In damp, muggy Austin, Texas last week a 19-year-old sophomore quarterback survived the biggest publicity buildup in college football since Pat O'Brien portrayed Knute Rockne, but his team did not. Super Bill of Texas did make the rain stop for national television, and he did score a touchdown, and he managed not to get hurt, but when, really, did anyone ever get the best of John Wayne? USC not only had the famed actor and ex-Trojan player on its bench, it had Super Troy, Super Steve, Super Rod, Super Rich, Super Ron and a whole lot more. So, despite Bill Bradley's truly marvelous stage presence and the hint that he may well become sensational in something more important than print, the final score was a lie. USC was better than the 10-6 margin by which it won an opening game over a tough, uncompromising team, and that means the Trojans are up there among the best in the land.
With Super Troy Winslow passing to Rod Sherman, his flanker, and to a couple of alternating ends, Ron Drake and Rich Leon, and handing off to Halfbacks Steve Grady and Don McCall, USC in the first half all but ran the Longhorns out to the L.B.J. Ranch. Coach Johnny McKay's deceptive, entertaining I formation, certainly the best collegiate offense since the split T, was seldom on better exhibition than it was against Darrell Royal's Texans, who are known for their stingy, even brutal, defense. USC drove 74 yards to a field goal in the first quarter and went 55 yards to a touchdown in the second, which Winslow himself scored. In between, the Trojans went 74 yards to the Texas four-yard line, but failed to score. The game was almost all over before Super Bill Bradley, a bona fide triple threat who did a great many fantastic things as a high school, freshman and spring-training star, could get his hands on the ball.
The 42,000 Longhorn rooters in Memorial Stadium probably felt relieved that USC was not ahead by as much as, say, 21-0 by intermission, because the Trojans certainly might have been. Texas had had the football for only five of the 30 minutes played, and if Royal carried a copy of first-half statistics into his dressing room he must have thought they read like a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. USC had 14 first downs, Texas had four. USC had gained 211 yards, Texas had scratched out only 52.
At this point it seemed that if Super Bill were going to accomplish anything miraculous, he would have to do it playing middle guard on defense. "When you can't get the football for more snaps than we got it," Royal said later, "all you can do is wait until they shoot the gun and go congratulate somebody."
September 25, 1966
The game was far from over, however. Texas, a young team littered with sophomores—some super, some not—did some splendid adjusting during intermission. The Steers got a better rush on Winslow, and began to get the ball more often. They also got an old-fashioned running game going in the third quarter, and whacked out a 91-yard drive in 15 plays without throwing a single pass. It ended with Super Bill scoring on a three-yard end run that practically nobody saw because the fake was so nifty. There were 14 minutes left, and Texas trailed by only four points and now suddenly had momentum and somebody else besides Bradley for the crowd to gaze at—Halfback Chris Gilbert, another sophomore. On Texas' touchdown drive, Gilbert, a low-running, finely balanced young man of Lebanese extraction, had darted into the Trojan line on runs of 29, two, seven, one, 12, four, two and one yards (he gained 103 in all). And he had helped carry off the fake that sent Bradley into the USC end zone on a keeper.
While Gilbert deserved most of the credit for shaking Texas to life, his success was partly due to Bradley's mere presence. "We had to be ready to stop Bradley first, particularly on his wide sweep," said McKay, shortly after presenting the game ball to "Coach" John Wayne in the Trojans' locker room. "He'd hit a home run in every game he'd ever played. We had to overshift our linebackers to the side of the field where Texas' flanker went. That's where Bradley could sprint out and run or throw. Darrell saw this and took good advantage of it. They ran Gilbert back inside the other way."
McKay had joked before the game that he was worried about his superdefense for Super Bill. Now he said, "Super Chris created a new problem. I called their touchdown play...told our defense to look for it, but the fake was so good it didn't matter."
Texas next got the ball again on its own 20, with a little over 11 minutes remaining—plenty of time for Super Somebody. Right away Gilbert squirted through for 13 yards and Bradley completed a pass for 16 more, and one quickly was reminded of Bobby Layne's statement about Bradley: "He's like Doak [Walker]. He's at his best when he's behind and time's running out."
Well, was he or wasn't he? The next thing Bradley did was lose eight yards on a sprint-out when USC Linebacker Adrian Young zipped through the burnt-orange Texas line unmolested. No, he wasn't. But then he caught a pass from Wingback Greg Lott for 13 yards, circling around a USC defender and fielding the ball like the shortstop he also is. Yes, he was. Unfortunately, he did not have another opportunity to prove he could run, throw or catch. It was fourth down and four yards to go at midfield, eight minutes left and time for Royal percentages. Bradley is perhaps better at punting then at anything else, and Texas' defense had stiffened. Kick them in deep, Royal figured, then don't let them out. Bradley did his part. He took the snap, gave a little jiggle as if he might run so his coverage could swoop down the field, then punted high and perfectly, 48 yards, to the Trojan two.
"When they brought it out of there, ramming it right at us and kept it for eight minutes, they proved they deserved to win," said Royal afterwards. "If I'd known we were never going to touch the ball again, I'd have tried anything on fourth and four at the 50, even a quarterback sneak."
Nothing pleased John McKay more than the Trojans at that moment. "Texas made the right call. I'll guarantee you they're not going to get the four yards running, because we're up there in a goal-line nine-man line," McKay said. "They might have hit us with a long pass, if they wanted to gamble on it. But by punting, they had us right where we didn't want to be. I talked to Frank Broyles at Arkansas earlier in the week," he added, "and asked him what he thought and he said, 'John, you can't run into the middle on Texas. Nobody can.' And I said, 'Well, if we can't, we're in for a long day.' So now we've got to. I thought we won the game right then."
First, Sherman hit for three yards, then he literally pounded past a bevy of Longhorns for six more, and Mike Hull got the one yard that was necessary for a first down at the 12. There were six minutes left. Then USC did it again, getting another first down at the 27 on three running plays. There were four minutes to go. But the next three plays got only nine yards. With two and a half minutes on the clock and fourth and one on USC's own 36, a good defensive play by Texas, a bad snap, a fumble, a penalty, and Super Bill would have been in business. Shouldn't USC punt now? Of course not.
"I've got to have enough confidence in my offensive line to make one yard," said McKay, "or we shouldn't be out there." It made four yards, and Bill Bradley, who had gone in hoping to field a punt and run it to Los Angeles, came off the field to await another Saturday.
Seldom do sophomores come along who create as much preseason, pregame excitement—Royal says insanity—as Bill Bradley did last week. Most of them fail to live up to the unrealistic expectations, notable historical examples being Northwestern's Bill De Correvont back in the 1940s and UCLA's Ronnie Knox in the 1950s. But a few have, such as SMU's Doak Walker. Bill Bradley was surely the most raved-about sophomore since Walker in the Southwest Conference, and even though he had not played a varsity down his fame had spread quickly across the country as Texas prepared for USC.
Bradley, however, had only himself to blame for much of it. At 185 and 5 feet 11, a right-handed passer and left-footed kicker, he had already proved he could dunk a basketball with either hand, broad-jump 23 feet in his first attempt, play shortstop and switch-hit at the plate so proficiently that he had turned down a $40,000 bonus from the Detroit Tigers. On the football field, he could throw with either hand, kick with cither foot and, as one writer put it, "think with either brain."
Bradley had led his high school football team, Palestine, to a state championship in the wildest way possible. Trailing 0-23 in the last half of the big game, Bradley won it 24-23, putting the winning pass in the air left-handed as the final gun sounded. He had led the Texas freshmen to a 4-1 record by running 73, 46, 23 and nine yards for touchdowns and punting for a 43.3 average. And he had added to the scoring legend in Texas' spring game last April, when he raced 73 yards on a punt return for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball. One of the Texas coaches jokingly said, "I'll bet if you ripped off his shirt you'd find an 'S' on his chest." Longhorn Publicist Jones Ramsey said, "He'll always be just plain old Clark Kent to me," and Darrell Royal started having terrible headaches.
Bradley's name was in headlines every day last week before the USC game. "You know," said Royal in the privacy of his elegantly paneled and carpeted office at the University of Texas, "this is the most unfair thing in the world. Bill doesn't have a chance to do what people expect of him. He's got to go out there on national TV against a darn strong team in his very first game and think he's got to be George Gipp or somebody, and all he really is is a sophomore with a lot of potential."
Against all of the pressure, did Royal think Super Bill might be Super Flop? Might he fumble twice, throw a couple of interceptions and punt the ball backwards?
"Oh, no," said Royal quickly. "He won't do that. No sirree, uh-uh. I sure don't expect that. He can run—a smooth, controlled runner, you know, with instinctive subtle moves. And he can punt and he can throw. Not a pretty thrower, but he can get the ball where it's supposed to be. He's probably the most gifted boy we've had around here, but he's a sophomore. He's gonna throw away a lateral or two. He's gonna throw a bad pass instead of taking the three or four yards he would make, and the reason is because of the pressure—because he'll probably feel like he has to score on every play. I do think that, once the abnormal pressure is off, he can become quite a football player. He's a leader and he's got poise."
Joe Bradley, the boy's father, a railroad dispatcher in Palestine whose orange cashmere blazer on game day stepped up dispatchers everywhere in class, had no doubts about Super Son avoiding real embarrassment. "He'll stay cool," said the father. "He's been competing for a long time, from the pee-wee leagues right up to this, and he's always done well under pressure. I'll tell you what I'm more worried about than anything. Baseball's his first love, and he's probably a better shortstop than a quarterback. I just hope baseball will leave him alone, so he can get his education and prove he can be a winning quarterback for Texas."
Super Bill himself, a round-faced, burr-haired, bright-eyed fellow who is usually faster with answers than most seniors, appeared extremely calm and confident in the hours leading up to his debut. He said all he could do with his left hand was eat and all he could kick with his right foot was the ground. As for people gunning for him, he said, "It wouldn't be any fun to play football if the other side didn't want to tackle you."
Bill was far short of super when he finally left the field. His box score showed 43 yards on 14 carries, three pass completions for 42 yards, one reception for 13 yards, a three-yard touchdown run, three punts for a 46.3-yard average, one thrown-away pitchout, one interception and one lost game. Close, but lost.
While he had not been dazzling, it was easy to see that he might be. The slippery running style was evident, as was the poise, and there may be no better punter in college ball. And, after all, he has at least 29 more games to play for Texas.
Gracious John McKay said it best. "He's terrific. He couldn't have played a better game, considering the buildup and the pressure."
Well, he could have, of course. But then John Wayne would have had to come off the USC bench.