All night long it is The Great One against The Swamp Rat. In a college football game that is simply bursting apart with heroism, it is UCLA's Gary Beban, who is called The Great One because he is from the wonderland of California, against Tennessee's Dewey Warren, who is called The Swamp Rat because he is from the Georgia marsh country. They are two of the very best quarterbacks in the land. They also happen to be on two of the best teams in the land, and these teams have been crashing into one another all evening in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, with both the players and the ball soaring every which way because of the vicious hitting.
Now it is late, only four minutes to go, and The Swamp Rat has Tennessee ahead, 16-13. It is fourth down for The Great One. There is a time-out, and the 66,000 people in the stadium figure that this—more than ever before in his glorious past—has to be the moment of The Great One.
Seemingly unaware of the bedlam, UCLA's Gary Beban goes to the side-line to chat with Coach Tommy Prothro. Fourth and two on the Tennessee 27-yard line. A field goal will tie, a first down will keep the drive going for a possible victory. Wonderful suspense.
"Gary," says Prothro, "you look tired."
September 24, 1967
Beban should. He has brought UCLA back from 0-7 and 3-13, even though the bad breaks have heaped up on him so repetitiously that you have to figure the fates wore orange dunce caps; Tennessee orange, of course. And he has just marched the Bruins 46 yards upfield on their last real chance for victory.
Beban says, "I'm O.K., Coach."
Prothro, a drawling Southerner on the order of Alabama's Bear Bryant, puts his hand on his quarterback's shoulder.
"Are you fresh enough to run one more play?" Prothro asks. "I want you to run the ball." Beban's golden head-gear bobs up and down, yes.
"I want you to run one more great play for me," the coach sighs.
Gary Beban returns to the field and brings UCLA out of the huddle for his specialty, a run-pass option to the right. "It has a simple name," Beban said later. "I just call it Sprint Streak, or a Sweep around the Horn."
Beban starts to the right in his almost lazy fashion, and he raises the ball to give Tennessee's defense the hint of a pass. But there is daylight. Not daylight, exactly, under the Coliseum lights, but what you might call a crease in the smog. Gary Beban cuts sharply across the scrimmage line, and the spectators explode, for it is clear he has enough for the first down. They will settle for that. But he is still running. He wiggles to the right, feints with his head, darts back to the left, and a cluster of Tennessee defenders wind up piled on each other.
Now there is this delighted gasp from the crowd, which is composed of UCLA fans except for 3,000 Tennesseans who will take their orange vests and hats on to Disneyland from here. Gary Beban is going to run right out of the stadium with the old ball game on the greatest play of his career. And now Beban is suddenly in the clear. He is storming at a wide angle across the field and no one is going to catch him. Beban strides into the west end zone of the Coliseum and, in a moment of total hysteria, tosses the football into Section T-14. UCLA has struggled back and won, 20-16, and it will be said that this was one of the most necessary victories in the school's annals. There were some good reasons for that.
The game was supposed to have been some kind of crusade for UCLA because the Bruins lost a rowdy 37-34 decision to Tennessee in Memphis in 1965. The result had made Prothro madder than if the Coke machine in his athletic building had gone empty. He thought the officiating had been deplorable and said so. He thought the timekeeper surely must have had an orange T tattooed on his chest. Time was called three times on Tennessee's winning drive for reasons that Prothro found questionable. The defeat was especially bitter because Memphis, after all, was his old home town, and his UCLA team was going on to the Rose Bowl.
Prothro, who usually does a splendid job of concealing emotions, got out of character. Pressed on the topic of the officiating, he made the remark that set the entire Southland aflame.
"I'm a born and bred Southerner, and I've always been proud of it, but I'm sorry to say it today," he said.
"I don't know why Tommy has made such a big deal about this rematch," said a Knoxville writer in Los Angeles early in the week. "He talks about the clock being stopped. The reason it was stopped once was because a UCLA player kicked the ball away. What's the official supposed to do? Let 'em run a play without the football?"
All of this helped make the 1967 meeting a special attraction, one that had college-football enthusiasts talking as far back as last April. A pro scout said then, "UCLA's whole spring training was devoted to Tennessee." And a close friend of Prothro said, "I don't think Tommy has ever wanted to win one worse than this or has prepared harder for a single opponent."
He added, "Man, you know what this is? It's the first bowl game of the season."
For someone supposedly on a dire mission, Tommy Prothro seemed beautifully calm during the big week. He smiled a lot for visitors and swigged his usual 4,000 Cokes a day. Prothro without a Coke in his hand is like the Statue of Liberty without her Dunhill. When he spoke with friends, it was mostly about bridge, the game that is his second passion. He insisted he was not one of those coaches who puts on a "game face" and gets angry.
"We're ready," he said. "We've prepared for a good team that might beat us. They'll probably play us normal. We've never been outquicked by anybody in my two years at UCLA, but Tennessee might be quicker than we are. If they are, they'll win. Our kids are poised. Our skilled people are concentrating, which they should, and our hitters, our linemen—well, we're starting to get them in a frenzy. Your hitters should be a little fanatic."
UCLA's most skilled player, Gary Beban, was far from frenzied on the eve of the battle. He was in a state of sophisticated calm; handsome, articulate and good-natured as always. His life story was being serialized daily in the Los Angeles Times. "Great timing with Tennessee here, right?" He smiled. He had not heard the rumor circulating around town that he—Gary Beban—had hired a public-relations firm to handle his bid for the Heisman Trophy.
"That has got to be a USC rumor," he said.
Beban said he did not feel any grudge against Tennessee because of the 1965 game. He felt respect, he said, because they were a top team, and he dearly hoped they were not as fast as he suspected they might be. Prothro, he said, had helped keep him calm during his career.
"I've really only had the jitters once before a game," Gary said. "That was before Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. I was sitting there in the dressing room. I was in sort of a fog, not hearing anything that the guys were talking about, or Coach Prothro, either. Finally Coach came over and said, 'Now, Beban, remember this. There are 300 million Chinese on the other side of the world who don't give a damn about this game.' I was fine after that."
Few athletes have started a season with a bigger buildup from their own people than Beban has received. When Prothro called him The Great One, the school's publicity director, Vic Kelley, quickly picked it up. UCLA's publicity refers constantly to The Great One and the team that plays "the most exciting football in the West."
Even as Tennessee arrived in town, Prothro was saying, "Beban is the best college quarterback I've ever seen. He's a classic thrower. He's a better threat as a runner and ball-handler than any quarterback. I would have to say he is much better than Terry Baker was." Baker was the Heisman winner (and SI Sportsman of the Year) under Prothro at Oregon State in 1962.
"The boy may beat us, but I think Gary is a lot better than Dewey Warren," Prothro said.
"Coach Prothro is honest," observed Beban later. "He tells you when a team is good, and he tells you when you are playing a stiff."
At Tennessee the week of the game there was no reference at all to the 1965 battle, but there was ample excitement, what with fans arranging charter flights—complete with stops at Las Vegas—and preparing signs like the one that stood out in the Tennessee cheering section: GO GET 'EM SWAMP RAT. It Was also obvious that the Tennessee team was working out with unusual dedication for its opening game.
"Our personal view of 1965 is that nothing happened other than a UCLA boy lost his poise and hit one of ours. We won a close game, and that's all there was to it. We're preparing for a tough opponent. They've only lost three in two years. But we have a lot of tough opponents this season," said Coach Doug Dickey.
The Swamp Rat appeared to be as poised as Gary Beban. He had, after all, beaten Beban and UCLA in that 1965 game, setting four school passing records. He had also proved to be the best passer Tennessee ever had, a drop-back thrower with a strong arm who was a leader as well. "He could start walking down the hall in the dorm," said Dickey, "and the whole team would follow him without any idea of where he was going."
"When I'm out there I think I'm the best there is," said Warren. "I have always considered myself a winner. If you believe this and can get it across to the other players, they believe in you, and pretty soon they start believing more in themselves."
The game had no sooner begun on Saturday night than UCLA's early blunders made it easy for Tennessee to believe in itself. The Bruins fumbled the opening kickoff, the Volunteers greedily recovered it at the UCLA 19, and in four plays Warren had a touchdown. He hit a key 14-yard pass and then let Tailback Charlie Fulton bruise it over from the one-yard line. For the next three quarters, Tennessee benefited from a lot of UCLA errors, mainly on the part of the defensive unit. The UCLA secondary, comprised of three 5'9" guys who are sometimes called The Monkeys, had several moments of crisis. They fumbled punts, and got trampled, and led one observer, Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, to remark, "Tennessee doesn't need to throw the bomb to Richmond Flowers. They make more yards punting." It was in the third quarter that fumbling resulted in Tennessee's second touchdown. First, a fumbled punt put UCLA back on its own 11, and then a fumble by UCLA Fullback Rick Purdy on the next play gave the Vols the ball on the nine. The Swamp Rat quickly took them in.
UCLA was always moving the ball against Tennessee, however. Beban was making the most of a brilliant sophomore named Greg Jones, who gained 135 yards and may give UCLA the back it needed to replace All-America Mel Farr. "He could become a real Los Angeles hero," says Beban of Jones. When Jones did not have the ball, it seemed that Beban did, running himself, hitting key passes, and piling up 412 yards of total offense and 26 first downs, compared to Tennessee's 211 yards and only 14 first downs. Meanwhile, the UCLA defense, led by Linebacker Don Manning, was harassing Dewey Warren endlessly.
In the final analysis, Prothro's game plan worked beautifully, as if he certainly had been mapping it out for a year. UCLA continually caught Tennessee's defense, a 4-4 called The Arkansas Squirm, in the wrong stunts and shot the backs through for big yardage. Ultimately it became a question of whether Beban could make up for all the fumbles and force one big thing to go right on a night when everything was going wrong.
He finally did—and why not? When you ask a lad called The Great One for a great play, the least that he can do is supply it.