Anthony Davis did knee dances when he scored; Bell looked embarrassed. "Spiking," he said, "is not my style." He threw up before games. Garrett went to sleep. On a day when the Trojans were going to play Notre Dame, Craig Fertig, then the USC quarterback and now the Oregon State coach, remembers Garrett going back to his room after the team meal for a midday snooze, then falling asleep on the bus to the game. White is so intense he can hardly sleep at all.
Curiously, not one of the six gave much early evidence of excellence, at least not as a running back. O. J. Simpson had such flimsy legs as a youth he had to wear braces. His Pop Warner League coach cut him, and his high school coach made him a tackle. Clarence Davis was at first a guard in high school. Bell was a fullback-linebacker, White a wishbone fullback, Anthony Davis, an All-LA quarterback and baseball player, was so puny (5'6", 130 pounds) he was considered a better college baseball prospect.
Only one school, Arizona State, tried to recruit Simpson out of high school (his grades were poor). Only Arizona State and Oregon were interested in Clarence Davis. By then Davis had become a running back, because his high school team had got beaten up so badly by the bullies on its schedule that noboby else wanted to be caught holding the ball in his hands. Both Simpson and Davis showed their mettle by setting records in junior college.
The above is not to suggest that all this talent would have gone undiscovered had USC not turned the last shovel. The suggestion, rather, is that it is easier to see a diamond when it is sparkling in a showcase. Even at USC the casting was not always perfect. Ricky Bell played linebacker as a freshman, fullback as a sophomore. Anthony Davis was elevated from third string only when the people who played ahead of him were injured. In 1965, when Mike Garrett won the Heisman Trophy, he was named to Playboy's preseason All-America team—as a defensive back.
As for their statistics, they are not all that compelling. On the NCAA's alltime list of rushing leaders through 1977, which does not include bowl-game yardage, Tony Dorsett's record 6,082 yards is far ahead of Bell's 3,553 (15th), Anthony Davis' 3,426 (18th), Garrett's 3,221 (32nd) and Simpson's 3,124 (40th). The career totals of Archie Griffin, Ed Marinaro, Terry Miller, Earl Campbell, Joe Washington, Mike Voight, Steve Owens and Woody Green are among those separating Dorsett's from Bell's. Mike Garrett's and Charles White's averages (including Bowls) of 5.27 yards per carry (the best of the USC Tailbacks) are well under Art Luppino's record 6.59. Ed Marinaro's 209-yards-per-game single-season average is almost 40 yards better than Simpson's 170.9, fourth on the list, and Bell's 170.5, fifth. For all his workhorse image, a USC Tailback does not even hold the record for most carries in a game (Kent Kitzmann, 57), a season (Steve Owens, 358) or a career (Dorsett, 1,074). It is the dependable, recurring presence of the USC Tailback in the record books that makes the position so special. That the individual also "rises to the position," as Robinson says, to become beloved as a leader and team man (White is now so humble he doesn't even talk about one Heisman Trophy), or finds, as Bell did, "a source of strength" in it, is significant but beside the point. The point is that it is not their size, their temperament, their ability or even the speed with which they hurdle airport railings to get to the car-rental counter that sets them apart.
What distinguishes them is a very special set of circumstances that comes along every so often and makes football such a compelling game for those brooding masochists who sometimes coach it. Something happened at USC. Whether you are the football equivalent of a big-bang creationist or a steady-stater, you have to realize that something happened at USC to give life to the USC Tailback. It was a combination of the right coach (John McKay), the right philosophy (McKay's), the right formation (the power I, a McKay original) and, as the pieces de resistance, the right athletes.
Football coaches spend half their lives coaxing and shaping inconsistent youth, trying—desperately, at times—to keep here today from going tomorrow. They spend countless hours at the altars of inspiration (mostly tables strewn with coffee cups), plotting and scheming. They watch game films until their eyes roll in their sockets. They fill volumes with the ingredients of a single game plan.
Then on Saturday, when they win, coaches talk as if it were all an accident.
"Why did you close practice last week and station armed guards on the tops of nearby buildings, Coach?"
"Oh, we installed a few wrinkles, but there's nothing new in football. Fundamentals win games."