There is a new, reassuring vigor in West Coast football. The recent crazy, mixed-up era of scandal and dislocation seems to be at an end, and the West, which for so long seemed suicidally bent on handing its college football audience to the pros, has begun to reassert its leadership in a region which obviously could use some.
The revival, of course, can be attributed at least in part to the University of Washington's two marvelous victories in the Rose Bowl the last two years over supposedly superior Big Ten teams. But the heart of the matter can very likely be found in California, where the high schools and the proliferating junior colleges have been producing genuinely good players at so rapid a rate that there aren't colleges enough in California to contain them. Coach Johnny Ralston of Utah State, for instance, has 26 California boys on his roster; Coach Ray Nagel at Utah has 30. Washington and Washington State depend heavily on Californians, but no out-of-state school does more than Oregon, which has 35.
If the exodus of players has had a debilitating effect on California college football, it is not immediately apparent. If anything, the big four—USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal—will be stronger generally than they were a year ago. The strongest, however, and the school climbing fastest just now is UCLA. Rid at last of the gloom that settled smoglike upon its palms and red-roofed Spanish buildings at the death in 1958 of Red Sanders, UCLA has all the players it needs to justify its present cool confidence. It has, in particular, the large, powerful and dedicated Marshall Shirk, pictured below, who, as a tackle, does everything on a football field but what his last name implies. Like so many things Californian, Shirk, at 230 pounds, is a little larger than the national median. His idol is Sam Huff, the shrewd, seismic linebacker of the New York Giants professional team, whom he somewhat resembles.
Shirk leaves the subtleties of football to others. It is his aggressiveness and his passion for blocking and tackling, in fact, that make him the superb lineman he is. If he has a fault, it is that he is overaggressive. UCLA Coach Billy Barnes would like to cure him of leaving his feet when he throws an open-field block, and of steaming in at a passer with all the flexibility of a locomotive, but not at the expense of banking the flames of Shirk's competitive heart.
A rough admirer
Young Shirk greatly admires opponents who give as good as they get. He likes to recall a Pitt- UCLA game in which he and a teammate whipsawed the Pitt quarterback as the half ended.
"The Pitt end, Mike Ditka, was way over on the other side of the field," Shirk recalls, "but he came racing toward us, yelling and screaming. One of his teammates stopped him or he would have belted us both. That toughness impressed me. Ever since then, I've wanted to be just as tough as Ditka."
Apparently he has succeeded. Ditka told a UCLA line coach that Shirk was the best college lineman he played against all year—and Pitt, of course, always plays a decidedly rough schedule.
An all-California player at Anaheim, where his father is a high school administrator, Shirk began nurturing his innate toughness as a center, but broke both thumbs in his sophomore year. Unable to handle the ball properly after that, he switched to tackle on offense and middle guard on defense, and made the transition so well that offers came from schools as far away as the Ivy League. He visited a few campuses but had no real intention of enrolling anywhere but at UCLA.
"I just liked the UCLA approach," he says. "Everything was, 'Yes, sir. No, sir,' The players never talked during the practices I saw. They worked hard and listened to the coaches. I think that kind of discipline is important to a team."