SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
November 20, 1967
A national championship, a bowl bid, a conference title, a Heisman Trophy and the sanity of a city are all part of the stakes as archenemies USC and UCLA prepare for their backyard showdown
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 20, 1967

The Great One Confronts O.j.

A national championship, a bowl bid, a conference title, a Heisman Trophy and the sanity of a city are all part of the stakes as archenemies USC and UCLA prepare for their backyard showdown

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

As the real Gary Beban was saying recently, "We have an awful lot of everything around here, so there's really no such thing as a sports celebrity."

There were sports heroes in earlier days, of course, particularly at USC. Over the years no university has enjoyed more all-round athletic success than Southern California, and only Notre Dame has a more treasured football past. In the 1920s and 1930s, before professional sports turned California into a world's fair of promotion, USC was just about the only thing Los Angeles citizens could take a sporting interest in. They poured into the Coliseum to see Howard Jones's teams win that era's version of national championships. Players like Morley Drury, Russ Saunders, Erny Pinckert, Johnny Baker, Cotton Warburton, Grenny Lansdell, Harry Smith, Amby Schindler and Al Krueger enjoyed a celebrity status in L.A. unmatched by almost anyone of the 1960s except Sandy Koufax.

Although UCLA had its brief flurries of figures to worship, such as Kenny Washington in the 1930s and Bob Water-field in the 1940s, it was not until the late Red Sanders went to Westwood to coach in the 1950s that the Bruins became a force the Trojans would forever have to respect. Sanders turned UCLA into a consistent national power, won a No. 1 ranking in 1954 and established his own instant list of immortals.

Being the rivals they are, the two schools have produced some athletically oriented heroes who never suited up for a game, and a wonderfully inventive group they have been. For instance, ever since a statue of an armed Trojan warrior was unveiled in 1930 at USC, its sword repeatedly has been stolen by Bruin invaders. Tommy Trojan, which is the statue's nickname, has frequently been further victimized by daubs of blue and gold paint—UCLA's colors—and by even less acceptable materials.

The nickname, Trojans, came from a sportswriter named Owen R. Bird of the Los Angeles Times . In a moment of rare literary achievement in 1912 he wrote of the USC track team, "They worked like Trojans." And so have the pranksters throughout the football series. There was the night that USC students slipped onto the Bruins' campus with brick and mortar and sealed up all the doors and windows of a sorority house. Two UCLA students once rented a single-engine aircraft and strafed the Trojans' campus with blue and gold paint, and two other UCLA students came over in a helicopter one year and attempted to dive-bomb Tommy Trojan with fertilizer. They missed, but the neighborhood was not an inviting place for a few hours.

A group of exceptionally depraved fun-lovers once planted dynamite in the heart of UCLA's homecoming bonfire,
and when it exploded windows were shattered in Bel Air. Sometime Bel Air resident Howard Hughes obviously wasn't home that evening, or he would have bought USC and moved it to Las Vegas.

Not all of the pregame stunts have worked out, naturally. There was the time some Trojans tried to explode a smoke bomb under the UCLA yell leader's platform in the Coliseum. The timing mechanism was set for 2 p.m. so that on the kick off the Bruin cheerleaders would go up in, well, smoke. But the bomb failed. There was also the fanatic who rigged a land mine under one goal line of the Coliseum and ran the detonator wire to a certain seat—his—in the rooting section. Apparently, his aim was to prevent a touchdown at all possible cost. His plot was uncovered before he was able to blast a ballcarrier into football history.

The only rational explanation for the severity of the pranks is the intensity of the division between the schools, a form of L.A. gap that in the case of this football game extends to the two head coaches, the stars and the style of play that can be expected. USC's Johnny McKay and UCLA's Tommy Prothro are as different as the campuses they represent. Both men have produced winners, have molded All-Americas, have displayed originality and have gotten a consistent effort from their players. They rate, by any standard, among the best coaches in the country. But the similarities end quite abruptly with their reputations and their statistics. As individuals, John McKay and Tommy Prothro are about as much alike as a Trojan and a bear. They differ physically, socially and instinctively, and it is easy to imagine that they might not like one another a whole lot. Respect, yes. Like? No sir.

There are several obvious contrasts in the two men. Prothro is bigger, taller, slightly older and has been a head coach five years longer than McKay. He is quieter, more withdrawn, certainly more secretive. McKay is generally open and friendly, a wisecrack artist in his profession. It is easy to imagine Prothro as a rancher. It is just as easy to imagine McKay, a careful dresser who leans toward sun-bleached slacks, as a golf pro. Among their colleagues, Prothro most closely resembles Alabama's Bear Bryant in drawl, manner and attitude. Quick, talkative and well organized in the contemporary, gray-flannel way, McKay is similar to Texas' Darrell Royal.

For two men totally committed to their work, they lead very different lives. McKay is at present a little better entrenched in Los Angeles than Prothro, although Prothro was Red Sanders' top assistant in UCLA's glory days before going to Oregon State and manufacturing miracle teams, one of which featured Terry Baker, a Heisman Trophy winner. Prothro has been back as the head coach at UCLA only two full seasons, while McKay has been head coach at USC since 1960, has the security of a national championship behind him ('62), two Rose Bowl appearances and a couple of glittering upsets of Notre Dame, which he loves more than just about anything. McKay's circle of friends is a wide one, and he moves about the city with ease. He is perfectly comfortable in the presence of movie stars, and he knows several well, among them John Wayne and Bill Cosby, both of whom are big USC fans.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6