It all came down to the mile relay, with five points going to the victor and zilch for second' place. The only way UCLA could lose was by accident. Say if one of its sub-46-second quarter-milers vanished into the San Andreas Fault. "Well, it's not impossible for us to win," sighed USC Coach Vern Wolfe, whose team was down by two points going into the final event at the Los Angeles Coliseum last weekend. But then Wolfe managed a grin. "Let's say it this way: the percentages are not with us." Against the Bruins' quarter-milers, the best percentage is hoping they'll drop the baton. You may beat their hands but never their feet.
And so it was little wonder that Jim Bush, the UCLA coach, was supremely confident. That is, until his troops gathered at the starting line, slapped palms and discovered that none of them had a baton. "Oh, no!" said Bush rushing off to the high-jump pit where the only survivors were Rick Fletcher and Dwight Stones, both of UCLA. As they jumped for personal honors, a UCLA team manager watched, idly tapping the missing baton against his right leg. "Hey!" Bush yelled. "Get that baton over to the starting line. And run!"
On the track, UCLA's John Smith, the world-record holder in the 440, stepped out of his warmup uniform, tossed it aside and began walking in tight circles. Expressionless, he seemed unaware of the 17,500 screaming fans. His long bout with mononucleosis and hepatitis over at last, Smith had already won the 440 in a meet-record 45.3 at less than full bore. Now, as he paced, he passed Edesel Garrison, the USC quarter-miler who was at once a friend and a rival. Both would run the anchor leg and earlier in the week Garrison had said that if he had the smallest of leads when they set off, USC would win.
"Yeah, well how small did he say?" Smith snapped.
May 14, 1972
"I heard an eyelash," said Reggie Echols, a UCLA sprinter.
"An eyelash?" Smith snorted. "Well, the only way he's gonna see my eyelashes is if I turn and look back."
As Smith passed, Garrison tossed his warmup uniform into the air. Smith gave him a tiny smile and they ritualistically slapped palms.
Then they were off, and for two laps USC kept it close. But suddenly—in the flicker of an eyelash—USC was dead, for Willie Deckard lost more than two seconds trying to pass the baton to Leon Brown and UCLA freshman Benny Brown hot-footed off to a 20-yard lead.
"You gotta get him, Eddie," a teammate screamed at Garrison as he waited—and waited—for the baton. Garrison looked at him as though he were crazy. To win he didn't need encouragement. He needed a .38.
Smith got the baton and smoked in 45.3; Garrison finally got his stick and jogged home in 51.2. And UCLA, by winning the relay in a meet-record 3:06.2, got the five points and the overall victory, 76-69.
Bush bounced about, pounding the backs of his happy troops and telling them how magnificent they were. In recent years he has changed from quiet conservative to mild moderate, turning in his regulation slacks and loafers for flares and boots, and he has allowed his crew cut to grow. He may think George Mc-Govern is a shade heavy, but he has been known to flash the peace sign. None of this has been lost on his team. He lets his people make many of the rules, a lot of the decisions. He won't even recruit an athlete unless the team approves. It makes for a tight, happy group. And, like USC, it makes UCLA a place the super high school athletes look to first.
In fact, the two schools get so many blue-chippers that any country—other than the U.S. and Russia—would profit by giving its Olympic team and a year's foreign aid to get the collective bunch under its own flag at Munich.
"Put those two teams together and, except for the U.S., I think they would beat any country in a dual meet," said Bush. "Yes, Russia too, if you throw out the distance races. We're both hurting there."
"Hurting?" said Milan Tiff, UCLA's brilliant triple jumper. "We're both lousy. But we're better than USC. For lousy, we're pretty good."
Bush listed his people that he thought had a good chance at making the U.S. Olympic team: Smith, naturally; Charles Rich, who has a personal best of 13.5 in the hurdles; Tiff (53'6"), James Butts (53'5¾") and Harry Freeman (53'1") in the triple jump; James McAlister, ineligible this year, in the long jump; Warren Edmonson (9.3) in the 100 and, as a long shot, Benny Brown (45.8) in the quarter. There were also the Norwegian long jumper, Finn Bendixen, and Frenchmen Fran√ßois Tracanelli, a pole vaulter, and intermediate hurdler Jean Pierre Corval, all three of whom should make their national teams.
USC's Wolfe is either more the realist or less the optimist than Bush. He said he had only three possible Olympic people: Garrison, sprinter Willie Deckard and Donald Quarrie of Jamaica in the 200. Then he forgot about the Olympics and harked back to thinking about UCLA. "I may look controlled but I'm as tight as I've ever been for an athletic contest," he said. "It's kind of silly. A little dual meet and I get so damned excited. I've got much more control at bigger meets. UCLA makes me edgy. I wake up at night, running this race in my head, then running another one." Wolfe looked at a piece of paper in his hand and threw it away. It was blank. He had tried to figure the meet but had given up before making a pencil mark. "There is so much talent on each side, how can you figure it? In this meet everybody wants to do his best ever, nobody wants to make a mistake and anything can happen. It's a war out there. Any other time and they're all friends. But Saturday we declare war, our one-day war."
The war began with UCLA's Bendixen, the first man up in the first event, long-jumping 26 feet even, a personal best, a Norwegian national mark and the winning distance. After that the lead went back and forth. For UCLA, there was Peter Jones, who was not supposed to compete because of a back injury, finishing third in the javelin; Rich winning the 120-yard hurdles (13.7); Corval the intermediates (52.0); the expected 1-2 in the triple jump, James Butts winning with a 53'3/4"; and Jeff Sakala taking the pole vault (16'6") in a jump-off that Bush didn't want. With three men tied for first and two of them from UCLA, Bush said, "Let's split the points."
"No," said Wolfe. "The NCAA rules say that a tie should be broken by a jump-off. Let's follow the rules." After Sakala had won, Wolfe said, "Let's split."
For USC, there was a sweep by Quarrie (20.6), Deckard and Leon Brown in the 220; a win by its world-record-holding sprint relay team; a last-second surge to finish 1-2 in the javelin and a 1-2 in the two-mile run.
And when 16 of 17 events were in, it was UCLA 71, USC 69 and the simple truth that Ron Gaddis, Warren Edmonson, Benny Brown and Smith were better than any four USC could muster in the mile relay. Plus that awful hand-off.
"I don't know what happened," said Leon Brown. "I think maybe Willie slowed down and leaned back, and I like to get off fast."
Brown saw Deckard and said, "Hey, did you slow up, man?"
"No," Deckard said. "You moved your hand. Instead of holding it out, you grabbed for the stick. Then you turned and your hand moved again. By then I was done. I'd run about as many steps as I was about to. You know, this is the first dual meet I've lost since the 11th grade."
"Uh-huh," said Brown. "And what a lousy way."