Take a kid who looks like he ought to be in a beach-party movie, give him a legendary football name and then throw him up against a ball club that is obviously suffering a mild case of the No. 1's. What have you got? You've got yourself an unbelievable opening to the 1972 college football season. You've got Mark Harmon, Old No. 7, handsome, trim, tan and dashing, and what he did in the creaky Los Angeles Coliseum last Saturday evening was beat big, fierce, overwhelming Nebraska for little, unfierce, unheralded UCLA, the basketball school.
Mark Harmon, you say? The name has a familiar ring to it. Any kin to Tom, Old 98, of the Heisman Trophy industry? Yes, as a matter of fact. The son. The articulate, grinning, stunningly talented quarterback son of Tom Harmon himself. And there he was, in his very first major college game, becoming a hit TV series. A Star Is Born.
All Mark Harmon did, with a little help from his friends, was throw a pass for a touchdown, run for another and then run and throw the Bruins to a winning field goal over the Cornhuskers in about as shocking an upset as anyone could dream up.
The final score was 20-17 and the winning points were booted with only 22 seconds to play by Efren Herrera, with Harmon holding the ball. In that instant a Coliseum crowd of 68,000 went absolutely mad, which was only a slight increase in the insanity it had displayed throughout the evening while Harmon and Pepper Rodgers' sneaky Bruins frustrated the 18-point favored Cornhuskers.
September 17, 1972
The first thing Harmon did, while his dad watched from the press box where he was announcing the drama for TV, was take the Bruins to a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter, contributing a 46-yard touchdown pass to Split End Brad Lyman. But Nebraska fussed around amid all of its fumbles and other errors to catch up by halftime. Then Harmon ran for a touchdown to put UCLA ahead 17-10 going into the fourth quarter. So Nebraska fussed around and tied the game again. Which meant that it was Harmon's turn once more.
He did it, not by actually kicking the field goal but by pulling off what became the biggest play of a big play game. UCLA was in a drive to win and Nebraska—well, mainly Nebraska's Rich Glover, who made about 7,000 tackles during the night—was hoping, by now, to salvage something with a tie.
What it came to was third down and 11 yards to go at the Nebraska 33, and very little time remaining. Harmon went back to pass from UCLA's new Wishbone, squirmed in the midst of a furious Nebraska rush, turned one way, then another, and suddenly fired as sharp a pass as any quarterback ever threw to his tight end, Jack Lassner, who was cutting across the middle of the secondary. Thirteen yards. First down. New Life. Down close. Field-goal range. Game over.
If Hollywood wanted to cast a young man in the role of football hero, Mark Harmon would be perfect. Thick blond hair, rapid smile, a beachboy tan, friendly. That's Mark. Earlier in the week, on Thursday, Harmon had tried to relax and talk about all the publicity he had already received and the big task he faced—trying to live up to it.
"Boy, am I nervous," he said. "We worked out in the Coliseum last night. I had never been down on the floor before. There wasn't anybody in there except us, but I was scared to death. I don't know what I'll do Saturday night. I just wish it would get here."
Harmon was an unknown quantity only because you never know exactly how good or bad a junior college transfer will turn out to be. He missed his senior year in high school because of injury (bad) but made All-America at Pierce Junior College (good). Still, he had only been running the Wishbone since spring practice (bad).
But now he was out in real life, pulling off this fantastic feat. Harmon had said he was nervous and jittery before the game, but he sure didn't look it. He looked poised and up to the occasion. He moved UCLA in for a field goal in the first quarter after the Bruins recovered a Nebraska fumble on the Cornhusker 35. And moments later, when Devaney's team committed another boner, it was Harmon's arm that sent the throngs roaring as they had not roared for the Bruins since Gary Beban was around.
On the first play after another fumble recovery at the Nebraska 46, Harmon faked a handoff, stepped back calmly, hiding the football, and searched downfield. He found Brad Lyman, his split end, racing toward the goalposts along with the fine Cornhusker cornerback, Joe Blahak. Harmon hit Lyman right in stride and UCLA had a 10-0 lead. At this point Tom Harmon, who ran for most of his touchdowns at Michigan, was trying to appear nonchalant and doing a fair job of it.
"That helps," he said. "That takes some pressure off of him."
And finally Mark would do it again, there at the last with the pressure back on. After his dramatic pass to Lassner, Harmon coolly watched the seconds click away as he ordered a couple of keepers for himself and one for another guy. Then he placed the ball down near his 20 and let Herrera send Nebraska back to the ranks of the ordinary teams. And then he got up and jumped 20 feet in the air.
"Amazing," Mark said later. "Just amazing. But we really had confidence. Our defense did it. They got us the ball. My dad had told me to stay calm and just play my game and that's all I tried to do. On the pass to Lassner, he was my primary and I just had time to throw it. I could see Glover getting free and coming at me."
Actually, Nebraska had been looking pretty ordinary for a team that had not lost in 32 games. It would take a CPA to list the Cornhusker mistakes, but three fumbles and two interceptions—five turnovers—were enough. Two familiar old Nebraska heroes, Johnny Rodgers and Rich Glover, certainly did their parts to prevent the loss. Rodgers returned a punt 50 yards to set up a field goal. And it was Rodgers who did his usual squirming, leaping, flitting thing to score the touchdown that tied it 10-10.
But Nebraska didn't get the ball to Rodgers often enough after that. One reason was Nebraska didn't have the ball often enough, because of the turnovers. And one reason for the turnovers was the other quarterback making his debut.
That was David Humm, the left-hander about whom Nebraskans had been raving while Jerry Tagge was quarter-backing Bob Devaney's team to two national championships. Humm probably will do all right later this season, but on Saturday night he threw two interceptions and his ball handling was far from superb. In other words, he wasn't Mark Harmon.
Another thing Nebraska obviously lacked, something UCLA had, was a good inside-outside runner. UCLA had Jim McAlister, who was finally making his debut, and indications are that he just might become the neatest thing the West Coast has seen since O.J. Simpson was cavorting on the other side of town. McAlister went 35 yards the first time he touched the football and 90 yards in all, almost breaking clear a couple of times. With his excellent speed and strong balance, UCLA's future opponents will have to worry considerably over what havoc McAlister and Harmon may wreak when they learn even more about how to operate the Wishbone.
As Bob Devaney said, "We didn't play well enough to win, obviously. We knew the winning streak had to end sometime. If there's any consolation in it, we can say that we didn't lose to a team without football players. They sure have some."
Pepper Rodgers was pretty certain of that all along.
"I knew we were great on paper, but I couldn't say it. I knew we could win, but I didn't say it. You don't want to antagonize folks like Nebraska. But we've been so good in workouts, it's been scary. I mean Harmon and McAlister and the rest. I mean real scary."
And Pepper added, "I felt like a guy with some extra aces in the deck and the other guy didn't know I could play poker."
They know now. In fact, everybody does.