The UCLA quarterback is a sophomore, which ought to be warning enough. He is also a quarterback who likes to have the plays called for him, which serves as further warning, since the number of college quarterbacks who like to have the plays called for them can be counted on the fingers of a flagpole. Compounding such alarums, the coach who calls the plays is famous for his slapstick play selection. He is liable to punt on third down for no apparent reason and run on fourth down deep in his own territory. His name is Tommy Prothro, he is a great pagoda of a man with standout ears and thick eyeglasses, but as a colorful character he comes across like warm milk. "What I am," he once said, "is the oratorical equivalent of a blocked punt."
The team that sophomore Gary Beban quarterbacks and Tommy Prothro coaches is distinguished by its size—very small—and its demeanor—very quiet, which is what you should be when you are very small. When the UCLA publicist, Vic Kelley, was casting about for a way to describe its talents last week he said, "What this is is a nice bunch of boys, real nice boys. You know, quiet. And a lot of poise."
Early in the fall Prothro kept telling Kelley that it was going to be a good football team. Kelley remembered that Prothro had been coaching up at Oregon State for the last 10 years and could not know that UCLA was potentially the worst team in the West, but he passed Prothro's balloons of optimism to the press anyway, with only an occasional backward glance to ask, "Now, Tommy, do you really mean that?"
A year ago UCLA lost six of its last seven games and gave up 147 points in five of those. It was fairly obvious that Billy Barnes, who coached the team to its last Rose Bowl game in 1962 but had three straight losers after that, did not leave Prothro the Green Bay Packers. Los Angeles sportswriters laughed when Prothro sat down to play. "Tommy Prothro did not come to UCLA to lose," wrote one, "but he'll learn."
Well, the first thing Vic Kelley did not realize was that if the UCLA team was quiet, that did not necessarily mean everybody was silent. Bob Stiles, a junior defensive halfback, is in fact the strong, unsilent type of which this Bruin team is made. Stiles let a receiver get by him rather spectacularly in practice the other day and when a coach braced him on it—"Bob, what in blazes were you doing?"—Stiles replied, "I was just standing there memorizing my Heisman Trophy acceptance speech, Coach, when this guy ran by me...."
And another thing that was going on practically unnoticed was the work of Backfield Coach Pepper Rodgers. Prothro hired Rodgers, a former Georgia Tech quarterback, off the University of Florida staff and had in mind just the kind of things Pepper could do for a nice, quiet young quarterback, things like sitting up there in the press box on game days calling down good ideas. It helped Rodgers, too, that Gary Beban was the only capable quarterback UCLA had. He got all the attention. He had no bad habits, because in high school in Redwood City he had been a single-wing tailback, not a T quarterback. He was also attentive and agreeable ("He yessirs everybody," says Rodgers) and bright ("He's 19 but he acts like a 23-year-old man") and coachable. In the lexicon of the sport, coachable means that he can run and pass no matter who is talking.
Beban called what the coaches were doing with him a gamble, but he said Rodgers gave him confidence in himself, made him feel "six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier." Normally Beban is 6 feet even, 175 pounds. As time went by, Prothro was moved to say that Beban was the best sophomore quarterback he had ever seen, that he was unusual because he had no apparent weaknesses. There are those who would go Prothro two grades better. They believe Beban already is the best quarterback in college football, Bob Griese and Steve Juday notwithstanding.
As surely as day follows night and good things come to no-weakness quarterbacks who are suddenly six inches taller, exciting things began to happen to UCLA—victories for instance, one upset victory after another, until there UCLA was last week with mighty Southern California in the Los Angeles Coliseum playing showdown before 94,085 people on a damp, gray day for the right to represent the West in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day. Just like old times—the battle of Los Angeles.
"Players, students, mothers and daddies—they all know each other because they grew up around here together," said USC Coach John McKay as the bands played and the fans cheered and the traffic piled up in monstrous proportions before the game. "They're all old friends, and nobody can hate you like your friends."
What happened when the game of hate began was what you would expect to happen to a sophomore quarterback who gets enough chances. Beban fumbled. Beban threw bad passes. Sealed off by a superior (also heavier) USC defense, he could not run, and when he passed he was rushed prodigiously. Meanwhile, the USC offense (also heavier and superior) made enough yards—414 altogether—to win two football games. Mike Garrett, the halfback who cannot be stopped except by committees of tacklers and then only rarely, ran for 210 yards himself, mostly on wedges and traps inside the tackles. Quarterback Troy Winslow threw two touchdown passes—10 yards to Mickey Upton in the second quarter and eight yards to Rod Sherman on the first play of the last quarter—and Tim Rossovich kicked a 20-yard field goal. With four minutes to play, USC had a 16-6 lead. Solid.
It might just as well have been 60-6. UCLA had not gained a dime's worth since Mel Farr broke for 49 yards and a momentary 6-0 Bruin lead in the first quarter. For the next 40 minutes the Uclans were held to one first down. They ran exactly seven offensive plays in the second quarter and, backs to the wall, punted three times on third down. In the third they ran only 11 plays, and Beban had two passes intercepted.
But there was something McKay had said a week before the game that was to prove omniscient. Speaking only half in jest, he said, "It takes us eight minutes to go 60 yards. UCLA goes 60 yards in one clip."
Using all sorts of minutes, USC drove 76 yards in 14 plays in the first quarter and Garrett fumbled the ball away at the UCLA one-yard line. A fumble at the 26 killed another drive in the second quarter, and some mismanagement of their time-outs caught the Trojans short of a touchdown at half time after they had reached the UCLA seven.
In the third quarter Garrett fumbled away again at the UCLA 17, and later, on third and goal at the UCLA three, Winslow's pass was grabbed away from Upton by the newly alerted, ever-irrepressible Stiles in the UCLA end zone. Thus, in three quarters of painstaking offense, USC had six chances to score—and wasted all but one.
Now it was down to those last four minutes and practically over. After absorbing two 15-yard penalties, the Trojans were back on their own 23 and trying to run two more plays before punting. "At that moment," said Prothro, "my confidence was not overwhelming."
But on second down, after first breaking free, Winslow fumbled the ball to UCLA's Erwin Dutcher on the USC 23, and back in came Beban with the offense, somehow undisturbed by what until then had been his worst day of the year. "I wasn't thinking about 95,000 people," he said later. "All I could think of was that the defense had done a job."
UCLA had not tried to beat USC's deep defenders on a pass since the second quarter, and it seemed folly to try now, since McKay's deep men, instructed to give Beban the 12- to 15-yarders but guard with their lives against the long throws, had done just that. But Trojan Halfback Nate Shaw went for the UCLA left end, who had delayed and then slanted toward the sideline, and this exposed the left side to Wingback Dick Witcher, who ran right past Shaw, curved left and caught Beban's perfect spiral just behind the frantic dive of Safety Man Mike Hunter, trying too late to cover on the play.
Now, after a two-point conversion pass, it was 16-14, and a UCLA man said the way things were going this unbelievably delightful season you just knew the Bruins would recover an onside kick, and that is exactly what Dallas Grider did on the USC 49. After a first down, however, Beban got trapped on a pass attempt and UCLA's situation was again critical: third down, 24 yards to go at the UCLA 48 and everybody from San Diego to Seattle knowing Beban had to throw long. Everybody except the unfortunate Shaw, who happens to be McKay's best defensive halfback. Beban rolled to his right, then set up to throw back to the left to Farr, who was running a swing pattern behind End Kurt Altenberg. Altenberg was supposed to run straight down the field to lure Shaw out of Farr's area. But Shaw moved in to pick up Farr—and, too late, realized that Altenberg was winging toward the goal. Beban naturally abandoned plans to throw to Farr—"I admired his individuality," said Prothro afterward—and hit Altenberg for the winning touchdown.
No further dramatics were necessary. It was 20-16 UCLA, and since Winslow does not throw a good long pass there would be no retribution. In moments the game was over, and UCLA fans flooded the field and tore down the goal posts and Prothro made a speech to the student body that nobody heard over the noise. In the UCLA dressing room coaches unashamedly hugged one another and did little dances and Ron Siegrist, who came to UCLA with Prothro, said it exactly the way it happened:
"They were too big for us, and too strong, and they turned us every way but loose, except three times—and those three times we burned 'em. For touchdowns, brother, and they can't take a one away from us."
Garrett, still in his uniform, came in to congratulate the UCLA team on its comeback—"It takes a great effort to do what you did," he said, and left with tears in his eyes—and Prothro told him he thought he was the finest college back he had ever seen. Later, Prothro lay flat on a table, with a Coca-Cola teetering on his chest, and softly drawled the answers to questions and accepted congratulations and love pats from the UCLA hierarchy. He has to stretch out that way, he explained, because he gets muscle spasms after a game. He said he felt very fortunate to win.
Beban or no, Prothro and his staff have done an excellent job with this team, and they did it without the sweeping personnel changes and massive redeployment of the kind Ara Parseghian had to make to bring Notre Dame back to power his first year at South Bend. The UCLA staff simply made the most of what it had, and paid attention to the tenets of the Prothro system. This coach "fights like the dickens" not to be cataloged as a third-down-punt and fourth-down-gamble man and he believes you latch onto fundamentals and authority "This is not going to be a democracy," he told the UCLA team the first day of practice. "When we swing into action, there won't be time for debate." He said half his Oregon State team quit that first year at Corvallis because they weren't willing to accept the program. At UCLA, where the attitude was make us as you please, just make us good, he lost only one boy.
UCLA has a final game with Tennessee on December 4, but that is now preliminary to the Rose Bowl and the second meeting with Michigan State. Michigan State is the best team in the country, and is better now than it was when it beat UCLA 13-3 in September. You have to think that against a team as physical as Michigan State, poor little old UCLA is capable of running up a huge deficit. You have to think 20 points, maybe 30. Poor, poor UCLA. And then, if you keep thinking, you eventually have to get to Gary Beban, and then you have to stop thinking, because all that does is confuse you.