On the eve of what he called "our annual barnburner with Stanford," USC's John McKay stood contemplating the panorama from his tower suite atop Ricky's Hyatt House in Palo Alto, Calif. "Yes," he said, "this game will most probably decide who goes to the Rose Bowl." And yes, the coach added rather disconsolately, the previous week's 15-15 tie with California "blew any chance we ever had for the national championship." But then, watching the sun slip behind the distant Santa Cruz Mountains, he brightened at the thought of having already won another elusive title. "Right now," he said, savoring the moment, "I'm the most hated man in Northern California."
Wresting that distinction away from so formidable a contender as Charles O. Finley, the ogre of Oakland, is not easy. Indeed, lest anyone overlook his qualifications, McKay took time out last week to diagram what he felt would be the key play in the showdown at Stanford. It began, according to his scribblings, with the entire Trojan team sweeping to the left, stutter-stepping out of a crowded stadium exit, and then dodging a gauntlet of menacing fans lining the half-mile trek to the dressing rooms. Preaching as always that execution is everything, McKay briefed his players on the basics of surviving the long walk: "Keep your hat on. Smile. Be polite. Don't talk back. And keep moving."
As everyone in Greater Palo Alto was loudly reminded last week, this tricky maneuver was inspired by a McKay visit to Stanford Stadium two seasons ago when he and his Trojans tried to flee after a 30-21 victory. Complaining that fans "swore at us viciously" and directed "racial remarks" at his black players, McKay fumed, "I'd like to beat Stanford by 2,000 points."
As it happened, USC got ample satisfaction if not downright revenge last week, even if its winning margin came 1,976 points shy of Coach McKay's announced mark. The pregame controversy, in fact, seemed to be the final nudge pushing the Trojans out of a state of lethargy that has plagued them so far this season. The revival came none too soon for McKay. At various times he has described USC's performances this year as "spotty," "stupid," "uninspired" and, perhaps the unkindest cut of all for a proud Southern Cal team, "average." But not even McKay's biting wit, always good for a lift in a down situation, helped. "I could make those impassioned pep talks," he says, "but I figure it's better to keep the kids loose. I don't want to be responsible for any suicides."
The trouble was, the Trojans had been so loose that a shaving nick was as close as they might have come to self-destruction. That lack of do-or-die was shockingly apparent when, after McKay predicted, "We've got as good a chance as anybody to be No. 1," Southern Cal was upset in its first game by Arkansas, 22-7. Worse yet, Quarterback Pat Haden, who broke three USC records, tied two others and led the Pacific Eight in total offense and passing percentage last year, threw four interceptions and has not been the same since.
Though the Trojans went into the Stanford game with a respectable 5-1-1 record, their curtailed passing attack has caused some trying moments. Johnny McKay, the coach's son and Haden's prime receiver, says, "We had confidence in the past, but after a while it gets away from you."
Haden, resigned to throwing less than a dozen times a game, admits that his spirits, not to mention USC's ranking in passing offense, have scraped bottom. " McKay is a blocker now," he sighs, "and I'm a hand-off artist."
Anthony Davis, the man who is on the receiving end of those hand-offs more than half the time, feels that the Trojans are not as "close" as when he broke in. So he is doing his outgoing best to spread a little love around, most notably on his unsung blockers. "Linemen are like mothers looking after their babies," he says. "They make a block, and then they wonder, 'What did my back do?' "
What Davis is doing this season is breaking records right, left and up the middle. Like any potential chicken-and-peas-circuit speaker, he insists that topping 1,000 yards in rushing for the third season in a row or expanding on his Pacific Eight record of 45 touchdowns is unimportant. "My only goal is to help the team go to the Rose Bowl," he says.
What McKay has taken to asking his young charges to ponder of late is the old but critical choice: "Either you really want to play hard or you don't." Despite their disjointed behavior ("Our record is probably better than we've played," says McKay), all the Trojans apparently needed was some kind of jolt like, say, a festering controversy to bring all their talented parts together.