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John Underwood
November 20, 1978
Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and, now, this man, Charles White. There has to be a reason to explain USC's illustrious dynasty at tailback
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November 20, 1978

It's Not Just A Run Of Luck

Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and, now, this man, Charles White. There has to be a reason to explain USC's illustrious dynasty at tailback

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"We didn't even recruit a tailback this year, because none that we wanted was willing to take the bit in his mouth. But here's what happens. We recruited Marcus Allen as a defensive back out of San Diego. He's 6'3", 195, and he's terrific. He came to me this fall and said, 'Coach, I want to play tailback. I think I'm the type for the job.' He is, too. And he's getting his chance."

When the position is won, it is treated by the athlete who wins it as an almost holy calling. Garrett remembers being called into McKay's office as if for a consecration. "He said, 'Mike, you're in the public eye now. You're no longer No. 20, you're Mike Garrett. Watch how you act and what you say.' " When Bell was told he would be the USC Tailback, he took a job loading freight and slogged the beaches of Playa del Rey in boots that summer getting ready.

But like Presidents, USC Tailbacks can find the office as humbling as it is inspiring. This is partly because USC teammates do not put up with USC Tailbacks acting like USC All-Stars. Coaches tell stories of 250-pound linemen reaching across the huddle and jerking the face masks of jabbering tailbacks and telling them to "shut up and play ball." The coaches watch carefully for heads that might have grown out of helmets, or needed to be deflated in the first place.

Robinson says Backfield Coach Johnny Jackson, an ex-Marine, has practically remade White. "White sauntered into Jackson's office with two of his San Fernando buddies one afternoon last year, all wearing shades. Jackson said, 'All right, just turn around and walk out that door and don't come back until you can act like real people.' "

White a speech/communications I major—he talks of becoming another Walter Cronkite—agrees there has been a healthy improvement in his attitude. He says he no longer breaks appointments. He unswervingly says the right things about togetherness and the offensive line ("It's a pleasure to run behind those guys"). He says he must have been "out of my head when I said that stuff about the two Heismans." He says he doesn't even think about trophies or 90-yard runs anymore, just getting to the hole on time.

The best leveler, of course, is the practice field. White says that as a freshman he got knocked down so often by Gary Jeter and Walter Underwood he thought he was on the wrong team. McKay would add that this is only what an aspiring young tailback can expect when he wants to learn how to be an intelligent runner. "Anthony Davis got killed in his first practices," says McKay. "O.J. couldn't get to the line of scrimmage. The first time he ran our bag drill [a gamut of defenders throwing rock-hard pillows at runners' legs] he got knocked down every time."

It is axiomatic that USC Tailbacks have been smart enough to learn quickly what was expected of them, both as men and as players. Some were better in the classroom than others, but they all came to have a certain aptness for their role, and seem to have genuinely appreciated its impact.

It is not as easy to assess what effect the bittersweet McKay personality had on these beneficiaries of his genius. Simpson, while confessing great appreciation and respect, says the primary ingredient in their relationship when he was an undergraduate was "fear." Clarence Davis says he "couldn't adjust" to McKay as a person. Anthony Davis says, "I kept my distance." Simpson, in a kind of McKay-and-I summary, says, "If you saw him coming down the block, you'd want to run to the other side. If he saw you, you'd better have some books in your hands."

It is possible that McKay intentionally kept an arm's distance from his stars. He had a lot to get done. There were promises to keep.

But in the small hours of a recent morning in Tampa he sat in his house by the picture window overlooking the bay, munching on a postdinner grilled ham sandwich his wife Corky had made for him before turning in, and reflected almost paternally on the magnitude of the stars in his crown. Lighting a cigar, he said one of the things that pleased him most was how well those he had worked so hard to develop had turned out. The success stories they had made. Garrett in the real-estate business in San Diego after starring for eight years in the pros. O.J. making big-buck movies and electronic hay, with his football career not yet ended. Anthony Davis—on the Houston Oilers' injured-reserve list—is spending most of his time this season in California, where he is an actor, entrepreneur and businessman. He also is helping a sister graduate from USC and his brother get a law degree. After seven years as a pro, Clarence Davis is on the Oakland Raiders' injured-reserve list this season following a knee operation. Bell has bought his family a home with the bonus money he got to sign with McKay at Tampa Bay, where he is the starting tailback. Bell had said, "It's my family, man. Without them, nothing. It's once in a lifetime that things like this happen...."

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