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THE "CARDIAC KIDS" WERE A "WILD BUNCH"
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After O.J.: the "beat goes on"

 

1967-69 was a period of momentous change in America. The Vietnam War, in the minds of many, went from being a noble effort to stop Godless Communism to immoral violence by an overbearing superpower against a small, agrarian country.

Music, hair styles, clothing, movies, TV, politics, religious values, sexual mores and the like went through drastic adjustments. A mark of great coaches was their ability to deal with the new generation of athletes. John Wooden did it at UCLA. In 1969, his UCLA Bruins won their fifth national championship in six years, but the look and attitudes of his players was vastly different from the players he had fielded in 1964.

Joe Namath of the Jets completely changed the image of the pro athlete. The former Trojan lineman John Wayne, getting the cold shoulder from the new breed of Hollywood because of his stance in the Vietnam War, made a comeback. His Green Berets had the Left wringing their hands when it was a box office hit. When he won the 1969 Best Actor Academy Award for True Grit, he lived up to what the sportswriter at Austin in 1966 had written: "Has anybody, really, ever gotten the best of John Wayne?"

Richard Nixon won the Presidency in 1968, elevating his USC alum wife, Patricia, to the role of First Lady. Nixon's staff included numerous USC and UCLA graduates. Press secretary Dwight Chapin (not related to the L.A. Times sportswriter who covered the Trojans) and Watergate figure Donald Segretti were members of what was dubbed the "USC mafia" in the film All the President's Men. Nixon disdained Harvard and the "elite East Coast establishment." He found numerous conservative thinkers who had been schooled at USC. Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman were UCLA alums. Nixon was a Southern Californian who represented the conservative, Christian-themed populace of the area. This was still a major demographic in L.A. It still is, but over time its most politically influential base has moved from the urban sprawl of Nixon's old haunts to suburban Orange County, San Diego County, the Imperial Empire, and the central valley. In the late 1960s, these were the kinds of Westerners Nixon brought with him to Washington. It was this kind of mindset that continues to be the dominant "Silent Majority" of American politics.

In July of 1969, a USC alum, Neil Armstrong, became the first man to walk on the moon. NASA had built special testing equipment, called "The Bubble," on the USC campus. Consequently several famous Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts earned advanced engineering degrees from USC. Another "military man" earned his Master's degree from USC, too. Norman Schwarzkopf, a West Point graduate and Vietnam vet, would command American forces in the victorious Persian Gulf War of 1991.  

As the country changed, filmmakers like John Milius, Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpaugh began to replace the John Fords, John Hustons, and Daryl Zanucks who made up "old Hollywood."

In 1969, Peckinpaugh, a superb director, crafted one of the film industry's most influential movies. The Wild Bunch was a Western, but the Western was changing drastically. The genre had always been heroic in nature, depicting cowboys warding off Indian attacks; chivalry towards pioneer women endangered by desperadoes, and the like. The Western was John Wayne in Red River or True Grit

How the West Was Won (1965): now that was a Western…

But fissures in the traditional John Ford-style Western had begun to appear. Shane had delved into the psychology of the gunfighter who wants to turn over a new leaf. The "Spaghetti Westerns" of Clint Eastwood fame were an entirely new depiction of the anti-hero. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid introduced modern pop music to the genre, featuring characters filled with self-doubt headed towards inevitable doom.  

But Peckinpaugh's Wild Bunch stretched itself way beyond any previous depictions of the mystical era that formed America's psychological character, influencing the image of this country among Europeans and other people throughout the world. In the film, which stars Ernest Borgnine and William Holden, a group of American mercenaries "take a job" in Mexico. The idea is to make "one last score" before the aging hired guns retire. Calling it a Western is a stretch, since it is set in Mexico during the time of Pancho Villa's 1913 Mexican "revolution," when bandits raided U.S. border towns in an effort to regain "lost territory."

The film depicts intense violence, much of it emanating from the barrel of a machine gun. Slow motion editing of literal bloodlettings shocked audiences at the time. Bullets exploding into flesh and anguished death scenes mark the film. It is an authentic American classic, but it was very controversial for its time.

The term Wild Bunch became something of a cultural catchphrase that could be applied to any group of high-spirited, physically aggressive men. So it was that the 1969 USC Trojan defensive line became known forever as "The Wild Bunch." 

So good were these Trojans, and so well remembered are they in collegiate football annals, that a statue depicting them was erected on the USC campus. When Pete Carroll took over, he channeled that same spirit, creating "The Wild Bunch II" as he resurrected USC's football team back into national championship form. 

The 1969 "Wild Bunch" defensive front consisted of ends Jimmy Gunn and Charlie Weaver, tackles Al Cowlings and Tody Smith, and middle guard Bubba Scott. They would be a part of USC history in more ways than one.  

 

In 1969, John McKay did his best coaching. Just as Wooden was able to keep his Bruins on top after the departure of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), McKay was able to do the same with a USC team now devoid of the enormous presence of O.J. Simpson. Furthermore, while Wooden was able to adjust to a new generation, so too did McKay. The Trojans of 1969-71 are a team that had many people scratching their heads. The '69 Trojans were ranked fifth coming in, but that was homage to the program McKay had developed. They were filled with question marks.

In 1969, they answered all those questions. Then, in 1970 and 1971, when they were more mature and expectations were sky high, they disappointed. Why? The answer to this question was kept under the surface for many years. 

"I always wondered why a team filled with All-Americans played so far beneath their ability," announcer Tom Kelly said of the 1970-71 teams. The answer: race.

USC had always offered opportunities to black athletes. Willie Wood was a black quarterback under Don Clark in the late 1950s. McKay was a racial hero, of sorts, when it came to providing opportunities for black players. But in 1969 USC started a sophomore black quarterback named Jimmy Jones. Jones was different from previous black quarterbacks. There were none in the NFL and very few in college ball, outside of traditional black colleges. 

Minnesota had a black quarterback in 1962. Jimmy Raye was a black quarterback at Michigan State when they played the "game of the century" against Notre Dame. But Jones was different. He was a "traditional" dropback-in-the-pocket passer. Previous black quarterbacks were thought to be "athletes," more glorified running backs than a passer in the mold of Johnny Unitas or Sonny Jurgensen. 

In truth, Jones was athletic. He could scramble and run, and often did. He was multi-dimensional, not really considered an NFL-style passer. But he did not run an option, which was a fairly new offensive scheme that had recently been introduced and would, in that year, be utilized to near-perfection by Texas.

Despite suffering injuries in high school, Jones had passed and run for 2,300 yards and 20 touchdowns in his junior year, then 2,400 yards with 40 touchdowns in his senior year. He chose Southern California because of "USC's record, the chance to live in California, the Rose Bowl, the weather, and the offense."

That about said it all when it came to the advantages of USC, especially under John McKay in the 1960s. Jones was solid playing on the 1968 USC freshman team, but it was by no means a lock that he would start as a mere sophomore, a feat in and of itself, especially under McKay. 

"If he went into a game with more than two or three pass patterns he was damn lucky," said McKay. "The freshmen here just don't work together as a unit. That's not their job. Their job is to help the varsity get ready each week."

Coming all the way from Pennsylvania, Jones was impatient. He also concerned because of the racial questions.

"Everybody used to tell me blacks couldn't play quarterback," he told reporters before his sophomore year. "They said they were going to switch me to halfback when I got to high school, but that made me more determined to show what I could do at quarterback. There are lots of blacks who can play quarterback but never do. It's just that they never get the chance. There's too many people who have them stereotyped, who think they can't do the job."

Jones earned the starting job for the "race-neutral" McKay by completing 19 passes for 392 yards and five touchdowns in 30 minutes - extraordinary numbers for the spring game!

While Jones' presence and the harmonious nature of USC football would face challenges and changes, his first year gave no indication that the good times would stop rolling at USC any time soon. 

1969 was the 100th anniversary of college football. USC introduced a few modifications in their uniform style, and in that one season wore helmets that said "100" inside a football.

Jones was the man who would lead USC. He was an enormous recruit out of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and it was anticipated that he would bring about a change in USC's offensive schemes. Without O.J., the Trojans were expected to pass more. Jones was different from many of the black athletes who traveled long distances from home to play at schools in the North or the West. Many, like Tody Smith, were Southerners who were not welcome at colleges in the regions where they grew up. But Jones could have played at Pittsburgh, Penn State, or in the Big 10, which was closer to home. But like many kids in America, he was mesmerized by the images of the Rose Bowl on television. That meant: USC in the Rose Bowl on television; the horse, the cheerleaders, the success. Maybe even a Heisman Trophy for good measure?

From 1969 to 1971, Jones broke all of USC's previous passing marks - 4,092 yards and 30 touchdowns. His 4,501 yards in total offense beat O.J.'s record. But in 1969, Jones was not about statistics or even just winning. He was about excitement. 

"His stock-in-trade became known as the Jimmy Jones Late Show, which was full of surprises and spiced with as much agony as ecstasy," noted L.A. Times sportswriter Jeff Prugh. "The format generally ran like this: put 'em to sleep for 57 minutes, then give everybody an electro-shock treatment in the final three minutes."

The Trojans had always been known for dramatics and comebacks. The 1931 game at Notre Dame, and the 1964 game vs. the Irish in L.A., embodied the kind of last-minute victories that gave flair to the program. But Jones started a tradition that eclipsed all previous late-game heroics. What he started would continue, and throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the Southern Cal Trojans were probably the most exciting two-minute comeback offense in the history of the game.

USC opened the season with a major challenge: Bob DeVaney's Nebraska Cornhuskers on the road. Another big challenge was Jones's throbbing back, which made him questionable until game time. Then he told McKay, "I think I can run." McKay's concern was not just Nebraska, but his sophomore's future, which he did not want to endanger in his first varsity game. Finally, the "little white-haired man" gave Jones the okay with strict orders to hand off to Clarence Davis, not run, which of course was at least half of what made Jones effective in the first place.

Before 67,058 "Big Red" supporters in Lincoln, Jones engineered a steady drumbeat of offense in a 31-21 win. In many ways, the victory foreshadowed Matt Leinart's sophomore debut at Auburn in 2003, a 23-0 victory in a hostile environment.

The game was not only the first game for Jones, but the first game for junior college transfer tailback Clarence Davis. Jones was succeeding Steve Sogge. Davis was trying to fill O.J.'s shoes in a run-dominated offense. 

The press had tried to hype the low key Davis, calling him "Lemonade," but the nickname never stuck. Davis had been born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved with his mother to Bronx, New York as a child. At 13, he went with her to Los Angeles when she came out for a job opportunity. Davis was not big, and not a running back at Washington High School. At East L.A. Junior College he came into his own, actually breaking many of Simpson's seemingly unbreakable records set at City College of San Francisco.

In the initial drive, Davis ran for 57 of the 80 yards, with Mike Berry plunging in from the one to make it 7-0. Jones struggled with his early passing until connecting with Bob Chandler. The Trojans led 14-0. Jones was not perfect with his reads and he did fumble.

"Sophomores will do that," McKay said. "But I'd still rather have the superior sophomore to the just-average senior."

McKay told the media that he planned to stick with Jones even if he did make sophomore errors. He was true to his word. Davis added 114 yards in the win, which was pointed out to be 20 yards more than O.J. in his USC debut of 1967.

Jones struggled with back pain, but his confidence soared. 

On October 11, Jim Plunkett led the Stanford Indians into the Coliseum. 82,812 showed up to see the fourth-ranked 3-0 Trojans in a night game against a very talented 16th-ranked team. 

It was just as Prugh described. USC and Jones seemed to be in the doldrums. Plunkett drove Stanford up and down the field. The big crowd was frustrated. The talented Trojans just seemed unable to play up to their potential…until the end. Trailing 24-23 with 85 yards to go and a minute left, Jones drove the Trojans down the field while the crowd went out of their cotton-pickin' minds. 82,000 throats filled the air with every kind of invective and invocation when Ron Ayala stepped forward to boot a game-winning 34-yard field goal, giving his team victory by the narrowest of margins. 

The following week, however, the 1968 tie game vs. Notre Dame repeated itself. The Irish had been upset by Purdue, but the oddsmakers liked Joe Theisman's experience compared to the sophomore Jones. Notre Dame was a four-point favorite playing at home. 

The first half was scoreless, but Notre Dame executed a 75-yard march for a third quarter touchdown to lead 7-0. Jones responded by hitting Terry DeKraii for 18 yards to tie it. His pass to wide receiver Sam Dickerson in the fourth quarter gave USC the 14-7 edge. 

Theisman came roaring back twice. First he led a touchdown drive to tie it. After getting the ball back they seemed on the verge of victory at the USC three when the "Wild Bunch" earned their nickname, stuffing the Irish. Then they harried kicker Scott Hempel's 38-yard field goal try. The ball kicked back after striking the cross bar. 

USC had blown chances, too, which included Charlie Evans's fumble, Ayala's missing an easy field goal try, and Clarence Davis's 15-yard touchdown run nullified by a penalty.

Georgia Tech came to town the next week. The Yellow Jackets, like almost all Southern teams, were still segregated. Wake Forest had fielded a token black player. Tennessee had a wingback named Lester McClain. Alabama had a couple of walk-ons who did not play. UCLA had played some Southern teams in recent years. McKay's teams played them fairly regularly. Jones engineered a 29-18 win. Few people saw much significance in the game, but football and society would soon meet at the 50-yard line.

The 1969 City Game did not have all the bells and whistles of the 1967 clash, but it was a classic of epic proportions. Fifth-ranked 8-0-1 USC met sixth-ranked 8-0-1 UCLA before 90,814 at the Coliseum. Two of those fans were seniors from Redwood High School near San Francisco. Pete Carroll and a pal made the 400-mile drive to see this game, and it had a lasting impression on them.

There were no Heisman hopefuls and the game had little chance of affecting the national championship. Heading into the "rivalry games" of 1969, those goals seemed to be most legitimately held by Ohio State, Texas, Arkansas and Penn State. USC's tie with Notre Dame was the only thing that had marred their season.

The 1969 Oho State Buckeyes entered the season thought by some experts to be the greatest team of all time. All the stars of their 1968 title team were back. When they beat Northwestern in an early season game that engendered the gasping Sports Illustrated headline "62-0!" they seemed destined for greatness.

The no-repeat rule still stood in the way of a Rose Bowl repeat with USC, or whomever the Pac-8 sent. All the cards were on the table at Columbus when underdog Michigan came to town. Ohio State scored the first two touchdowns, but missed both extra points. Michigan rallied from the 12-0 deficit to win a shocker, 24-12.

USC still had Texas, Arkansas and Penn State ahead of them with undefeated, untied records. Texas traveled to Arkansas, and suddenly the media was saying that this was the "game of the century" only three years after the Michigan State-Notre Dame game.

President Nixon realized for the first time that the South, previously thought to be the safest of Democrat voting blocs, was a new constituency of his. It was there where he found support for the Vietnam War and the cornerstone of the Silent Majority of Christian conservatives who made up his and, ultimately, the Republican Party's strongest base. This was partially on his mind when he traveled to Fayetteville for the Texas-Arkansas game. Texas rallied from 14-0 down in the fourth quarter to win, 15-14.

After the game, Nixon told Darrell Royal that the Longhorns were the national champions. Of course, Penn State was unbeaten with the Orange Bowl still to play. They rightfully asked why the former Whittier College "tackling dummy" suddenly seemed to usurp the AP and the UPI. 

Then there was USC and UCLA. Going into their game, both teams still had legitimate hopes at finishing number one. Notre Dame decided to end their "no bowl" policy. If they could beat Texas in the Cotton Bowl, and if Penn State would lose, then the Rose Bowl could decide the national champion.

It was not to be. Texas rallied to beat Theisman and the Irish in a thrilling Cotton Bowl, 21-17 to earn the number one ranking. Penn State won their bowl, so their number two finish sparked plenty of bar room argument about bias against Eastern football. The need for a play-off system was more obvious than ever.

Before any of that, Southern California and Jimmy Jones had another rabbit to pull out of their hats. They called USC the "Cardiac Kids" after their 14-12 win over UCLA. It was even more amazing than the last-second win over Stanford.

UCLA quarterback Dennis Dummit threw a 41-yard touchdown strike, but Charlie Weaver broke up the Bruins' ill-advised two-point conversion try. Clarence Davis went in from 13 yards out to put USC ahead, 7-6. The Wild Bunch took over.  Highlights of the game show some blows that were truly mind-boggling, including one laid on Dummit by Weaver that is remarkable in that Dummit rose to played again.

Dummit did more than play again. He shook himself off to hit Brad Lyman for 57 yards, then Gwen Cooper from the seven. However, another two-point try failed, so the 12-7 UCLA lead was vulnerable. 

Jones had one of those "57-minute" games Jeff Prugh described. He still had the three he needed, starting it from the USC 32. Jones got nothing done. It was desperation time: fourth-and-10. He looked for Sam Dickerson and overthrew him, but a pass interference call that is questioned to this day in Westwood was called. USC had the ball on the Bruin 32. 

Given life, Jones went for Dickerson again in the corner of the end zone. This time the catch was made to give Southern California a stirring 14-12 win. 

"It was so quiet you could hear a rose petal fall," wrote Dwight Chapin in the Los Angeles Times. "The only sound in the UCLA locker room was the occasional slam of a door as the players slowly made their way out of their cubicles and to the showers. The sound of the doors swinging shut would crack and then it would be quiet - very quiet - again.

"Some of them sobbed behind those locker room doors, unbelieving, waiting in the solitude for the reprieve that wasn't to come. It was Danny Graham, the young man of misfortune, the young man guilty of pass interference that gave USC life - and later the ball game - who was able to articulate the sorrow best."

"It seems," he said, "like my whole life just went down the drain."

Not so. The USC-UCLA game is competition, rivalry and tradition at its very best. Graham was lucky to have been part of it. USC has enjoyed its fair share of glory, but so too has UCLA. The game, like the USC-Notre Dame game, has elevated both programs to greater heights than either one would have achieved without the other. Graham gave a noble effort. Those wearing Cardinal and Gold or baby blue have known this noble effort. They have known the agonies and ecstasies of a great game. It is the essence of what sports is all about. Of course, Graham's life did not go "down the drain." People do not live or die based on the outcome of a sporting match, no matter what Red Sanders used to say. 

The Rose Bowl was anti-climatic, in a sense. It was for USC after the UCLA game. Perhaps it was for a Michigan team that had given the full measure of themselves in the Herculean effort needed to beat Ohio State. Jones hit Bob Chandler, who made a long sideline run for a touchdown. 

"I showed 'em," said Jones. "I've got two years of eligibility to go in college, and I think I'll get better."

The "Wild Bunch" was too much for Michigan quarterback Don Moorehead, and USC won, 10-3. 

The Wolverines could also be excused for having their minds on the health of their new coach, Bo Schembechler. He suffered a mild heart attack and missed the game.  

"Southern Cal just punched us around and constantly kept us in bad field position," said Michigan middle guard Henry Hill. 

 

The 5-11, 190-pound Davis finished his season with 1,351 yards, earning first team All-American honors. The writers were quick to point out that had it not been for Garrett and Simpson, Davis would have gone down as the school's greatest rusher. 

"I don't want to be another Garrett or O.J.," Davis said. "Football is fun, especially when the big boys block for you. I'm not putting down how tough it is. It's a hard game. It hurts a lot sometimes. But it's the losing game that hurts more often than all the bumps and bruises. Playing is fun and winning is wonderful."

Aside from the Wild Bunch, Tony Terry and Gary MacArthur played well on defense. As the season developed, and the nickname spread, the USC fans would chant, "Wild Bunch." 

"The objective of defense is to seek out the ball carrier and separate him from the ball," explained Marv Goux. "Warner Bothers should consider our group for its next Western."

The USC publicity office set up photo shoots of the players dressed in cowboy garb complete with six-shooters. Gunn and Cowlings were both All-Americans. McKay said the Wild Bunch was the best defensive line he ever had at Southern California. Cowlings took his childhood experiences with Simpson, translating them to the football field. He was a self-described neighborhood "bully" who had learned to channel that behavior into on-field mayhem. 

The 6-5, 245-pound Cowlings continued to walk a remarkable path seemingly forged by O.J.: first round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills, where he played for three years with his friend. He then played for the Oilers, Rams and Seahawks before re-uniting again with O.J. in their mutual hometown of San Francisco in 1979. His efforts in Hollywood were a continuation of that path, with little success.

Tody Smith was the brother of Baltimore Colts' superstar Bubba Smith. 

"The only difference between me and Tody is that when I get them down I let them up," said Bubba.

The All-American defensive end Gunn, who came out of San Diego's Lincoln High (Marcus Allen's alma mater), played for the Bears, Giants, for one year under McKay at Tampa Bay, before retiring and entering USC's Hall of Fame.

6-4, 267-pound offensive tackle Sid Smith, out of Wilson High in Long Beach, made All-American. He was a first round selection of Kansas City, playing in the NFL until 1974.  

Other drafted players: Gary McArthur (San Francisco), Sandy Durko (Bengals), Tony Terry (Lions), Gary Orcutt (Falcons) and Don Crenshaw (Rams). Back-up quarterback Mike Holmgren had come to USC a highly touted prep from San Francisco's Lowell High School, but he never got the nod. He was drafted in the 13th round by Chicago, and eventually went into coaching. In 1996 he and quarterback Brett Favre led the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory. 

Whether it was Nixon's influence or not, Texas finished number one in 1969. A review of old Sporting News and Sports Illustrated's reveals nary a mention at the time that the Longhorns were all white.

 

 

 

 

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