With three events to go in the NCAA track and field championships in Seattle last weekend, UCLA, red-eyed angry because its ace long jumper James McAlister had been declared ineligible by an inane NCAA ruling, was in sixth place. USC led with 41 points, then came Oregon, Brigham Young, Kansas and the University of Texas at El Paso. The Bruins followed with 24 points.
Then their mile-relay team won in 3:04.4 and they had 34 points. "No sweat," said John Smith, who had run a 45.1 third leg, two-tenths faster than his winning time in the 440 less than an hour before. From the pole vault runway, UCLA's Fran√ßois Tracanelli looked at the scoreboard, laughed and passed to Rice's Dave Roberts, the eventual winner, at 17'3". Tracanelli had second place and its eight points in the bag. In the triple jump, UCLA had a lock on third and fourth and 10 more points. "I think," said Jim Bush, the Bruin coach and an admitted pessimist, "we have a chance." And he looked to the heavens as though expecting a thunderbolt forthwith.
"The only thing that can beat you now," a bystander said, "is another phone call from the NCAA."
Bush winched. "Don't say that," he said. "Don't even think it."
June 27, 1971
For UCLA, it had been a painful week. Less than two hours before the team bus left Los Angeles for Seattle, J. D. Morgan, the UCLA athletic director, told Bush: "McAlister has been declared ineligible."
"You've got to be kidding," said Bush.
"I wish I were," said Morgan. "You'd better tell him."
Bush stood by the waiting bus. Except for McAlister, everyone was there. Then a few minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave, the freshman football-track star (SI, May 17) arrived. Bush told him there was some bad news.
"Oh, no," said McAlister.
Bad? It was heartbreaking. Just this past year the NCAA passed a rule that all prospective college athletes had to take a nationally supervised test on a nationally designated date. The tests were to determine if the athlete was qualified to carry a 1.6 average in college. In the past, more than one school had been known to run its own tests, do its own scoring and announce its own results. And more than one school had been suspected of passing an athlete because he could spell his name with fewer than three errors.
McAlister, a good student, took and passed the test. But he took it a few weeks late. Apparently, McAlister and two other testees had arrived for the test, but without authorization slips. Although their names were on the list, a testing officer refused to let them in. They went to their high school counselor, who gave them the slips and told them of a new test date, which was set up by the test administering body in Iowa. On that day, with the same officer in charge, the trio took the test. McAlister alone passed. UCLA reported the circumstances to its conference, and for eight months no one said a word. McAlister took part in spring football practice; he competed in track.
"Then, last week the NCAA took action," said Bush. "James did nothing illegal, but someone pulled out a technicality and put on the pressure. They didn't hurt UCLA; they hurt no one but a fine, decent kid who has worked harder, was more dedicated than any athlete I've ever seen. It's cruel, and I can't say anything else without being nasty."
On that souring note, the UCLA team left Los Angeles. Behind, McAlister, in tears, put his right hand through a door panel. (It is hoped that UCLA will leave the hole in the door as a memorial to the absurdity of the NCAA. This is the same august body which previously ruled that California would have to forfeit its 1970 track and field championship because of a similar incident involving sprinter Isaac Curtis.)
"I don't know how this will affect our kids," Bush said upon arriving in Seattle. "Right now they are determined to win the championship for James. But James could have won the long jump, and would have finished no worse than third. That's anywhere from six to 10 points we lose before we even start."
Minus his long-jump star, Bush added up his point potential and decided the Bruins could finish no better than one point behind crosstown rival USC.
"I can't give you any projected scores," said Trojan Coach Vern Wolfe in turn. "I can't tell you that much about the other teams, but I can sense a victory. A lot depends on our long jumper, Henry Hines. If he can put 10 points up on the boards early, it will ignite us."
Hines didn't ignite anyone. With one attempt left he led, but then Oregon's Bouncy Moore took the runway. "Bouncy," Hines said, "you'll never beat me."
Hines was both a lousy prophet and a lousy psychologist. The inspired Moore jumped 25'9¾" to beat Hines by 3¼". But most surprising of all, UCLA's Finn Bendixen finished third, giving the Bruins six points they didn't expect. "That lit our fire," said Bush.
"Well," Hines said, looking ahead, "if it isn't us, I don't mind UCLA winning the championship. I'd like to keep it in the family. In L.A. that big rivalry between us, that's between the coaches, the press and the alumni. On the track, sure, we're rivals. But off the track we go to the same parties, go out with the same girls, talk the same jive. I just don't want Villanova or Kentucky or Oregon to win it. If all those other people are mixed in it, man, that's like having raisins in your chocolate-chip cookie mix. And I don't want any raisins in my chocolate-chip cookies."
Later, someone told Villanova's Marty Liquori, who would win his third straight NCAA outdoor mile in a meet record 3.57.6, that he had been accused of many things, but never of being a raisin in a chocolate-chip cookie. "Aw, heck," said Liquori, "you can't tell about them raisins until you've tried them."
Hines' second place in the long jump wasn't USC's only setback on Friday. In the 100, Willie Deckard, tabbed by John Carlos as the next World's Fastest Human, got a bad start, stumbled 10 yards up the track and inexplicably pulled up to finish last. In extenuation, Deckard had been sidelined all week with a combination of asthma and flu. UCLA had troubles of its own making, too. In a 440 relay heat Ronnie Welch was jostled in the passing zone, couldn't complete his handoff to Wayne Collett and the Bruins failed to qualify. This mishap probably cost them six points.
Early on Saturday, Brigham Young made a pass at the team title as Ralph Mann won the 440-yard intermediate hurdles in 49.6, the best time in the world this year. This gave the Cougars a total of 34 points, but they got only one more. "Nothing went right for us," said Mann. "Some of the guys we expected points from were injured, and that killed us. And that track, wow! It's called rubber asphalt, but I think they put in an awful lot more asphalt than rubber. If a strong headwind hadn't held me upright the last 100 yards, I don't think a guy named Ralph Mann would have won."
Be that as it may, the track didn't hurt Smith, who caught USC's Edesel Garrison in the last few strides of the quarter; Collett finished fourth, giving UCLA 14 more points. And, of course, the mile relay victory meant 10 more.
At the same time, USC was dying. Deckard, everybody's favorite, got away slowly in his 220 heat, reached out and found nothing coming out of the curve and was eliminated. "I'm just plain tired," he sighed. "I just fell apart. I just couldn't get my knees up."
Across the way, USC's Joe Antunovich, who has thrown 206 feet in practice, was finishing sixth in the discus with 178'2". He had been expected to do no worse than second. But the week before, while winding up some weight work, he ripped a ligament in his right thigh and couldn't walk until two days before the competition.
When Tracanelli came in second in the pole vault and Denny Rogers and James Butts went three-four in the triple jump, UCLA had a winning total of 52 points to USC's 41 and Oregon's 38. "I've been working for this team championship for four years," said Rogers, "but for the first three something always happened. We've always kidded about the gold-watch trip. We've finally made it. I just wish McAlister could have been here."
Then UCLA went into its yell huddle. Someone shouted from the center, "Let's hear it for McAlister."
"Hey," yelled Bush, "I want to hear that one loud and clear." He did.