The magazine ad tacked to the door showed a big glass of orange juice with the caption "O.J. on the rocks." Inside the dormitory room O.J. Simpson, sprinter, football player and exuberant unofficial spokesman for the University of Southern California track team, was the host at a small game of seven-card stud. O.J. was not doing well, and his money kept sliding across the table toward the other three players, but when the game was over he stood up and smiled. "Don't worry about me, man," he said, "I been taking these guys for weeks. The only time I'll worry about luck is tonight, and I don't really sweat about that either. We are ready."
The USC trackmen had been ready for last weekend's NCAA championships since May 6. On that day the Trojans, who have more individual talent than any other team in the country, were upset in a dual meet by their arch rivals from UCLA. "People really let us have it after that one," said USC Coach Vern Wolfe. "We've been anxious to prove ourselves since."
The NCAA could hardly have chosen a sterner proving ground for its athletes. Brigham Young University, a complex of shiny new buildings sprawled across the base of a mountain in Provo, Utah, holds all the temptations of a monastery. Mormon regulations forbid drinking and smoking, a list to which BYU adds Bermuda shorts and sandals. Even sipping such stimulants as coffee and Coke is taboo on campus. So coaches and competitors relaxed, knowing that in this setting there could be no excuses for losers. The best team would win.
USC had the best team, not because it had the best pole vaulter and hurdler and 440-yard relay squad, but because it had the best team. The near-stars did their part, picking up points for lower placings under the 10-8-6-4-2-1 system of awards to the first six finishers. "We're all running for our points," said O. J. "Long as we all do our part we'll win."
Very early in the meet the USC sprinters showed that they would be far too good for their opponents as they all but wrapped up the title in two quick bursts on Friday night. The 120-yard-high-hurdle final Friday set the pattern for the entire USC rout.
Earl McCullouch, winner of his semifinal in 13.5, lined up alongside Tennessee's Richmond Flowers, who was favored after a meet-record 13.4 in his semifinal. The starter said, "Set," and the eight runners waited for the gun. Flowers described what happened next:
"I looked down at the ground ready to go. I heard the gun, started and looked up. Then I just said, 'Oh, no, he's gone....' " With uncanny anticipation, McCullouch had shot into a full stride lead. "I didn't think anyone could catch him after that," said Flowers.
He was right, but he made a gallant effort and seemed ready to overhaul McCullouch until he brushed the ninth hurdle and dropped back. After the finish, Flowers shook McCullouch's hand.
"That was some start," he said. McCullouch smiled. "They didn't call it back, did they?" he asked.
Behind McCullouch, teammate Paul Kerry grabbed sixth place, so USC had 11 points. Fifteen minutes later, in the 100-yard-dash final, sophomore Lennox Miller hoped to match McCullouch's feat and take another first place. Teammates Simpson and Fred Kuller were also there, looking for additional points. But Miller was up against Charlie Greene who the night before had tied a world record of 9.1. And to make things worse, Greene was mad. "I lost one race to Jim Hines, and now nobody talks about me anymore," he said. "The papers didn't even mention me being in this meet. I think I'll have to correct that situation."
Miller won his heat in his best time ever, 9.2. So Greene, who usually races only hard enough to win, sprinted away from his field in 9.1. He did not go as fast in Friday's semifinal, partly because he spent the last 25 yards looking casually behind him.
Before the start of the final, Greene eyed Trojans Kuller and Miller in the lanes alongside him. "Better jump quick, boys," he said, "or I'll be long gone." In the far outside lane, loose and smiling and apparently forgetting that he had barely made it to the final, Simpson did not bother to listen. He was too busy telling someone, "This is where we really make some points."
Greene was not long gone at the start. But he did prove that he is still champion. He beat Miller by a step in 9.2, hitting the string with an expression on his face that made his margin seem like six yards. Farther back, Kuller and Simpson fulfilled O.J.'s promise, finishing fourth and sixth. With Miller's second USC had 13 more points for a total of 24 and an almost insurmountable lead over UCLA.
Lennox Miller, a soft-spoken Jamaican who is as intense and introverted as Simpson is flamboyant, was disconsolate after the hundred, but his teammates treated him like a winner. "No. 2 in the nationals is pretty good," said Half-miler Dennis Carr—who closed fast to finish second to Oregon's Wade Bell in his own event the next night. "Besides, we're going to win this thing." Wolfe tried his best to be cautious but could not hide his elation. "There were a lot of good men there," he said. "To get 24 points against them is really something." The irrepressible Simpson added one more promise: "Just wait till the relay, Coach," he said. "We're ready for some 38s."
Simpson was right again. McCullouch burst off the blocks almost as fast as he had in the hurdles, Kuller and Simpson pulled farther in front and Miller ran fastest of all to finish more than 15 yards ahead of Flowers, anchor man for Tennessee. "This makes up for the 100," Miller said. The time, 38.6, was .4 second below the team's own world mark.
There was little finesse involved in the USC record, but the runners made up for this shortcoming with sheer speed. "Lennox and I were both injured for a while," said McCullouch, "and O. J. lost a month during spring football practice. So, we haven't had more than a month to work on our passes. We'll go faster when we perfect them." "Three of us are sophomores and Earl is a junior," added Simpson. "Tell me we won't be back next year."
Miller was back in less than half an hour. He won a 220-yard trial and then, in his third hard race within the hour, finished a good second to Tommie Smith's 20.2, a record.
By then the team championship was a foregone conclusion, and the Trojans were out merely to add to their impressive team triumph. World Record Holder Bob Seagren won the pole vault in an almost routine 17'4", without a miss, as his teammate, Paul Wilson, making the best vault of his life on his second try, placed second at the same height.
USC was also coming through with a lot of backup points. Gary Carlsen took second in the discus, and Geoff Vanderstock, recovering from a severe case of penicillin poisoning, ran far beyond Wolfe's expectations to gain second in the 440-yard hurdles. Half-miler Carr's attitude was fairly typical: "Coming off the last turn I said to myself, 'the team needs points, kid, and here you are seventh.' So I went as hard as I could. We got 86 points, and I got eight of them with that second place. That's what I was running for." Carr passed some pretty good men in the stretch—Tennessee's Larry Kelly, Georgetown's Ricardo Urbina and Villanova's Dave Patrick—and who was there nailing down one point for sixth place? Teammate Dave Buck.
In the final event of the three-day meet, with the title clinched and many of the heroes departed, Wolfe watched his mile-relay team place sixth for the last of USC's points. The team, with a best time of 3:11.3, had not been expected to make the final. But, led by the ailing Vanderstock and Buck, it beat two teams in the finals, running 3:09.
"Sure it's no big deal," said Wolfe, "but it shows how all these kids felt about this meet. When Geoff came back so well, and the mile relay kids qualified for the finals, it gave the whole team a lift." He paused and looked out over the emptying stadium, and with USC 59 points ahead of third-place UCLA, May 6 seemed very far behind him. "This has to be the biggest thrill of my career," he said. "I'm so excited, I might even light up a cigarette on this campus, and I don't even smoke."