The night before they did in poor Notre Dame, 25-0, and became incontestable champions of college football, the University of Southern California team was taken across Los Angeles to an M-G-M movie lot for a private showing of an unreleased Spec-tac-u-lar. In the film Doris Day, who is a splendid crier, cried her eyes out over the way the show's star elephant was being abused by an insensitive tent rigger. Purred Doris to her pachyderm: "Trouble with him is he thinks you're an elephant." The plot meandered unspectacularly from there. Doris nuzzled and even kissed her friend's corrugated hide and the USC players hee-hawed and ho-hummed, but she had already illustrated what they now know to be true: even Hollywood believes in a fairy tale, if it's big enough.
USC football is very big in Hollywood this year. John Wayne hardly ever misses a game. Neither, say school publicists matter-of-factly, does William Bendix or Robert Young. Andy Devine waddles around the Coliseum dressing room after the games, squeaking proudly. Randolph Scott sits with the team at breakfast on Saturday. Two of the Trojan assistant coaches, Marv Goux and Joe Margucci, are card-carrying extras. Not even the galloping white horse that transports Mascot Tommy Trojan around the Coliseum cinder track is exempt. Its lineage was traced and, sure enough, the horse proved to be a full brother of Silver.
The Trojans were not necessarily destined to be adored. In 1961 they were an insignificant team (4-5-1) with an unsuspected coach, Johnny McKay. No one expected much better in 1962. Nevertheless, USC upset Duke on national TV, blanked Iowa and charged into its sixth game with powerful Washington undefeated. When USC won that one, too, 14-0, Ticket Manager John Morley had to start getting up at 3 a.m. to meet the demands of alumni he hadn't heard from in 10 years. Don Simonian, the fiercely energetic USC publicist, discovered newspapers. "Look!" he said, talking in exclamation points. "We made all three columnists in the Times! Murray, too! We made Jim Murray!" Simonian's ulcer got so bad he tendered his resignation—effective January 2, 1963, after USC's Rose Bowl game with Wisconsin.
By the time they beat UCLA, 13-3, before 87,000 the Trojans had won nine straight, and the game with Notre Dame now represented two splashy achievements: the team's first undefeated season since 1932 and first national championship since 1931. "It's like the poker player," McKay told his team before the game. "He's won all the money and then somebody challenges him to a showdown, all or nothing."
December 10, 1962
There were 81,000 in the Coliseum for the showdown and for Notre Dame, a team that had won four straight and momentarily had silenced the pointed roulades against Head Coach Joe Kuharich. By a combination of oversight (Notre Dame's latest victims were the four lesser teams on its schedule) and underestimation (USC had looked just ordinary in beating Navy and UCLA) the Trojans were a mere six-point favorite.
McKay made at least one substantial alteration for the game. His shifting T formation is geared to the options and roll-outs of Quarterback Pete Beathard. Hopeful of catching the Irish ends looping as Beathard rolled out, McKay put a double-teaming block on the smallish Notre Dame tackles, trapped the linebacker on the chosen side and either sent Left Half Willie Brown or Fullback Ben Wilson crashing through. Brown is a trim-legged 170-pounder with astounding balance; the 228-pound Wilson, coming on after a preseason injury, is the hardest-hitting predental student on the Coast. On SC's third play Beathard threw a swing pass to Brown on the right side and Brown, though hit solidly twice, ran 34 yards to the Notre Dame 18. Wilson got eight on the altered roll-out, slashing past the entangled Notre Dame tackle, and three plays later leaped over a stack of bodies at the goal for a touchdown.
Though Notre Dame had moments of sassiness, it was, thereafter, USC's game. When the Irish began to adjust in the second quarter Beathard ran 28 yards on a busted pass play, Brown whipped around end for 21 and the irresistible Wilson got eight and five and then one for the second score. Typically for luckless Coach Joe Kuharich, whenever Notre Dame threatened to become unruly there was a fumble or a penalty or a pass interception or an injury (Defensive Back Frank Budka broke his leg) to wreck things. Two more USC touchdowns in the fourth quarter—one on a well-executed 14-yard look-in pass from Quarterback Bill Nelson to Fred Hill—finished the Irish off and shut them out for the only time this season. Beathard didn't complete a pass to his All-America end, Hal Bedsole, but then he really didn't have to.
The USC students pridefully called for their team when the game ended and there was a whimsical microphone session on the sidelines. "Some people—a lot of people—doubted we were No. 1," said Team Captain Wilson, a dark and menacing oracle from Houston. "If you know anybody who still does," he said, "tell him I'd appreciate meeting him outside after we're through here."
Considering the magnitude and rarity of their achievement, however, the USC student-fans are as clipped-wing doves compared with their ancestral counterparts. Three hundred thousand people jammed Spring Street for a victory dance when USC upset Notre Dame in 1931. Today the USC campus, its 90 acres cuddled in downtown L.A., is so uniformly sophisticated and effete that you can't tell a football player without a tape measure unless, of course, you are a girl, as campus beauty Carol Lee Ream, International Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, certainly is. "We girls," says Carol Lee, "still look twice at football players."
Bonfires are passé. One fraternity man bragged about the house his brothers tore down after the UCLA game, but it turned out to be one ready for demolition anyway. Even posters to indicate the team's high social status with the likes of Wisconsin and Alabama are not seen. The USC statue of Tommy Trojan was shrouded by a heavy tarp for the UCLA and Notre Dame games as a defense against paint-wielding marauders from the outside. Closest thing to an abiding display of pride are silver-dollar-size gold buttons that say rather blandly, "We're No. 1." "You'd be surprised," said one older university man. "The USC football player has become so respected, so respectable that he doesn't even scalp his game tickets any more. And what's more, they've quit majoring in physical ed!"
USC, like many American colleges caught up in the scholarship explosion, is a campus on the move. Culture is everywhere. The faculty includes Violinist Jascha Heifetz, Cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, Violinist William Primrose, as well as ace Marriage Counselor Dr. James Peterson, who frequently removes doubts and solves problems on the Art Linkletter show. The school's dynamic president, Dr. Norman Topping, has put into motion an amazing $106 million "master plan" for building and improvements that is projected at least 20 years. He is everywhere talking to everybody.
But McKay is responsible for the football portion of this successful conglomerate. He is a bright, young (39) coach with organizational skills and an alertness for good public relations. He fits the new image and after two years of struggling with another man's material—he replaced Don Clark when Clark resigned in 1959—he has won the respect of the game's best technicians, and perhaps won himself a new contract to top the $15,000 he now receives. He is jaunty, personable and incisive, quick to quip ("I'll never be hung in effigy—I sent my men out to buy up all the rope in town") and late to get home at night during the season.
McKay is a believer in the three-team system—he calls his red, gold and green—most of all because it gives everybody a chance to play. He made a sidearm passer out of Beathard to improve his running passes, especially to the left. "Coach McKay is never wrong," said one admiring player before the Notre Dame game. "You think, 'Now, now he's made a mistake,' but then you find he's right—he's always right."
Sadly, all coaches are not always right and often the commentary in South Bend and Chicago has been that Joe Kuharich seldom is. The Notre Dame coach has lived an impossible existence for four years. His luck there has been bad—no, not just bad, horrible. Injuries and scholastic failures annually have ruined his plans and deprived him of his stars, some of them possibly superstars—Red Mack, George Izo, et al.—and each year he has had to field a sophomore-junior team (only two seniors started against Southern Cal).
Before the game he was reported to have accepted a $35,000 job as coach of the Los Angeles Rams. Another story said that a Chicago alumni group was buying up his Notre Dame contract, which has three years to run.
Kuharich, typically, remained polite. "Ludicrous," he called the stories. "They come from Moscow, Madrid and I don't know where." But privately he called the Ram job "the best in pro football," and it appeared that Notre Dame had lost some of the magnetism it had held for him since his undergraduate days.