It is so garishly theatrical that it really should have started at a soda fountain in a Hollywood drugstore. Like this: there are these two young college guys named Gary Beban and O.J. Simpson, see, and they are sitting there hoping to get this idea for a football show discovered by somebody big. Howard Cosell, maybe. Or Jack Whitaker. But they keep being ignored because it is such a tough town. There is all this competition around from Dodgers and Rams, Angels and Lakers, Kings, Amigos and Toros, who are among the 12,000 professional sports teams in the area. And then there are all of these other diversions that Los Angeles just naturally offers: surfing, sky diving, topless motorcycling, translucent miniskirting and teen-age protesting for the individual's inalienable right to smoke his front lawn. Anyhow, these two college kids, Beban and Simpson (see cover), area little despondent. They don't even want their taco-flavored malteds.
Suddenly one of them has an inspiration. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, they could put on their own show. Beban knows where there is this old coliseum they could use. Simpson says their schools would probably print up the tickets. Dad and Mom could be the cheerleaders. Dig out the old outfits. Heck, why not? Throw in a few of the old Morley Drury routines. Perhaps a Paul Cameron dance step. Or the Grenny Landsdell shuffle. Terrific. And look, Gary Beban has already written the title tune on a napkin: Buckle Down, John Heisman.
Yes, it is too Hollywood for belief. That UCLA's glamorous quarterback, Gary Beban, and USC's splendid halfback, O.J. Simpson, could emerge in the same city, in the same conference, as two of the best players of 1967, is improbable enough. That they could also wind up quite possibly battling for the national championship, the Pacific Eight championship, the Rose Bowl bid and the Heisman Trophy, all on one unbearable Saturday afternoon, is strictly from the studio lots.
But there it comes this Saturday, the Trojans against the Bruins before 93,000 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and millions more on ABC-TV's national telecast—a game that may well be for more trophies, titles and prestige than any single college contest in years.
November 20, 1967
Of course, the game would be immense, dramatic, historical, all of that, if it matched total strangers under these same conditions. And it is equally true that almost every USC-UCLA game is worthwhile. But to bring two such dedicated enemies, two universities so close in proximity (10 miles) yet galaxies apart in image and attitude, down to so desperate an hour makes the attraction all the more noteworthy.
Consider, first of all, the ironies and contrasts of the campuses. Here sits UCLA, a sprawling state institution with an enrollment of 29,000 students of varying backgrounds, colors, politics and ideals, and with generous portions of everything from hippies to Harlows, located right where, according to USC, it does not belong. UCLA is on a lovely rise called Westwood, just beneath the elegant neighborhood of Bel Air, a five-minute Mercedes ride from the dining, drinking and shopping splendors of Beverly Hills.
And over there sits USC, older by far, the smug, conservative, private school, with all of its scrubbed, predominantly white, Protestant, slow-smiling, basically upper-middle-class types. Just look where it is, laughs UCLA—practically in the middle of Watts, for goodness sake. Southern Cal's campus is, in fact, flanked by rows of condemned paint stores, auto-parts companies and junk shops, and only a few moments from the disenchantment of downtown L.A.
If USC could pick itself up and move, it probably would, and UCLA might be inclined to suggest Darien, Conn. as a suitable site, or perhaps under a giant old Goldwater billboard in Marin County. For a long time USC was located in a posh area of the city; only the sectors around it changed. There is always much to relish about traditions, and somehow USC's intimate red-brick buildings, its tree-lined streets and the general atmosphere within its boundaries offer more of a collegiate flavor than modern UCLA.
For the steadfast USC man, UCLA will never represent more than it was in its beginning, a preparatory facility for teachers who wanted to continue their studies elsewhere, a school unwittingly named Los Angeles State Normal, the poor school, the catchall, the school that gave us Tokyo Rose.
On the other hand, UCLA finds it difficult to be troubled these days by whatever USC thinks of it. It is too busy growing. Still pretty much of a commuter school—as is USC—it is so vast that half of the campus could protest the world's wrongdoings and the other half wouldn't know it.
As the real Gary Beban was saying recently, "We have an awful lot of everything around here, so there's really no such thing as a sports celebrity."
There were sports heroes in earlier days, of course, particularly at USC. Over the years no university has enjoyed more all-round athletic success than Southern California, and only Notre Dame has a more treasured football past. In the 1920s and 1930s, before professional sports turned California into a world's fair of promotion, USC was just about the only thing Los Angeles citizens could take a sporting interest in. They poured into the Coliseum to see Howard Jones's teams win that era's version of national championships. Players like Morley Drury, Russ Saunders, Erny Pinckert, Johnny Baker, Cotton Warburton, Grenny Lansdell, Harry Smith, Amby Schindler and Al Krueger enjoyed a celebrity status in L.A. unmatched by almost anyone of the 1960s except Sandy Koufax.
Although UCLA had its brief flurries of figures to worship, such as Kenny Washington in the 1930s and Bob Water-field in the 1940s, it was not until the late Red Sanders went to Westwood to coach in the 1950s that the Bruins became a force the Trojans would forever have to respect. Sanders turned UCLA into a consistent national power, won a No. 1 ranking in 1954 and established his own instant list of immortals.
Being the rivals they are, the two schools have produced some athletically oriented heroes who never suited up for a game, and a wonderfully inventive group they have been. For instance, ever since a statue of an armed Trojan warrior was unveiled in 1930 at USC, its sword repeatedly has been stolen by Bruin invaders. Tommy Trojan, which is the statue's nickname, has frequently been further victimized by daubs of blue and gold paint—UCLA's colors—and by even less acceptable materials.
The nickname, Trojans, came from a sportswriter named Owen R. Bird of the Los Angeles Times. In a moment of rare literary achievement in 1912 he wrote of the USC track team, "They worked like Trojans." And so have the pranksters throughout the football series. There was the night that USC students slipped onto the Bruins' campus with brick and mortar and sealed up all the doors and windows of a sorority house. Two UCLA students once rented a single-engine aircraft and strafed the Trojans' campus with blue and gold paint, and two other UCLA students came over in a helicopter one year and attempted to dive-bomb Tommy Trojan with fertilizer. They missed, but the neighborhood was not an inviting place for a few hours.
A group of exceptionally depraved fun-lovers once planted dynamite in the heart of UCLA's homecoming bonfire,
and when it exploded windows were shattered in Bel Air. Sometime Bel Air resident Howard Hughes obviously wasn't home that evening, or he would have bought USC and moved it to Las Vegas.
Not all of the pregame stunts have worked out, naturally. There was the time some Trojans tried to explode a smoke bomb under the UCLA yell leader's platform in the Coliseum. The timing mechanism was set for 2 p.m. so that on the kick off the Bruin cheerleaders would go up in, well, smoke. But the bomb failed. There was also the fanatic who rigged a land mine under one goal line of the Coliseum and ran the detonator wire to a certain seat—his—in the rooting section. Apparently, his aim was to prevent a touchdown at all possible cost. His plot was uncovered before he was able to blast a ballcarrier into football history.
The only rational explanation for the severity of the pranks is the intensity of the division between the schools, a form of L.A. gap that in the case of this football game extends to the two head coaches, the stars and the style of play that can be expected. USC's Johnny McKay and UCLA's Tommy Prothro are as different as the campuses they represent. Both men have produced winners, have molded All-Americas, have displayed originality and have gotten a consistent effort from their players. They rate, by any standard, among the best coaches in the country. But the similarities end quite abruptly with their reputations and their statistics. As individuals, John McKay and Tommy Prothro are about as much alike as a Trojan and a bear. They differ physically, socially and instinctively, and it is easy to imagine that they might not like one another a whole lot. Respect, yes. Like? No sir.
There are several obvious contrasts in the two men. Prothro is bigger, taller, slightly older and has been a head coach five years longer than McKay. He is quieter, more withdrawn, certainly more secretive. McKay is generally open and friendly, a wisecrack artist in his profession. It is easy to imagine Prothro as a rancher. It is just as easy to imagine McKay, a careful dresser who leans toward sun-bleached slacks, as a golf pro. Among their colleagues, Prothro most closely resembles Alabama's Bear Bryant in drawl, manner and attitude. Quick, talkative and well organized in the contemporary, gray-flannel way, McKay is similar to Texas' Darrell Royal.
For two men totally committed to their work, they lead very different lives. McKay is at present a little better entrenched in Los Angeles than Prothro, although Prothro was Red Sanders' top assistant in UCLA's glory days before going to Oregon State and manufacturing miracle teams, one of which featured Terry Baker, a Heisman Trophy winner. Prothro has been back as the head coach at UCLA only two full seasons, while McKay has been head coach at USC since 1960, has the security of a national championship behind him ('62), two Rose Bowl appearances and a couple of glittering upsets of Notre Dame, which he loves more than just about anything. McKay's circle of friends is a wide one, and he moves about the city with ease. He is perfectly comfortable in the presence of movie stars, and he knows several well, among them John Wayne and Bill Cosby, both of whom are big USC fans.
By comparison, Prothro is a hermit. He does not play golf, which in itself makes him almost unique among football coaches, nor does he socialize much. Football is both his work and a hobby. He enjoys staying awake for hours fiddling with various football statistics—such as rating the nation's top teams with his own mathematical formula and figuring ways to get better blocking angles off his shifting T, which is really a disguised single wing. The only other games he can tolerate are bridge and chess. Football consumes his life; he once stayed up for 72 consecutive hours preparing for an opponent.
Though he will seldom volunteer a statement about his teams, Prothro does answer intelligent questions directly and honestly and often with a droll humor that will startle the unsuspecting. Only a few days ago, for instance, he made the comment that he had once again voted for USC as the No. 1 team in the UPI coaches' poll, but when a writer asked him why he thought the Trojans were the best team, Tommy smiled, "I didn't say they were the best team. I said I voted for them as No. 1."
There is an equally distinct difference between the two players who have brought their teams to high national ranking—the halfback, Simpson, who rolls right over you, and the quarterback, Beban, who rolls around you.
For the seven and a half games of the season that Orenthal James Simpson has been whole, he has seemed to possess the finest combination of speed and power within the memory of any pro scout. He rushed for 1,238 yards in that span, and until his mishap in the Oregon game—a sprained instep that knocked him off his feet and onto crutches—he was a good bet to break the NCAA yardage record. Not only did he crash repeatedly into stacked defenses and still wedge his way out and slice and dart for yardage, he caught passes and threw them at the least expected moments.
A mild, warm, talkative transfer from City College of San Francisco who is a junior now, Simpson was at first pretty bewildered by his achievements and his acclaim. He had never really been an endurance runner. Most of his two seasons at CCSF he divided his time between split end and halfback, but still he scored 54 touchdowns, breaking a record set by Ollie Matson.
McKay was not sure whether Simpson would be a tailback or a flanker or a split end when he recruited him. He found out quickly in spring practice. O.J. attended practice only seven days, partly because he wanted to run on the USC 440-yard relay team that set a world record of 38.6 at the NCAA Championships and partly because the coaches had learned all they needed to know.
"We wanted to see if he could take it inside," said McKay. "We ran him seven straight times in one scrimmage, and that was it. He busted people backward."
Still, O.J. never imagined that he would be asked to carry the ball as often as he has. Like 38 times against Notre Dame, 36 against Michigan State and 30 against both Texas and Washington. "I don't get real tired," he says. "Maybe it's because I'm anticipating that on the next carry I'll break clear. I feel like I can go all the way every time, mainly because we've got such a good line."
McKay feels that Simpson, who is 6'1" and weighs 202, is the fastest runner for his size who ever played the game. His 9.4 clocking in the 100-yard dash is an often-mentioned figure, but it is not as impressive as his 4.5 at 40 yards in football shoes. USC's other speedster, Earl the Pearl McCullouch, has done a 4.4, but he is 35 pounds lighter and one of the world's fastest high hurdlers. The two have taken turns beating each other informally in a "football 100," and Simpson has swapped victories with McCullouch in the indoor 60-yard dash.
Simpson, who has been married to his high school sweetheart four months and lives in an apartment three blocks from the USC campus, has attracted almost as much attention with his nickname—Orange Juice—as he has with his statistics. He did not get the name in southern California. He had it in San Francisco, and he is not sure, but he believes it came from some television commercial about orange juice. (His real name, Orenthal, was given him by an aunt, who, he wryly notes, used things like Stewart and James when the time came to name her own children.)
Coaches, scouts and writers have been trying to figure out all season who it is Simpson's running style reminds them of. He has exhibited the raw burst of speed that Mel Renfro had in college and some of the deceptive moves of Gale Sayers. But he also slams in there and breaks tackles like Jim Brown. Give him daylight, and he slides through with the nifty balance of Jon Arnett.
As deft as any move Simpson ever made was the one Southern Cal used to land him and keep him hooked for an extra year at City College of San Francisco when O.J. truly wanted to leave. Simpson was born and grew up in San Francisco, where his father is a custodian for the Federal Reserve Bank. When he graduated from Galileo High School, which also turned loose such athletic figures as Joe DiMaggio, Hank Luisetti and Lawson Little, his transcript was not the kind that had Harvard seeking out his father at the Federal Reserve. O.J. entered City College of San Francisco in the hope of making good enough grades to get into a major college eventually, probably California. But as soon as he put on a football suit, other schools became interested, among them USC.
"When I decided I wanted to go to USC after my first year in City College, I still did not have the grades," says Simpson. "So I had to make a big decision. Arizona State and Utah sounded good to me because I could go to either one and play ball right away. I almost enrolled at Arizona State, but the USC coaches talked me into holding out for the big time. That is the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, even if I did have to spend another year going to junior college."
By leaving the San Francisco area to go to school down south, Simpson was following at least one pair of noteworthy footsteps: Gary Beban's. "Why, Beban has been my idol," says Simpson. "Seriously. It's funny. He's from my part of the state, and I followed him closely for two years while I was in junior college. I watched him play on television, and in the Rose Bowl and all. He's great, man. It sure seems strange to be on a team now that wants to beat him."
Gary Beban, the UCLA answer to Orange Juice, is one of those athletes who do things with infuriating ease. He passes with classic form, and he runs gracefully, almost in slow motion except that he manages to turn the corners and slide through. When his passes are in the air, the ball somehow looks longer, and the spiral is perfect, as if Beban has figured out exactly how many rotations it should make. His ball handling is superb, his faking even better. But above everything else, Beban has poise.
Says a scout: "He is about the most self-assured player I've ever seen. He knows exactly what he is going to do, and he will spot things out there, file them away mentally and use them on you later. You don't judge Beban on how much he does, not on his statistics. He beats you with the 'when' he does something. Invariably it's at the perfect time."
Prothro has often said that Beban can beat you with a run, pass, fake or call, and that his ability to change plays at the scrimmage line is perhaps his finest asset. A familiar sight for three seasons has been Beban behind the center, shifting his backs, then checking, raising his head to survey the defense and shouting another play that unfolds perfectly. In the clutch.
"There's something about the way he manages things out there that gives everyone confidence," says Fullback Rick Purdy. "You just know whatever he calls is right." Not that he always does what he calls, as Purdy discovered in the Stanford game three weeks ago. Twice in scoring situations Beban announced in the huddle that Purdy would run a play simply called "power," a smash into the line, and twice Beban, without telling anyone, kept the ball and walked over for the touchdowns that rescued the Bruins from a poor day, 21-16.
"I think he should have told me, at least, what he was going to do," Purdy says. "The first time, I almost killed myself scrambling around to find the fumble when he took the ball out of my stomach."
Beban grins. "I'd seen the way the end defensed us on the play earlier, and I just knew if I kept the ball I'd fool everyone. By not telling anybody, it was even more authentic. I could hear Rick cussing because of his fumble when I went around end, and I had to laugh."
Beban comes about as close to being the cinemascopic ideal of a college star as anyone can. It has been said that he resembles a young Marlon Brando, but he is not so roughhewn as that. Personable and natural, quick-smiling and polite, he possesses, at 21, a maturity not found in all that many undergraduates. A history major, he will graduate on schedule in June with fairly decent grades.
For a football hero who is about to be proclaimed an All-America, and possibly the Heisman Trophy winner as well—in fact, for one who has been the class quarterback of the nation for three straight seasons and has come to be known as The Great One—Beban continues to live like a freshman. He shares an off-campus apartment with Larry Slagle, a tackle; John Erquiaga, a center; and Steve Stanley, a reserve fullback. Fairly good order exists. The floors are reasonably clean, the records in findable condition and all of the knobs on the TV set are intact. Two large photographs are on the wall—the touchdown catches that Beban's receivers, Kurt Altenberg and Dick Witcher, made in the comeback win over USC in 1965. A large Dallas Cowboy poster is also prominent, though Beban is sure to be drafted long before the Cowboys have a turn.
Beban insists he is the farthest thing from a big man on the UCLA campus, or a social lion. He dates irregularly, has not been on the Sunset Strip since beards began to grow and his idea of a good time is either loafing around the apartment talking football with his teammates or inviting dates over and showing a film of a game UCLA won.
"I suppose I'm rather ordinary," Beban says. Uh, huh. And O.J. Simpson is ordinary, too.
But of all the differences between USC and UCLA as their big Saturday nears, the one that matters the most is how the two teams play football. Thanks to their coaches, they have different approaches to the game.
McKay's Trojans are basically offensive-minded, though they surely play good defense. The Trojans are attackers. They move the ball from a flamboyant, well-conceived I formation that McKay himself has refined to include motion, shifting and zone-wrecking passes. It is the prettiest offense in the land, and lots of smart people are trying to copy it. Prothro's Bruins are defensive fanatics. They are fast and outlandishly aggressive. Like Alabama, Texas, Tennessee, Arkansas, all consistently provoking defensive teams, UCLA swarms on its foe, sticks him, prods him and buzzes around him. It stunts and squirms, hits and slides, penetrates and scrambles and forces mistakes. Offensively, UCLA is cool, balanced and capable of striking fast. If generalities are ever meaningful in such a highly emotional sport, it can be said that USC usually moves the ball better than it plays defense, and UCLA normally is more brutal on defense than it is overwhelming on the attack, even though games like USC's loss to Oregon State 3-0 and UCLA's 48-0 win over Washington suggest the contrary.
Since early in the season when USC and UCLA attained their top-level rankings in the national polls, trying to rate their strengths and deficiencies has been a parlor game. You gave USC a point for offense, UCLA a point for defense. You gave USC strength, but UCLA got quickness. USC had a better blocking line, but UCLA had a better pursuing defense. UCLA had the best passing, but USC had the best receiving. The kicking was even, the coaching was even, and there was no home-field advantage. At first it seemed that USC had struggled through a far more difficult schedule, beating Texas, Michigan State and Notre Dame and losing only to that champion of all upset teams, Oregon State, while UCLA had defeated only Tennessee among the respectable powers. It then occurred to analysts that the Vols might be a better team than any USC has played. On the other hand, UCLA suffered two terribly narrow escapes against weaker teams—Penn State and Stanford—that easily might have defeated the Bruins and tied Oregon State.
"We've been good when we had to," Prothro says.
And McKay replies, "We've had to be good."
For any big football game, there are more so-called intangibles than there are long-lost chums who want tickets. Intangibles involve emotion, character, voodoo, tradition and intuition.
As far as emotion goes, UCLA's players are most likely to look as if they have reached the higher, more frenzied peak, but that is how the Bruins usually look, and how Prothro encourages them to look. The Bruins will hop around like thieves trapped in a corridor. USC will be just as high for the day, but the Trojans will look a lot calmer about things, a lot more workmanlike. They have a way of going about their business almost like pros.
Finally, among other intangibles, there is a belief held by the casual, uninvolved fan in L.A. that Prothro "has McKay's number." You can hear it said almost any time the subject comes up. The theory is supported by the record, in part. They have met four times, and Prothro has won three. But there is also the somewhat conflicting contention that McKay should not have lost either of his last two games to UCLA; that he had far better material, only to have the fates torture him out of victory. This time his material is better yet, it is argued, and surely something good will happen for McKay at last.
So who will win? One day recently, a man who should be able to judge the situation well, John McKay himself, went to a blackboard and evaluated the two teams, player by player. He has a point grading system for this, and when he was through adding point by point, he totaled the figures for each team. Just like in the Hollywood script, they came out exactly equal. When that happened, McKay stepped back from the blackboard and made the least newsworthy comment of the most exciting football season Los Angeles has ever known:
"It's going to be a helluva game," he said.