Near midnight something fundamental stirred in John McKay—probably the room-service chicken, or the needling telephone call that got through from a Notre Dame fan—and, amused, the USC coach stumbled out of bed, went to the motel-room door and opened it. He was met with a whoosh of cold air. "It's raining," he said. "Well, why shouldn't it? I'm in South Bend. It always rains and gets cold when I come to South Bend." He went back to bed and pulled the covers over his pajamas.
"I guarantee you it'll rain tomorrow, and be 40 degrees," he said. "Ah, USC-Notre Dame. No other game like it in college football. I know I won't be able to sleep until I decide whether to take the wind and let our guy kick it into the seats and scare hell out of 'em, or squib-kick it and recover on their 38 and let Ricky scare 'em.
"It's Notre Dame's homecoming. Biggest pep rally in the world. Good. I hope it's Knute Rockne's birthday, too. I hope they bring out all the ghosts. I guarantee you none of 'em is going to stop Ricky Bell. Oh, we'll' show 'em a couple of Saturday Evening Post plays to make them think a little, but even if they hold him to six yards in 30 carries, Ricky will make 'em pay for every inch. They'll wish they'd never seen him. I hope they don't start a fight, which is what usually happens here, because he's one guy they don't want to fight. I love Ricky Bell, but I wouldn't want to fight him."
After that it did not rain in South Bend and did not get down to 40 degrees, though it was getting there fast by kickoff and finally made it by nightfall. And instead of brushing up on their Saturday Evening Post plays, the entire USC coaching staff sat in McKay's room on Saturday morning giggling at Ghost Busters on television. Which, as McKay pointed out later, was not inappropriate.
November 3, 1975
And then McKay, after winning the right to choose, chose not to kick off with the wind but to receive against it. And Ricky Bell got in a fight with absolutely nobody. And he did not make six yards. He made 165 yards. In 40 carries. And if anything, he was more punishing on the 40th than he was on the first.
In the long history of Notre Dame-USC bloodletting no Trojan player ever carried the ball so often so far. And no other back in John McKay's 16 years at USC ever gave that lyric man such an opportunity to recycle his good lines.
Q: Why do you make Bell carry the ball so much?
A: It's not heavy.
Alternate A: Why? Is he in a union?
Q: What do you say to your fullbacks when they tell you they'd like to carry the ball, too?
A: I tell them to come to my office on Tuesday and I'll let 'em carry one.
And, finally, in a game fraught with extraneous issues (Was John McKay going to Tampa to coach the new pro team? Yes, said the Los Angeles writers, already kissing-him goodby in their columns), USC beat Notre Dame 24-17. The outcome more or less substantiated what McKay has been saying lately—that Richard Lamar (Ricky) Bell is perhaps the greatest runner in the country.
Bell has already broken USC's single-game rushing record (with 256 yards vs. Duke), is leading the country in rushing (1,233 yards in 217 carries) and is averaging 176 yards a game, a pace that would put him past Ed Marinaro's season record of 1,881 yards. He is carrying the ball almost as often as the rest of the USC team is carrying and passing and catching it. He will, says McKay, "do anything to help this team. He'd play linebacker tomorrow if we asked him."
McKay had, in fact, asked Ricky to play linebacker as a freshman. Ricky said sure. As a sophomore last year, he was asked to play fullback. Swell, "as long as I make the traveling squad." By year's end, McKay was comparing him with Sam (The Bam) Cunningham. Then, in the spring, when a shortage arose, Bell was moved to tailback—the position of Anthony Davis, O. J. Simpson and Mike Garrett before him. "At USC being the tailback is an honor," says Bell.
Under McKay being the tailback is also a load. USC tailbacks do not get time off for good behavior. They get to carry the ball one more time. Last summer Bell went to an Army-Navy store and bought some boots. He could be found at 5:30 every morning slogging on the beach at Playa del Rey. At night he unloaded freight in a meat packing plant to increase his strength and stamina. He carried a ball around with him "to get used to holding it."
Dave Levy, the USC defensive coordinator, says he thinks he knows what it must be like looking at Bell from the other side of the barrel, "all arms and elbows and knees. He runs like a blacksmith. He attacks. He's a linebacker playing tailback. Our guys call him Mad Dog. They yap when he carries the ball." Another coach says that Bell does not have O.J.'s great speed or Garrett's moves, but he grinds into you, bouncing as he hits, and then moves forward again, finding small cracks and fissures, slashing through, busting tackles, always moving forward. "From O.J. you got finesse, from Ricky Bell, fractures."
But off the field, a pussycat. "Everybody likes him," says McKay. One of seven sons of a Houston bellhop, Bell went West with his mother and two brothers nine years ago. As a youngster he helped solve family financial problems with stints as a school custodian and as a $1.65-an-hour playground assistant in the neighborhood just north of Watts. His mother gave him an ear for music (brother Archie has a rock group called The Drells) and a Baptist's compassion for people. "I never had the urge to beat people up," Bell says. "I stayed away from fights." He won't even spike a ball. "It's not my style."
Bell didn't have the urge to go to USC until he saw O.J. running for a touchdown on television and found out he was doing it two miles down the road at the Coliseum. "I didn't even know where the Coliseum was," he says. When Assistant Coach Willie Brown came to see him, Bell, defensive end-fullback for Fremont High, was wearing a jersey with the number 00. The 00 "went to the meanest man on the team," he says. "That was me." Brown was wearing a USC national championship ring. "I saw it," said Bell, "and I said, man, I want one of those. Now that I've got one, I wouldn't mind a couple more."
Comparisons with O.J. are inevitable. Like Simpson, Bell is a handsome young man with a strong face, is pleasantly outgoing and instinctively modest, and wouldn't mind at all changing those "$1.65-an-hour days" to "$1.65 a second." Last fall he switched his major to speech so he could "talk to you media guys." But the comparison with Simpson pleases him "only in the sense that it's a compliment to be mentioned in the same breath." As a runner, Bell is certainly his own man—he does not have Simpson's sliding, gliding style, but at 6'2", 215 pounds probably delivers a heavier blow in an unavoidable collision. At the same time they both seem to get stronger as a game progresses, and though Bell doesn't mind "giving a guy a piece" when he gets the chance, he prefers "the paths of least resistance."
Against Notre Dame, his paths were meant to lead as far as possible from Steve Niehaus, the celebrated 6'5", 260-pound tackle. Or to take Niehaus on wild-goose chases. With greater use of motion to influence the Notre Dame roverback and a deeper set (by a yard) for Bell on sweeps to the outside, McKay hoped to wear out the big Irish linemen, knowing there wasn't a whole lot else he could do with Niehaus, who plays so well and so recklessly. "He's like the guy with the pet gorilla," said McKay. "Somebody says, 'Where does he sleep?' The guy says, 'Anywhere he wants to.' "
From the beginning the pattern was a familiar one with Bell slowly warming to his task. On his first carry he fumbled and scrambled to recover. In his first five he gained only six yards, and was dropped by Niehaus for a three-yard loss. On its second offensive formation Notre Dame swept in front on Al Hunter's 52-yard run and every time Bell carried he was mobbed by blue shirts. Bell's longest run in the first half was 10 yards. "He's a marked man," said McKay. "So what else is new?"
In pinching down with their ends, stunting their linebackers and converging on Bell like wolves on a hunt, the Irish sacrificed themselves in other areas. "What else could we do?" said Notre Dame Coach Dan Devine. USC Quarterback Vince Evans caught the Irish massing for Bell on first down at the Notre Dame 21 in the second quarter and threw a strike to Shelton Diggs on a crossing pattern to put USC ahead 7-6, the Irish's extra-point try being deflected.
Bell had gained only 65 yards in 25 carries in the first half, and Notre Dame had blocked a punt and gone ahead 14-7. But two plays had been run that were harbingers of bad times for the Irish. The USC fullback is a 6-foot, 225-pounder from Hawaii named Mosi Tatupu, who is a fine blocker. McKay personally recruited him ("I go for the ones in the tough areas—Honolulu, Palm Springs, Las Vegas") and isn't ashamed to let him carry the ball now and then. Like Bell, Tatupu is a punishing runner.
In each of the two times he got the ball in the first half Tatupu gained more than 10 yards on a play USC calls a 25-slam. Against a five-man front the blocking is head on, and when the Irish linebackers stunted outside the tackles to jam Bell's lanes, the middle guard alone had to handle Tatupu and the center. Mosi, on a direct handoff, read the block and went to the other side, and the room he had in two plays was about as much as Bell had in 25.
Bell's two-yard run tied the score in the third quarter. If you could say a two-yard run is awesome, then Bell's was. At the line he was sealed off. He made a stutter step to the right, then cut back left and plunged headlong into a swarm of blue, somehow slicing between the tackle and end and ramming Safetyman Tim Simon into the end zone. Bodies moved under Bell's onslaught. Especially Simon's, which weighs only 170 pounds.
By the fourth quarter, attrition had taken hold. The tough, seasoned USC defense kept Notre Dame at bay save for a brief spurt when a field goal put the Irish ahead 17-14, and midway through the period the Trojans put together their most impressive drive of the season. With Tatupu getting big slabs of yardage on slams inside, the Irish began to hesitate ever so slightly before pursuing outside. And here came Bell on the power sweeps, on which he has the option to cut back at any time and run for delight. But he didn't. He strung them out, and was able to turn the corner and get one on one with the deep backs. He ran 19, 12 and 11 yards as the Trojans drove 71 in a little more than four minutes to their winning touchdown. Evans got it on a keeper left after faking to Bell inside. An interception moments later set up a USC field goal that was the wrapping.
McKay thus finishes with a 8-6-2 record over the Irish, if you are to believe his advance departure notices. Right now he is understandably mum. He is in good position for his fourth straight Rose Bowl and, on a 12-game winning streak, has better than an outside shot at his fifth national championship, which would break his tie with Bear Bryant and Frank Leahy. With folks like Ricky Bell to help in the harvest, it is a nice position to be in.