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As rivalries go, says Tommy Prothro, who coaches football at UCLA, the one between his school and the University of Southern California is on the mild side. He has found, he says, at least four others that are more carbonated: Mississippi and Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn, Ohio State and Michigan and, from his own experience, Oregon and Oregon State.
Prothro may not know it, but the rivalry has ripened. Some USC followers are calling Tommy Prothro names far worse than that. But Prothro is a man who raises strong emotions wherever he goes. At Penn State, for instance, there are people who still get apoplectic over a UCLA helmet they claim was so jammed with electronic equipment that a parking-lot attendant outside the stadium found himself moving cars around to calls for end sweeps and square-outs. Coach Jim Owens of Washington swore that Prothro beat him with an unethical hideout play, and at Stanford they contend that in their game against UCLA Prothro's assistants flashed baseball-type signals from the sidelines—which was not the legal thing to do during a game. Probably most shaken by Prothro, however, were the people in Memphis, Prothro's home town. Upset by officiating in a game there against Tennessee, he left with the less than friendly observation: "I'm embarrassed to be a Southerner."
The foregoing reflects the negative attitude toward James Thompson Prothro, son of a not-so-uncontroversial man himself, Doc Prothro, the former manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. There is an affirmative side that sees Tommy Prothro as a significant contributor to the game of football. Voted Coach of the Year two seasons ago, he is now, at 47, creative and daring, often brilliant and almost always a winner. A big man (6'2�" and 255 pounds), he nervously smokes on the average three packs of cigarettes a day, drinks Coke by the bucket and keeps unconventional hours. On a typical night he will stay up to 3 or 4 in the den of his $75,000 California-modern house in Sherman Oaks, a suburb of Los Angeles, working with figures and thinking about football.
"The way the guy sits up nights and works," says a colleague, "you would think he was hungry. He's well-heeled—his father is a millionaire!"
Prothro admits he has made successful investments in land and business in Arkansas, Tennessee and Oregon, but says, "Just say I'm comfortable." Papa Doc Prothro is more than comfortable. He has made a killing in business and land development in the South. Now 73 and retired, he resides with his wife in Memphis. Tommy is their only offspring.
Prothro moved from Oregon State to UCLA in 1965 and, like so many other events in his life, the change stunned both his supporters and critics. Never before had one Coast conference member swiped a head football coach from another. In justification, Athletic Director J. D. Morgan says that he had been scouting Prothro for years. "I watched what he did with inferior material at Oregon State," says Morgan. "His teams were smart and well-drilled. His record was 63-37-2 and he had only one losing season. I felt I had to get him. In our larger setup he would be a knockout."
OSU consented grudgingly to let Prothro go, possibly figuring that it couldn't hold him anyway. But all was not joy at UCLA either. Bill Barnes, the highly popular coach and a longtime friend of Prothro's, had to be fired. Morgan insists that Barnes's losing record (10-20 over his last three seasons) and nothing Prothro did was responsible for his dismissal.
The most bitter reaction to the announcement of Prothro's hiring came, not unexpectedly, from USC, which had resurfaced under a bright and energetic coach, John McKay. "We know Prothro from far back," said an unhappy member of the USC athletic department. "He's a slicker. If it would help him win he would take advantage of his Sunday school teacher."
Penn State tended to agree with this appraisal after meeting UCLA in the second game of the 1965 season at University Park, Pa. A traffic director in the parking lot with a walkie-talkie informed Penn State that he had intercepted plays recited by UCLA coaches in the press box to the quarterback. The suspicion was that the helmet of Quarterback Gary Beban was wired for sound.