O.J had sustained a slight injury but recovered in time for the UCLA game. In terms of college football games where everything was on the line, the 1967 City Game ranks above all other so-called "games of the century." The combination of the pre-game hype, the special circumstances, the excitement of the game itself, and the results of the season based on its outcome, makes it probably the greatest game ever played at this level. Few if any pro games match it, for that matter.
In 1949, Red Sanders had said, "The USC-UCLA game is not a matter of life or death. It's more important than that." Some would call this statement over-hype. Others, sacrilegious. The City Game is indeed one of the very best college rivalries in the country. Where does it rate?
The USC-Notre Dame game is an entirely different kind of affair. Considering the tradition and sheer importance of the game to college football history, it must rank first. After that, in no particular order, rank the USC-UCLA, Ohio State-Michigan, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama-Auburn and Army-Navy games.
The 2005 Orange Bowl between USC and Oklahoma matched that season's Heisman winner vs. the previous season's Heisman winner; four of the five Heisman finalists; the defending national champions, ranked number one from the pre-season on, vs. a team ranked second from the pre-season on; and both teams were unbeaten, untied, and considered two of the most storied franchises ever. It is one of the few games ever to come close to matching the pre-game bells and whistles of the '67 SC-UCLA match.
However, USC's thorough 55-19 whipping of Oklahoma ended any speculation that this would rate with the great games ever played. The 1967 City Game met all expectations and then surpassed them. The old saw is that "Hollywood couldn't write a better script." The truth is, the script at the Coliseum on November 18, 1967 was Oscar-worthy.
First, there was the Heisman campaign. Gary Beban was the pre-season favorite. As a sophomore he had engineered a stirring 14-12 "gutty little Bruin" win over Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. Now a senior, he was the perfect Heisman contender; smooth, polished, poised on and off the field. He was the epitome of what UCLA had become: first class all the way.
O.J. had entered the season a heralded junior college transfer. Heralded, for sure, but still a J.C. transfer. The idea of a J.C. transfer winning a Heisman trophy was, if not ludicrous, certainly never contemplated. In all the years since, it has never happened and no other J.C. transfer has ever even been a serious contender in his first year.
The benefit of 20/20 hindsight now sheds light on the fact that O.J. should have won the 1967 Heisman in a runaway. Juniors had won it before, but the strong predilection of voters then was to award it to a senior. The argument that says quarterbacks are more favored, and that race could have been an issue (Beban is white) do not hold up under scrutiny. Simpson had a spectacular year, but so did Beban. It was UCLA, not USC, who was ranked first in the nation coming in to the game. Beban's thunder was loud and proud!
Folks had not yet seen O.J.'s performance in two Rose Bowls, his record-breaking senior year, or his Hall of Fame pro career. In retrospect it seems impossible that a future NFL "taxi squad" player would win a prestigious award like the Heisman over a legitimate American legend. Of course, voters did see what O.J. did that day, which really makes one wonder, "What were they thinking?"
To date, USC has won seven Heisman Trophies (including Matt Leinart's two), tied with Notre Dame for the most of any college. The fact is, they should have nine. O.J. should have won in 1967, and Anthony Davis in 1974. Furthermore, had the "payola scandal" not hit, Jon Arnett may well have won for 1956. Ricky Bell (1976) and Rodney Peete (1988) seemed to have had a strong shot at it, but in fairness the right player won it over them both years. Peete was in fact the favorite who enhanced his chances in a similar "Heisman game" with Troy Aikman, but Barry Sanders was just too spectacular at season's end to deny him. Tony Dorsett was off the charts in 1976.
Aside from the Heisman race, the game was for the national championship. Whoever won would be number one, there was no doubt about that possibility. Notre Dame, Alabama, Michigan State; the "usual suspects" of the past few years were out of the picture by November 18.
Of course, while it was "for the national championship," that really meant that it would be for the opportunity to win the title, and that opportunity would come in the Rose Bowl. This meant that it was for just that…the Pacific 8 Conference title and with it the Rose Bowl, too. Then again there were all the usual nuggets of this game: city pride, bragging rights, family vs. family, brother vs. brother, husband vs. wife, office boasts, schoolyard shouts, neighborhood yelling, the whole nine yards. The closeness of two schools in the same city playing for such a thing gave it an aura unavailable to any other rivalry. Even if Cal and Stanford played for such stakes (they never have), while they are close geographically within the region of the San Francisco Bay Area, neither is in San Francisco.
Nebraska and Oklahoma are not close. The Red River connects Oklahoma and Texas, but it is a haul from Norman to Austin. They split it in the middle: Dallas. Alabama and Auburn are in the same state, but hours apart. The fact that two teams in the same city could attract the kind of players to make both national contenders, each with Heisman favorites, says as much about the wealth of athletic talent in California and the L.A. Basin as any other statement. It also demonstrates how, if one of the programs gets the hammer over the other and gets everybody, then no team in America can hope to match up with them.
At various times, this has described the situation for UCLA basketball, UCLA volleyball, USC baseball and USC track. It seemed to be the case of Pete Carroll's Trojan football team, but in 2005 UCLA demonstrated that the residual talent available in the region is still good enough to compete at the highest level. But in 1967, the difference between them was as thin as dog urine on the sidewalk.
"Never in the history of college football have two teams approached the climax of a season with so much at stake," wrote Paul Zimmerman in the Los Angeles Times.
"It was not too many years ago the Trojans owned this town," wrote Jim Murray in the Times of the fact that UCLA had won eight of the preceding 14 match-ups:
Cotton Warburton, Erny Pinckert, Johnny Baker, 'Antelope Al' Kreuger, Doyle Nave, Jim Musick were heroes.
There was a time USC used to beat UCLA twice a year.
When Howard Jones left the scene momentum and the uncertainties of the war years helped conceal the fact USC's athletic program was as bankrupt as Harvard's. A succession of comic opera searches for a coach who could wear Jones' halo ended with the University hiring somebody who was standing there all the time but not before big names were tossed about.
In 1949 Red Sanders came to UCLA from Vanderbilt and proceeded to show the West how backward its coaching techniques were. He beat Southern Cal 39-0 and later a Rose Bowl-bound USC team 34-0.
USC hired its own jester type in 1960 - cherubic, cigar-smoking Johnny McKay… It was UCLA's move and they brought up Sanders' assistant, Tommy Prothro.
UCLA promptly stopped being the movable object. USC began to look on occasion as the resistible force.
They put on another one of their cobra vs. mongoose matches Saturday. UCLA's will motor eastward from a complex of soaring architecture that looks more like Camelot than a campus. Southern Cal, which has begun to cave in old buildings around its school to drown out its trolley car past, is only a short punt away. More than the Rose Bowl is at stake. The town is. The Trojans want it back.
McKay the brooder also yearned to shut up those critics who had taken to saying that UCLA coach Tommy Prothro was smarter than he was.
"Well, we pushed 'em all over the field in 1965, but we fumbled on their one, seven and 17," McKay responded to media speculation that Prothro "had his number." "I guess he planned that."
Prothro, however, was hard to dislike. He was a class act all the way. Before the game, McKay unleashed Marv Goux.
The fiery Goux urged the Trojans to "win one for John." He held up a photo of McKay, dejected as he left the field after losing the 1966 UCLA game.
"Listen, listen," Goux said in fistic rage. "The worst thing in life is to be a prisoner. Never. I would rather die. We've been prisoners to those indecencies over there for two years. Today's the day we go free."
It was almost identical to Kirk Douglas's rhetoric in front of the gladiators who he urges to initiate a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire in the Stanley Kurbick classic, Spartacus. This was not an accident. Goux had played one of those gladiators in the film.
Goux's speech did not center on the so-called "big issues" of Rose Bowls, Heismans and national titles. He spoke of pride in the city of Los Angeles. He hit closer to home than he would using any other tactic. McKay countered Goux by telling him that the walk back to the locker room after the game would either be the longest or the shortest of their lives.
Tommy Prothro made no effort to downplay the game's importance or his team's chances behind Beban, who he said could win using the "run, pass, fake or call." Beban was indeed an expert audibler.
"There's something about the way he manages things out there that gives everyone confidence," said UCLA fullback Rick Purdy. "You just know whatever he calls is right."
When asked, however, Beban shrugged and called himself "ordinary."
Pro scouts called him "self-assured" on the field, though. He was a "gamer," not judged by statistics but by wins and losses.
USC's first nine games had revealed that O.J. could run between the tackles, dispelling any question that he was strictly an outside breakaway threat. His pre-game comments contained glowing praise for his line.
The game this time would feature plain, old-fashioned football excellence, and none of the hi-jinx that had marked many USC-UCLA contests. No UCLA students rented a plane to strafe the USC campus with blue and gold paint. Nobody at USC sealed a UCLA sororities' doors with brick and mortar. Nobody at USC planted dynamite in the UCLA bonfire. No nuts planted a bomb under the ground of the end zone, as had happened in a previous year. On that occasion, the police had gotten wind of it and dug it up. It turned out to be a smoke bomb. The culprits in that case finally confessed after a yearlong investigation.
UCLA, despite having a Heisman-quality quarterback, won with swarming defense. McKay used a mathematical formula to grade out position-by-position. When he was done he saw that both teams were exactly even.
"It's gonna be a helluva game," he said. Despite UCLA having taken over the number one ranking late in the season, USC was considered a three-point favorite. The "it" factor was their tougher schedule, but the Bruins had beaten Tennessee, who would finish second in the AP poll. They had also beaten Penn State, but the Stanford game had been a narrow margin.
"We've been good when we had to," said Prothro.
"We've had to be good," McKay countered.
Despite Goux's exhortations, UCLA players demonstrated more on-field theatrics, jumping around "like thieves trapped in a corridor," according to one observer. McKay was once described as a man who watched the game looking like "a commuter waiting for the 5:15 to Larchmont." His teams reflected his businesslike demeanor on the sidelines.
90,772 packed the old stadium. They enjoyed the added bonus of beautiful November weather. A huge national TV audience got the full treatment of sun, color, and, believe it or not, that season for the first time, the USC song girls. They have long been regarded the as most beautiful and classiest of college football cheerleaders. Other colleges have taken to dressing their hotties in skimpy outfits that more resemble something worn by strippers or porn stars. USC's girls wore sweaters, not bikinis. They could actually dance. Many public schools like UCLA have tended to take Affirmative Action to the next level, insisting that their cheerleaders include a girl of every race and ethnicity at the expense of sheer attractiveness, which is course what the (male) fans care about. Not at USC, where "the best girls get to dance."
In 1967, a student vote had been taken allowing for female cheerleaders to replace the worn out old male yell leaders who had long handled sideline chores. According to unconfirmed lore, USC had never gone to female cheerleaders even though they were popular at high school and college sporting events long before 1967. A wealthy donor had given handsomely to the school under the proviso that the only women allowed on the field would be band members.
Whether that anonymous donor passed away around 1967 or just relented is not known. What is known is that a few years later the USC Song Girls were winning national competitions. USC's women inspired the famed Laker Girls. In 1997 Sports Illustrated voted them the best in America. L.A. Times sportswriter Lonnie White, a former Trojan football star, said in his excellent book UCLA vs. USC: 75 Years Of the Greatest Rivalry in Sports, that the song girls were the "gold standard" by which all other squads are judged.
When the thing finally started Beban, who had bruised ribs, engineered a long drive topped by Greg Jones's 12-yard touchdown run. Marv Goux grimaced at the "indecency" of it. UCLA's "swarm" defense trapped O.J. throughout the first quarter. It looked like the Trojan phenom had met his match. If so, then so had his team.
USC defense saved the day early, though. Pat Cashman stepped in front of Jones, picked a Beban pass, and raced 55 yards to tie it, 7-7. Prothro later said it was a new play that he had called. It was a "stupid play," he said, one that he took the blame for because Beban had not practiced it enough. Cashman blitzed Beban in the second quarter, and his painful ribs showed in his face as he made his back to the sidelines. Still, he had gotten his team into field goal territory, but Zenon Andrusyshyn missed.
A USC reverse handoff to McCullough netted 52 yards followed by a 13-yard pass to "The Pearl," as he was called (a reference to Baltimore Bullet basketball whiz Earl "The Pearl" Monroe). O.J. ran it in from 13 out. One writer said the noise was as loud as the Normandy landings.
After the half, Beban was effective, but Andrusyshyn was not. Tall Bill Hayhoe blocked his field goal try. The Bruins held, though, and on the next possession Beban directed a tying touchdown drive, hitting halfback George Farmer from 47 yards out.
Cashman had overstepped on the play, guessing Beban would try the same "stupid" pass he had intercepted earlier. He got burned. UCLA controlled the line of scrimmage. Beban probed patiently until he had them inside the "red zone." Then 6-8, 254-pound Hayhoe sacked. Andrusyshyn began to enter the pantheon of all-time goats when his field goal try was blocked.
Beban later said he was confident despite the missed field goals because "we knew we would score again."
He was right. In analyzing this game, one can make a strong case that UCLA was indeed the better team. If they were the better team, then they were the best in the country. That being said, the game often rides on special teams and they were found wanting. They also did not have O.J.
The teams battled in the pits. Then Beban took over again. He nailed four straight passes covering 65 yards. Dave Nuttall hauled in the last for the score, but Andrusyshyn was having one of the worst days in kicking history. Kickers dread such a day. They have nightmares about it.
Up 20-14, he kicked a low one. Hayhoe got his hand on it again. McKay told the press that even though Hayhoe was tall, the purpose was to get Andrusushyn to rush, which he did.
"I call that brilliant coaching," McKay would say.
For every goat, there is a hero. In a game in which O.J. and Beban worked with equal brilliance, and Beban's team was a little better, O.J. was the difference. Amid the tensions and noise of a one-point game in the fourth quarter; with everything that can possibly ride on a college football game at stake; with fans in the stands looking at each other and saying, "This really is more important than life of death," O.J. separated himself from normal. He entered the shrine of immortality.
Toby Page was in at quarterback. He was ostensibly the starter, but hurt a lot, so he and Sogge both played. His plan was simple: hand off to O.J. Simpson. The big tailback was utterly winded. He carried twice to little effect, picked himself up and thought that at least, on third-and-long, he could "rest" for one play.
In the huddle, Page saw O.J.'s hangdog expression. He decided to try something that might net seven or eight yards for a needed first down. O.J. did not seem to have it in him at this point in the afternoon. At the line of scrimmage, Page saw both of UCLA's linebackers eagerly anticipating his predictable play selection. He audibled: "23-blast."
"That's a terrible call," O.J. said to himself. But Page had called for O.J.'s favorite play. It meant running between the tackles, not always the best method for gaining eight yards, but it caught the Bruins flat-footed. O.J. took the handoff, hit the line, juked, and ran to daylight!
It was the most memorable run of his career, pro or college. It is probably the most famous in USC history, and one of the most well remembered in collegiate annals. Guards Steve Lehner and tackle Mike Taylor opened the hole. Center Dick Allmon knocked down a befuddled Bruin linebacker. O.J. headed towards the left sideline, benefited from another block that eliminated two Bruins in one fell swoop, then swerved back up the middle. McCullough hung by his side like the Marines protecting their flank against an invading army. O.J. was off to the races.
All the commentary about the game could not match Prothro's priceless, exasperated lament to an assistant coach while the place was still in progress: "Isn't but one guy can catch Simpson now," said Prothro as McCullough whizzed by him stride-for-stride with the ball-carrying O.J., "and he's on the same team."
It was a variation on something Phillies' manager Gene Mauch said when Willie Mays had hit a home run over the fence, just beyond the outstretched glove of one of his outfielders.
"The only guy who could have caught it," mused Mauch, "hit it."
O.J.'s dash beat UCLA, 21-20. It ranks with "The Play," the famous returned-kick-lateral-through-the-band run that gave California an improbable 1982 win over John Elway and Stanford. Sports Illustrated gave it its front cover: "Showdown in L.A."
"All on one unbearable Saturday afternoon is strictly from the studio lots," wrote S.I.
In the locker room, Beban's ribs looked like an "abstract painting," but he had passed for over 300 yards. Simpson's foot was swollen and grotesque, but he had rushed for 177 yards.
"They should send the Heisman out here with two straws," wrote Jim Murray.
Beban graciously visited the Trojan locker room, a practice O.J. also did regularly throughout his career.
"O.J.," he said, "you're the best."
"Gary, you're the greatest," replied Simpson. "It's too bad one of us had to lose."
"Whether that run earns Simpson the Heisman Trophy and moves coach John McKay's Trojans back as the number one team in the nation remains for the voters to decide later," Paul Zimmerman of the Times added. "But the witnesses will remember this as one of the greatest."
"Whew!" wrote Murray.
"I'm glad I didn't go to the opera Saturday afternoon, after all. This was the first time in a long time where the advance ballyhoo didn't live up to the game.
"The last time these many cosmic events were settled by one day of battle, they struck off a commemorative stamp and elected the winner President.
"On that commemorative stamp, they can put a double image - one of UCLA's Gary Beban and one of USC's Orenthal James Simpson. They can send that Heisman Trophy out with two straws, please."
While O.J.'s extraordinary record does lead one to the conclusion that he should have been the Heisman winner, Beban, playing in pain and matching Simpson's performance, was enough to sway the voters to him in the Heisman balloting. He would have traded it for the Rose Bowl and the national championship. He goes down in history as one of the worthiest opponents ever to lace up his cleats against a Southern California football team.
"I have always said that the 1967 game was easily the highlight of my athletic career," Simpson was quoted in UCLA vs. USC: 75 Years Of the Greatest Rivalry In Sports. "It was far beyond even when I ran on the 4x100 world record team at SC and even more than the 2,000 yards. I never felt more elated or joy after any athletic event than I did after that game…
"We were coming off a real low point from a week earlier when we lost, 3-0 to Oregon State… So we were glad to have a chance to redeem ourselves and have a shot at history…
"In 1966, I attended the game as a junior college recruit for USC and saw how intense the rivalry was. I watched UCLA make a fourth quarter comeback and win. I remember thinking to myself that I would show them the next year.
Before his 64-yard run Simpson was "tired," having told Toby Page to "give me a blow. It was third and seven, and we had a passing play called. But he switched to a running play at the line of scrimmage. I was so surprised", said Simpson.
When Page did that, "UCLA went into pass mode on defense…" he continued. "When I broke outside, I could hear McKay yelling for me to go, and I was trying to zigzag. I was tired and knew that I didn't have that burst… I was so oblivious to the crowd. I just remember that I almost collapsed when Earl McCullough hugged me in the end zone."
"To this day that USC-UCLA game was the biggest college football game I've ever seen," said Steve Bisheff on The History of USC Football DVD.
"When you sat back and looked at it, the game was everything you ever dreamed of," said Beban. "It was O.J. over there, he was established, and me, we received so much attention. It was bigger than anything we ever dreamt of, for the city, the Rose Bowl and the national championship."
"We're sitting in the film room and we have a secondary coach named Dick Coury, and we're watching UCLA kick the extra point," said Fertig, "and Coach McKay says, 'Run that back,' and we said, 'Why run that back, an extra point?' and we run it back three or four times, that's what Coach Corey pointed out, was that Zenon Andrusyshyn, the first soccer-style kicker we ever saw, kicked with a low trajectory, and we put a 6-9 guy defensive end in that gap."
"We went into formation and I had told our quarterback that if we walk out and they don't got a guy on Simpson, then run the blast and give it to Simpson," said McKay. "People always asked me was I afraid somebody would catch him, and I say the only guy who could've stopped him was on our team, Earl McCullough, an Olympic caliber hurdler."
"There was nobody gonna stop him that day," recalled Stu Nahan. "The determination in his eyes, the moves he made, he was just; I don’t think I ever saw anybody run like that."
"It wasn't just me who missed him," said UCLA linebacker Don Manning. "A couple other guys had him but missed 'cause he's so shifty."
"There was still a lot of time left but Beban was hurt, he had injured his ribs, and they never scored," said Bisheff.
"When the two best players on the field play the best they can, it's just a magnificent game and everybody produces, you have a 21-20 game that goes down in history, and why shouldn't it?" said Art Spander, who was still with the Santa Monica Evening Outlook that year.
"The rest of the game was just like a blur," said Simpson. "I kept waiting for Gary Beban to bring UCLA back to take the lead, but it never happened."
"We came into the game confident," Beban said in UCLA vs. USC: 75 Years Of the Greatest Rivalry In Sports. "We were number one in the nation and we had beaten USC for the last two years. We were playing in a game that few college football players ever get because of opportunities that we created for ourselves.
"When we came on the field we had to cross the track that was filled with TV cables, and we felt the energy of the Coliseum immediately. You could tell it was going to be a special day.
"I never saw O.J.'s run because my ribs were always being worked on when I wasn't in the game. But when we came back, we still had 10 minutes. We still had time to score and we assumed that we were going to score.
"The seniors hadn't lost a game on California soil in our college careers. We were a relatively undefeated team - just two ties and three losses in three years - and we had always beaten SC in our careers. We didn't have a defeated attitude at all; we just assumed we would score.
"In the end we were disappointed. It was the end of the season and the end of a college career for me. We had gotten so close. But still we had gotten so far. That game was the best of the series. Everything in college sports was on the line: the city championship, the conference title, the Rose Bowl and the national championship. Even the Heisman. There was nothing else you could put on the table. This was the pinnacle of college football.
"What else could you ask for?"
After college, Beban was drafted by the Rams, traded to Washington, played mainly on their "taxi squad," then left the game for successful real estate career.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism