.
"Ron, it's yours," he said. "I'm going down. Don't let anyone in." Prothro left for the dressing room and the half-time intermission.
When he returned to the radio booth, Prothro looked tired and grim. "I feel like I've been out there all the way," he said. Beside him, Siegrist was carefully going over Polaroid prints of USC defenses made during the first half.
Fullback Chuck Marshall returned Dave Morgan's kickoff 10 yards to the Beaver 19, and Prothro went to work again.
"Fullback 11," he called. This time USC was waiting for Gilmore, and the reverse around left end gained only four yards. Terry Baker's "spot pass to the weak end" was broken up by Morgan.
"92 pass," Prothro called, and it clicked for seven yards and a first down on Oregon State's 40. A reverse to Gilmore got only a yard.
"41 pass," Prothro ordered, and it went from Baker to Amos Marsh for 22 yards and a first down on the Trojan 37.
Baker got two yards at left tackle. On a "41 pass" call by Prothro, Baker found all his receivers covered. He took off around left end for nine yards and a first down on the 26.
"92 pass, 92 pass!" Prothro called excitedly. Ankerson raced onto the field with the call. Deliberately Terry Baker took the snap from center, started off as if to sweep, then threw a running pass out of the single wing to Gilmore. The play gained 21 yards. OSC had a first down on the five.
"Sweep 12, sweep 12 with Kasso," was the coach's command. Tailback Don Kasso entered for Baker and powered over left tackle for three yards to the two.
"30, 30," Prothro called. "Doug, have Baker right with you for the next one.
"Come on, blocking back!" Prothro yelled as the ball snapped into Marshall's hands and he charged behind Ankerson.
"He got it, he got it," Prothro said, throwing his hands up in a salute of happiness as Marshall scored.
"Ankerson to kick," he called, quickly getting back to business. Ankerson booted the point, and Oregon State led 14-0. There were still 24 minutes to go.
"Don't let down, don't let down, Doug," Prothro warned. "Tell Watson to tell 'em not to let down."
As USC marched into Oregon State territory late in the third period, Prothro barked: "We're not hustling. Tell 'em to carry it to them now. Be aggressive. Don't relax."
USC Quarterback Al Prukop fumbled again.
"The bishop's got it. The bishop's got it," Siegrist yelled, watching closely through his glasses as sophomore Center Dick DeBisschop of San Anselmo, Calif., recovered on the USC 42.
Prothro called a variety of plays, but Oregon State couldn't get rolling and USC again took possession of the ball.
"Pressure, pressure," Prothro called down. "Put the pressure on that passer. Don't let him pray back there. Doug," he reiterated after two plays, "We're not getting much pressure. Pressure, pressure. That's the only thing a passer feels. Hey," he added, "ask Watson how tired we look."
USC dominated the first part of the final period and midway in the quarter penetrated to the Oregon State 17, third and two. Then Denny Pieters, a guard from Salem, Ore., slashed in to drop Quarterback Ben Charles for a 12-yard loss.
The tide turns
"Fourth down, fourth down, come on boys," Prothro said softly. Then he yelled: "No gain. Our ball!"
As the Beavers came up to the line, Prothro called down: "35's the play, Doug." Then in an aside to Siegrist: "Kasso's hurt though, how can we move the ball?" Siegrist didn't answer. Marshall made three yards.
"30, 30" was Prothro's next call. "We haven't got the personnel to make a first down," he complained, turning away from the field as the Beavers huddled.
"Kasso's hurt. Gilmore's limping and I don't want to run him. Rivera is out with the knee. We just haven't got enough manpower."
Marshall got two yards. "Fullback 11," Prothro ordered, and Gilmore brought a big smile and great relief to Prothro's face as he ran 16 yards on his gimpy leg to the USC 48. Gilmore got eight more on the same play to the Trojan 40, and suddenly it looked as though Oregon State might score again before the clock ran out.
With a little more than a minute to go, Oregon State was on the USC 10. "Put Hilliard in, quick," Prothro ordered. Gene Hilliard, a small wingback, shot into the game and picked up eight yards and a first down on the two.
"Quick sweep, Quick sweep," Prothro yelled. Then he got up to leave for the dressing room. "You call the rest, Ron."
"No, I'll stay," he reflected as Baker was held for no gain. "Running pass!" Prothro yelled, but the game ended before the Beavers could get the play off.
"Calling a game is tough," Prothro said later. "There'll be lots of weeks people will wish I hadn't. It has its disadvantages. Not being close to the players, not being able to tell yourself how tired they are. Not being able to adjust your substitutions exactly as you want, when you want.
"But there are more advantages to being in the press box and calling plays than there are disadvantages. You have a better perspective. You can see the defenses better and you can see your execution better. You're like a blind man in a dungeon on that field. You never know what's going on."
Did his signal calling win the game? somebody asked.
"The best signal-caller in the world isn't worth a damn if the team isn't any good. Calling signals didn't win this game. Our team won it by the execution of its plays. Sure, I spotted weaknesses in the USC defense from time to time. Every defense you set up has a weakness. But they sure corrected them quickly."
When reporters told Johnny McKay, Southern California's new coach, that Prothro had called all the plays from the press box, McKay said he saw "nothing wrong with that," but added that he would continue to let his quarterbacks call most of the plays. "Some of mine," he said," didn't work out so well."
HOW THE 'WILD CARD' WORKS
College football's new "wild card" rule permits a team to send a "free" substitute into the game after each play. Whether he stays in for one play or 20, he can be sent back as often as the coach desires as long as he is designated as the "free" substitute and not a serious replacement. (Serious replacements are allowed only one "re-entry" per period; then they have to become "free" substitutes themselves). Coaches introduced the rule last winter, ostensibly to permit proper employment of specialists, but the substitute also can become a mere messenger between bench and team.
On football's first big weekend, one coach promptly and devastatingly exploited the new rule. Seated high up in a press-box radio booth, where he had a better view of the patterns and tactics of the game than he would have had at ground level, Oregon State's Coach Tommy Prothro telephoned his instructions before each play to an assistant on the bench; these were transmitted to the "wild card" substitute, who took them onto the field. The upshot: Oregon State defeated USC (an 18-point favorite) by a score of 14-0 to provide one of 1960's first major college upsets.
Writer Tobin sat next to Prothro throughout the experiment. This is his account of the first football game ever completely quarterbacked by remote control.