The next morning
Sanders awoke late and went to his office for a coaches' staff luncheon. He
left shortly after without saying where he was going.
At 4:30 p.m., the
shocking news cracked over the radio and press teletypes. A man identified as
Red Sanders had been found dead in a hotel room on Beverly Boulevard. The room
was registered in the name of an acquaintance of Sanders, W. T. Grimes. Also
present was a young woman named Ernestine Drake, who, she told police, did not
even know that Sanders was a football coach.
Red, they said,
had complained of the heat and humidity when he arrived in the unfashionable
hotel room. He had removed his shirt and tie and dispatched Grimes for some
refreshment—soft drinks, Grimes pointedly told police. While he was gone,
Sanders suddenly began gasping for breath and clutching his chest. He fell to
the floor. He was still there, dead, when the police ambulance arrived at the
hotel one hour later.
No one knew Red
Sanders had a bad heart—unless it was Red Sanders and some cardiologist sworn
to secrecy. But anyone with a stethoscope and a degree would have been able to
tell it. His heart was enlarged nearly twice normal. Scar tissue indicated
long-standing coronary heart disease, an advanced case.
Death is never
fortunate, but this was a particularly unfortunate way to die. For Red Sanders
moved, most often, in a level of society a great deal more proper than the one
in which death overtook him.
The plain fact
about Red Sanders as a coach and as a human being was that he had always been
good at what he did, but never lucky. The nadir of his professional career
probably came, not with the PCC penalties, but in the 1956 Rose Bowl Game.
Sanders took on one of the best football squads ever put together, the 1955
Michigan State Spartans. His outmanned athletes played brilliant chess football
for almost four quarters, gave Michigan State ground in the middle of the field
in order to stall them near the goal line.
With two minutes
to play, UCLA had wrung a 14-14 tie, had just stopped Michigan State on their
20-yard line when a field goal, rushed by their line, had missed. They had the
ball and two minutes to win, the passer to do it in Ronnie Knox.
What could have
been Red's finest moment turned to dross. Assistant Coach Jim Myers
unnecessarily signaled for the quarterback to pass. A visiting Big Ten official
spotted him and called an unusual, and seldom invoked, penalty. A comedy of
errors ensued and finally Sanders' team had to punt. The high punt soared too
high and the UCLA captain ran into the receiver. Michigan State again had the
ball near the 20. This time the field goal was good. What was to have been a
monumental triumph was just another Pacific Coast defeat.
In the dressing
room afterward, Red Sanders' face was a mask of tragedy. But he sought no
sympathy. "Sometimes," he said, "no matter what you do, you're
bound to lose. And when you do, you just have to face it."
And that may be
as apt an epitaph as any.