No.2: Turning the Corner in 1965

Gary Beban (Walter Iooss, SI/Getty)

We're counting down the best in the UCLA/USC rivalry...After Red Sanders death, UCLA football went into a dark age, but emerged out of it under the guidance of Tommy Prothro, and the inspired win against USC in 1965...

In my life as a Bruins fan, there've been two extended periods of uncompetitive football, what we've come to call "dark ages." (1) The immediate post Red Sanders period, and (2) A period dating from December 5th, 1998 ("Black Saturday in Miami") through to the hiring of Jim Mora.

This earlier period was, of course, brought on by the fatal heart attack, at age 53, of a legendary coach in his coaching prime. Ex-Sanders top assistant, Tommy Prothro, was the unquestioned heir apparent to Sanders but had left UCLA to take the head job at Oregon State two years before Sanders' death. Prothro had immediately turned around the floundering OSU program and felt he couldn't decently bug out of Corvallis after only two seasons.

No.5: The McPick and 13-9 -- Checking in at No. 5 in our series on UCLA-USC is the big game in 2006...
No.4: The Two-Overtime Comeback -- In the 1996 thriller, UCLA came back from a 17-point, 4th-quarter deficit...
No.3: The Goodwin Game -- In 1993, the Rose Bowl was on the line for both UCLA and USC...
Since this catastrophic death took place only days before the opening of pre-season practice in 1958, an assistant on the present Bruins staff had to be named, which, unluckily for both parties, turned out to be the line coach, George Dickerson. It quickly transpired that Dickerson was psychologically unprepared for following in such giant footsteps as Sanders'. Exit Dickerson, for personal reasons, after only three games (the third one, ironically, a shutout loss to Oregon State) and enter Bill Barnes. 31 wins, 34 losses, and 3 ties later, exit Barnes. Enter Tommy Prothro, 1965, his first season as UCLA head coach. And so we come to November 20, UCLA vs. SC at the Coliseum.

I'd just returned home from Augsburg, Germany, after having been drafted into the Army 22 months earlier, and just in time to watch Gail Goodrich, Keith Erickson, Kenny Washington and Co., sweep through the NCAA Tournament for John Wooden's second championship. Then by fall, seemingly overnight, the "dark age" of Bruin football was over. In a matter of months, Prothro had "turned the corner." It's why the victory over USC in 1965 was so significant; not only were both teams ranked in the top ten (UCLA 7th, USC 6th), and the Rose Bowl was riding on it, but it began a Golden – albeit short -- Era of UCLA football. After UCLA upset #1-ranked Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, 14-12, the Bruins finished the season ranked 4th, and Prothro had the Bruins in the top ten at the end of four of his six seasons as head coach. Heady days, BROs!

*****

After opening with a 13-3 loss to what would become perhaps the best Michigan State team ever - anchored by all-time greats -- George Webster and Bubba Smith -- Prothro's Bruins then swept their next seven games with only a 14-14 tie at Missouri to interrupt the winning streak. Gary Beban had become an overnight sensation in his first varsity season, while SC was led by Mike Garrett, a great running back (and subsequently lousy administrator). The Rose Bowl was again there for the taking.

Since SC was the designated home team, I had to venture onto their campus early in the week to buy my ticket. Walking back to my Honda scooter, ticket in hand, who should I come face to face with but John McKay himself. Like all celebrities, he was obviously used to being recognized so I merely nodded at him, with as much cool as I could muster. He wasn't a very big fella, but he gave off an intimidating vibe. Nevertheless, I'd have bet on the much bigger Prothro - a great blocking back in his salad days - in a "mano-a-mano" street fight.

Game day I remember as overcast, but that might have been due to all the incredible dramatics late in the day. SC had a huge time of possession advantage, leading in first downs, 21-12, and total offense, 424 to 334. And of that 334 figure, 135 of those yards came on three touchdowns, a 49-yard sprint by Mel Farr, and Beban's two scoring passes to Dick Witcher and Kurt Altenburg.

SC led 16-6 late in the fourth quarter and would certainly have won if not for a Trojan fumble and a perfect Bruins' onside kick recovered by Dallas Grider. Still, it was left to Beban and Altenburg to complete that unforgettable 3rd-and-long, 52-yard pass, which was intended for Farr on a wheel route down the left sideline. But Beban came off him when he saw Altenburg was clear behind the secondary and hit him perfectly in stride. UCLA 20, USC 16. I don't know exactly how much time was left, but it seems to me like something around two minutes. The details after that long pass have somehow been lost in the electricity of the moment; like the "McPick," it was literally breathtaking. (If the Coliseum was not so solidly grounded, that place would've shook.) And of course the onside kick was genius, a brilliantly thought-out Prothro gamble, which worked exactly the same, right down to Grider's recovery, in UCLA's subsequent upset rematch vs. #1 Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. Just like that… a lightning drive in minutes, a stunning pass play in seconds, and the Bruins were once again players in a city dominated by the hated Trojans.

You're up, Jim.

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