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The Great One had kept the Bruins flying, but now they move by foot
On a Saturday night almost exactly a year ago 66,000 people were in Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum. The lights were blazing, and Bill Bolden, a tall second-string UCLA sophomore quarterback, tensed himself to receive Tennessee's opening kickoff. The football floated lazily toward him like a child's balloon and then, oops, Bolden dropped it.
The Vols recovered the fumble and in four plays they had a touchdown. It was embarrassing. Eventually that night, as had happened so many times before and would happen again as the season progressed, UCLA's All-America quarterback bailed out the Bruins. They managed to get past Tennessee 20-16, a team that proved to be so good it did not lose another game.
Now, for the first time in years, UCLA—and Bolden—are going to find out what life is like without Gary Beban. The Great One, as they called him in L.A., had carried the Bruins to a 24-5-2 record in three seasons. During that period he broke most of UCLA's offensive records, and one could excuse Coach Tommy Prothro for being choked up when Gary left last June. Prothro, however, is not truly crying, for the well of talent at UCLA is far from dried up and the Prothro genius for outsmarting opponents can hardly have diminished.
Bolden is the No. 1 quarterback now, and it is only natural that he feels the burden of his new responsibilities. "It's not so much exciting as it is frightening," he says. "Everybody will be comparing me with Beban, a guy who was all-world and all-universe. It's like putting a size-2 shoe into a size-14 box."
After the trauma against Tennessee, there were occasions last year when Bolden fitted that size-14 shoebox very nicely. For example, he made a twisting 56-yard touchdown run against Washington State, and in the Syracuse game he hit Split End Ron Copeland on a 96-yard touchdown pass play.
Bolden excels as a long passer, but at shorter ranges he has his difficulties. His passes tend to float, a critical flaw against any moderately alert defense. But what Bolden can always do instead of throwing a short pass is give the ball to Bolden—for this quarterback runs even better than Beban. "He has more speed and ball-carrying skill than Beban," says Prothro. At 6'3" and 207 pounds, Bolden is stronger and tougher in the open field than The Great One.
Prothro speaks with a golden tongue about Bill Bolden, but that might be because Bolden is the only quarterback UCLA has. Still, Prothro insists that he is not gilding a lonely lily, and he adds seriously, "I just hope the rest of the team can measure up to Bolden. You know, I said that about Gary Beban three years ago and everyone thought I was crazy."
It could be that Bolden's uncertain arm will be used primarily as a threatening tactic to keep defenses from crowding up close to smother UCLA's good running game. Yet any team with the caliber of receivers that UCLA has would be foolish not to pass now and then. Ron Copeland, the 6'4" split end who does the 120-yard hurdles in 13.5, Hal Busby, a 9.4 sprinter, and Wing-back George Farmer, who does 9.8, are the kind of receivers who will catch their share of passes if Bolden just throws the ball up in the air somewhere. So there is logic to Prothro's offensive philosophy: "We'll let the opponent's defense call our plays for us. If they tighten up, we'll throw. If they spread, we'll run."