Every year about this time they come, the meek of college football suddenly, breathtakingly bent on inheriting the earth. The lambs rising up to smite the butchers (mostly pollsters). Figure Pittsburgh. Never mind, you can't figure Pittsburgh. Figure Miami. Miami has a head coach, Pete Elliott, who thought he was safely out of coaching until the former Hurricane coach, Fran Curci, quit to go to Kentucky. The reason Curci left to go to Kentucky, people in Miami said, was that he took a look at Miami's 1973 schedule. Miami's schedule was a brute—Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Notre Dame, Houston, etc. And Miami's record was brutal—four straight losing seasons, accompanied in the last stages by roundelays of player strife and ill will. Furthermore, the Hurricanes were upstaged at home by the ubiquitous Dolphins. No relief was in sight. The program was sinking fast.
So into this breach steps Elliott, down from his chair as Miami's associate athletic director. Elliott knows a case of the adversities when he sees one. At Illinois he had been trapped in a slush-fund scandal that forced his dismissal in 1967. Elliott is calm, cool and collected, as well as an attractive straight-out speaker. The Miami players loved him immediately. Chuck Foreman, the ex-Hurricane now a rookie running star with the Vikings, said he wished he had another year of college "just so I could play for that man." The press adored him ("A touch of class," said The Miami Herald). The fans did not believe him. With that schedule, they had a right to be skeptical. Only 25,000 of them showed up for the Boston College game last week although Miami had already knocked off Texas and come within a breath of doing the same to Oklahoma in Norman.
It was clear enough, however, that Elliott had a way about him, and the way was working. He also had a junior running back named Woody Thompson. Thompson is equally hard to believe. (One of the things that is hard to believe about him is that he was not a starter last year.) When passing through the halls of the university athletic offices, Woody moves so slowly that George Gallet, the publicist, is afraid he will be arrested for loitering. Woody rarely smiles, says Gallet, but he makes up for it by not talking much. Woody expresses himself by running like mad through defensive lines. When last seen, Woody was running through Boston College, another surprise tough, for 178 yards in a 15-10 victory, and Miami was 3-1 and challenging for higher ground in the Top 20. Maybe you can't figure Miami after all. Put Miami aside for a moment.
Figure Missouri. Missouri is also no stranger to glory but had, since the departure of Dan Devine in 1971, been beating its spears into plowshares. The Tigers played Nebraska last week in a game that brought a record crowd to Columbia (Missouri's fans are apparently quicker to grasp a situation than Miami's) and helped erase memories of what is was like a year ago. What it was like a year ago was 62-0, Nebraska.
October 21, 1973
Al Onofrio is the Missouri coach. He is 52 years old and had been an assistant for the last 21 of those—at Arizona State and Missouri—when he was tapped in the wake of Devine's flight to the Green Bay Packers. Like Devine, Onofrio is a conservative who does not mind winning a game two field goals to one. He wears the horned-rim glasses of a deliberate inkhorn and is eminently unquotable ("Which players played well today, Al?" "Well, they all did. I wouldn't want to single out anybody"). Nevertheless, Missouri fans fell in behind Onofrio at his inaugural, their bumper stickers bespeaking allegiance: "Away We Go with Onofrio." The Missouri team then went out and won one of 11 games in 1971, and more than a few of the allies scratched out the "we go" on their stickers. Onofrio ordered no more bumper stickers be pasted around.
The 62-0 loss to Nebraska last year was rock bottom. (Onofrio's first try at the Cornhuskers was not so bad, only 36-0.) His job on the line, Onofrio then sent his team against highly ranked Notre Dame, and won 30-26. Faith restored, the Tigers went on to a 6-6 season.
But of how great a comeback dare one dream? This was Big Eight football, not Frank Sinatra. Last summer the writers who cover the conference picked Missouri to finish fifth. In September they came on tour for a closer look. This time they picked Missouri to finish fifth again. Well, fifth in the Big Eight ain't bad. But the writers were not listening, otherwise Missouri's ace running back and house speaker, Tommy Reamon, would have tipped them off.
If Woody Thompson of Miami talks with his feet. Tommy Reamon talks for his. Missouri coaches pale at this, but they do love the way Tommy runs. Among other things, Reamon announced he had chosen Missouri over Oklahoma because he did not like the Wishbone offense, that he was a great runner and did not want to waste his time blocking for Greg Pruitt. Ironically, Onofrio had put in the Wishbone last year (Reamon chafed with it for 454 yards), but reverted to the power I this fall. Reamon announced he was "back home" as an I back—at which he had made Junior College All-America at Fort Scott, Kans.—and was prepared to help bring "Missouri football back to where it used to be." He exhorted the writers to "be here to witness it."
On Saturday, many of them were, and so were 68,170 fans spilling like suds over Faurot Field (capacity 55,000) and obliterating the M on the hill behind the north end zone. When you cannot see the M it is a sure sign of fiscal success and fan acceptance. Missouri had earned it with four straight victories, including an upset of SMU, and runner-spokesman Reamon had averaged almost 100 yards a game. And now it was head-on with old No. 2-Ranked Sixty-Two-to-Nothing Nebraska.
The two teams slugged into the final three minutes in a 6-6 tie, Missouri on the strength of Greg Hill's two field goals (see?) and Nebraska on two by Rich Sanger. Then Nebraska's Randy Borg fumbled a punt that was recovered on his four-yard line by Missouri and the game went slightly mad. Missouri scored in two plays. Hill kicked the extra point and it was 13 6. Panic-stricken, and suddenly unstoppable, Nebraska zipped downfield 72 yards on the left-handed passes of David Humm, scoring in four plays, and with a minute on the clock. Still down by a point, Humm tried to pass the ball to Tony Davis for two, but the ball was deflected by Bob McRoberts, a sophomore defensive end, and grabbed off by Safety Tony Gillick.
And Missouri had pulled out the plum. Undefeated in five games, the Tigers have their best start since 1969 when they went to the Orange Bowl. Onofrio said afterward that he hadn't mentioned the 62-0 game all week. Never mind. The fans remembered. They tore down the goalposts, just like the good old days.
For teams like Miami, Pittsburgh, Tulane and Kansas, the good old days are harder to remember, but that they are coming back seems undeniable. Miami has its most exciting team since George Mira and, interestingly enough, looks as much like a Big Eight team as Missouri. It is no accident—Elliott himself and Defensive Coordinator Bob Herndon were once at Oklahoma, and two other assistants, Carl Selmer and Jim Walden, were at Nebraska under the retired Bob Devaney. It is the highly efficient, beautifully diversified Nebraska power I that they installed. Thompson, who has scored six touchdowns and averaged 103 yards a game, has found himself as an I back and is improving, says Elliott, "by leaps and bounds."
But it is more than an I back and an offense that has turned Miami around. It is an attitude. Miami has always had talented players—two were drafted in the first round and six are starters in the NFL this year—but it has been a tight, almost self-conscious team, one prone to error. Under Elliott not a nerve ending shows; hair does, from under the helmets, but the players exult over tackles and touchdowns as if they really mattered. Theirs is a loose, happy ship, and it is reflected in the fact that the Hurricanes have come from behind in every game, three times to win in the last quarter.
If you had to classify him you would probably conclude that Elliott is a humanist. He plays so many players that he gives the illusion of having two or three starting lineups, and does, in fact, employ two quarterbacks, using sophomore Kary Baker, the better passer, and senior Coy Hall interchangeably. This is sheer psychology. Elliott does not want a quarterback thinking ill of himself when taken out of a game.
It was, surprisingly enough, a third quarterback, last year's starter, Ed Carney, who came cold off the bench to beat Boston College, a big tough team that is on the verge of being good enough to challenge for the Lambert Trophy. Miami's defense, exceptional throughout (BC's touchdown came on a 100-yard kickoff return by its workhorse running back, Mike Esposito), had just repelled a final thrust at the goal when Carney came on to direct a 14-play 80-yard drive that was a model of tidiness—running plays all, and without a counter or an influence play to break the rhythm. Thompson ran for 51 yards en route, and Carney scored from the one.
Elliott says this is probably a better team than either of his Rose Bowl entries at Illinois (1963) and California (1958). Being young and still learning, it will also get better, which is good, Elliott says with a smile, because "we're still in the buzzsaw"—with Houston, Alabama and Notre Dame to come.
Like Elliott, Johnny Majors has made an immediate and dramatic change in the course of events at Pittsburgh, where the problems are similar: a big-city school with a popular professional team vying for the entertainment dollar. Unlike Miami, Pittsburgh for years has been a slag heap of mediocre players. Majors, fresh from a successful engagement at Iowa State, responded with a whirlwind recruitment that netted 72 freshmen and six junior college transfers. Five of his recruits are in the starting lineup.
But the one to beat all is a 5'11", 175-pound running back from Aliquippa, Pa. named Tony Dorsett. Dorsett turned in three consecutive 100-yard games, including a wondrous 265-yard effort against Northwestern, as Pitt tried to make up its mind whether to be good or bad. The Panthers tied heavily favored Georgia, then split with Baylor and Northwestern, winning the latter. Injured against Tulane, Dorsett sat most of that one out, and Pitt floundered 24-6. Last week, however, he was back in the lineup—and quickly into the secondary of the West Virginia Mountaineers, who never knew what hit them.
Dorsett scored on touchdown runs of 35, 12 and 12 yards, and totaled 150 yards in 24 carries. The 35-7 Pittsburgh victory was called an "upset," but it was more a vindication. Rival West Virginia has been at Pittsburgh's throat for six years, winning five games. When it was over a thick knot of cheering Pitt fans stood around clamoring for Majors to come out of the dressing room. He came out, and brought Dorsett with him.
Since 1964 Pitt has averaged about two victories a season. This year the Panthers could win six games, a Majors breakthrough that will help shore up newly won enthusiasm. Fullback Dave Janasek cannot get over the impact of winning. "People are beginning to recognize us," he says. The other night Tackle Dave Jancisin and Center Mike Carey went into a restaurant in Turtle Creek wearing their Pitt blazers. The owner picked up the tab. "That never happened before," said Janasek.
When Tulane beat Duke last week on the last-act heroics of the brothers Foley (Quarterback Steve, Wide Receiver Mike), the Greenies were 4-0 for the first time since 1934, the season they played Temple in the first Sugar Bowl game (Jan. 1, 1935). It hasn't been all downhill since but it seems that way. After three successive losers Jim Pittman produced a bowl team in 1970 but then he went off to TCU.
Bennie Ellender became the head coach. Lank, limby and unimposing, Ellender had neither the hair nor the flair of Pittman, but inside that skinny physique lived a full-bodied drive to excel. Bennie went to work. Now expectant Tulane fans can hardly wait to see what happens next. What they'd obviously like to see happen is a victory over LSU. They have already bought out the stadium (81,000) for the traditional game Dec. 1.
Like Majors, Ellender's method was to quickly achieve that time-honored cliché of football preparedness: depth. Ellender used 50 players in the first half against Pittsburgh, and alternates his first and second offensive lines at will.
Steve Foley is the guts of the offense. An exceptional athlete, his running and passing beat Boston College and his 41-yard touchdown pass precipitated Pittsburgh's downfall. Against Duke, with the score tied 17-17, Foley drove the Green Wave 56 yards in seven plays, four of them passes to brother Mike. The last (officially a three-yarder) was on a diving catch in the corner of the end zone with nine seconds remaining.
Defense, however, has been Tulane's longer suit. It held Duke to 129 yards total offense and has been the most solid at Tulane since the coaching heyday of Henry Frnka. Four of its standouts are black: Tackles Charles Hall and Nathan Bell, Cornerbacks John and Wyatt Washington (no relation). Hall made 16 unassisted tackles against Duke. Times have indeed changed in New Orleans.
The Big Eight has another surprise team in Kansas, but until now an undercurrent of skepticism surrounded its progress. Don Fambrough had stilled optimism with successive 4-7 seasons. A student selling "The Jayhawks Are For Real" stickers in Lawrence before the Minnesota game (a week prior to the trip to Tennessee) advised patrons to "buy them early—next week they'll be antiques." But Kansas hung tough against Tennessee. David Jaynes, who may be the best quarterback the Big Eight ever had, passed for 394 yards (35 for 58) and three touchdowns and almost pulled a major upset in a 28-27 breathtaker. Memphis sportswriters were awed. "I'm going home right now and fill in one spot—quarterback—on my All-America ballot," said one.
Jaynes suffered his first interception in 142 passes last week against Kansas State, but he still completed 12 of 22 for 146 yards (he now has five Big Eight passing records on 296 completions for 3,966 yards and 29 touchdowns) and, on the heels of a fortuitous fumble recovery, drove the Jayhawks 40 yards to the winning touchdown with 64 seconds left. The fans at Lawrence, no longer skeptical, turned out 52,000 strong, a record.
Fambrough, who had been a Kansas assistant for 19 years, had concluded, however, that much of his slow early foot was traceable to an inconsistent defense. So he hired Jim Dickey off Oklahoma's staff to put in the Oklahoma 5-2, and built a solid front around Nose Guard Mike Lemon, a transfer from Ellsworth Junior College in Iowa Falls, and Defensive End Dean Zook, brother of John Zook of the Atlanta Falcons. And the secondary, too, came around. Spectacularly. Through the Kansas State game it had intercepted 15 passes.
"This is a hungry football team," says Fambrough. "Hungry for recognition, hungry for rewards."
Those are not unusual traits for a football team on the make, of course. All these surprises—which, if you could have gauged the extent of their hunger, would not be surprises at all—are of similar bent. There are others. Arizona is unbeaten after five games, including last week's 22-14 victory over New Mexico; and Maryland, despite a two-point loss to North Carolina State, has been turned 180 degrees by Coach Jerry Claiborne. SMU, which used to live by the pass, now feeds on the Wishbone with its excellent running backs, Alvin Maxson and Wayne Morris, and has won three out of four.
For every one of those teams who seem to have been born with glory, who wear it regularly, like trousers (Notre Dame, USC et al.), there are those who are struggling to get it. Or to get it back. But glory is not inevitable in college football. It wasn't that long ago that Notre Dame was looking at a 2-7 record and into the face of a young Armenian named Parseghian for deliverance. It can happen. And it does.