For the first time in recorded history—or at least that part of it covered by the UPI poll—USC's basketball team was rated first in the country, ahead at last of UCLA, the cocky school on the other side of town that has so many national-championship banners that it uses the old ones to sop up spilled Coke in the locker room. The Trojans had won 16 and lost none; real live people were actually showing up for the games and, more startling yet, they were beginning to yell as if they cared. UCLA not only trailed in the rankings because of a loss on its record, there were rumors of dissension.
So heady was all the talk of revolution and new boys in town and evil omens that a few oldtime Trojan basketball fans filing into the Sports Arena on Saturday night permitted themselves the delicious hope that maybe this time the third act really would be rewritten. Madame Butterfly's sailor boyfriend would return in the nick of time to save her from hara-kiri. And a wonder drug would finally be developed to save Ca-mille from consumption.
But USC does not beat UCLA in basketball, at least not when it counts. There is always a Bruin to steal an inbounds pass in the last seconds and go all the way for the winning basket, or a Bruin substitute who plays the game of his life, or a Trojan shot that rolls in and out. And so it was last week. Before a screaming, capacity crowd of 15,307 and a national television audience, UCLA won again 64-60, ruining the fun, ruining the dreams, ruining everything. The Bruins now have beaten USC 14 straight times at the Sports Arena and UCLA Coach John Wooden's 23-year record against the Trojans is 52-20.
Because of the high ranking of the two teams, what until recently had been only a vicious intracity rivalry suddenly was big news, like Muhammad Ali fighting anybody or Notre Dame playing in a bowl game. Much of the credit for the excitement should go to Bob Boyd, who took over as USC coach five seasons ago (the same year Lew Alcindor became eligible for the UCLA varsity) and decided his teams were not going to roll over and play dead for Wooden. USC lost four times that season, but in one of the defeats used a game-long freeze and forced UCLA into overtime before succumbing. Boyd was cursed at and spat on later as he made his way to the dressing room—and this was on his own home court.
Undaunted, Boyd tried the freeze again during Alcindor's senior year. USC had a two-point lead with four seconds to go, but UCLA's Lynn Shackelford hit a long jump shot at the buzzer to tie the game and the Bruins again won in overtime. The very next night, and in UCLA's own arena, Boyd chose to freeze a third time. The strategy finally paid off with a 46-44 victory. It was only the second loss in Alcindor's varsity career. Last spring Boyd's sophomore-dominated team upset UCLA in the next to last game of the regular season, but the Bruins already had clinched the league title and went on to win a fourth straight NCAA championship.
So Boyd was looking forward to this, his revenge season, and he had a walloping good team with which to make his point. Acrobatic Paul Westphal, whom Wooden had wanted badly, the only sophomore to have made all-Pacific Eight in 1970. Dennis (Mo) Layton from New Jersey, quick and a fine outside shooter. Slick passer Dana Pagett. Boyd and most other people in town felt these three guards were better than any of UCLA's. And USC had Center Ron Riley, a skinny but effective re-bounder; Forward Joe Mackey, an excellent jump shooter; and Chris Schrobilgen, a defensive specialist.
As the team rolled through its early schedule, the student body began to take notice. One group, aided by a few extroverts who were not even enrolled, decided that USC should be as tough a place to visit as any of the notorious snake pits around the country, so they named themselves the Snake Pit, bought themselves red shirts and crazy hats and began to make themselves obnoxious to opposing teams. Before Saturday Arena authorities wouldn't let them bring in the Trojan horse, which races around the Coliseum at USC football games, so one of the Pit Vipers, Jack Smiley, who weighs 355 and is known as Jack the Walrus, took on the role. He is ridden at all home games by the 120-pound coxswain from the Trojan crew.
"I think it's great that people care that much to go out and make fools of themselves," said Westphal.
As USC climbed in the polls, its trio of guards drew raves and the Snake Pit ravings. UCLA was not exactly dawdling either. Its record was 15-1, the only loss coming to Notre Dame at South Bend, and opposing coaches crowed about the front line of Steve Patterson, Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks—especially Wicks. There was no way, people said, that the Trojan guards could match those three monsters up front.
The disturbing note at UCLA was the lack of teamwork. Wooden worried about it publicly several times. Word leaked out that the NBA-ABA war was on the minds of the seniors and they were most concerned with what kind of juicy pro contract awaited them once they got this silly college business out of the way. At one point an agent who expects to represent Rowe in negotiations with the pros approached a Los Angeles sportswriter and told him his man was unhappy about all the "ink" Wicks was getting.