When Plunkett Kept His Promise: 10-10-70

There are football games and then there are cathartic experiences that last a lifetime. The Bootleg's Stan De Vaughn recalls one of life's indelible moments, Stanford's epic victory over USC at Stanford Stadium in 1970. In a tumultuous era in which the status quo was often questioned, Jim Plunkett and his Stanford teammates upset dramatically college football's then-current state of affairs.

When Plunkett Kept His Promise: October 10, 1970


That Clear and Promising Saturday When Plunkett Kept His Promise
 

The tiny, non-descript ads began their daily appearance in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury-News not long after Stanford kicked off its 1970 football campaign, on the road, in early September. It was an auspicious beginning to a rose-colored season. And it was the very first time Stanford would play 11 regular-season games.  Hard by the steam of the Ozarks, against the fourth-ranked University of Arkansas on national television, the then-Indians (ranked #10 at the time) prevailed over the Razorbacks, 34-28. Stanford had led at half-time, 27-7. The Rose Bowl Express had left the station!  

 

In the broadcast booth, ABC-TV's Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson couldn't say enough about Stanford's "pro-set" offense, a rarity in the schoolboy game of that era.  Wilkinson, during the wrap-up, went so far as to call Jim Plunkett's performance in this game "the greatest job of quarterbacking I've ever seen".  No small compliment coming from the legendary ex-coach of the University of Oklahoma, who had seen his fair share of talent.  It was nationwide exposure for the LSJUMB, as well.  Rising (or sinking, depending on your point of view) to the occasion, drum major Geordie Lawry donned underwater mask and fins, and led the Incomparables with a snorkel.  The surfin'-music repertoire that day, presciently included "Little Old Lady from Pasadena".  Hey, even back then, this was still a Stanford game.

 

But back to those ads. One-column wide, couple of inches deep, buried in the margins along with notices from the barbershops, muffler makers and charter fishing trips.  The headline said it all:  "Bigger Than The Rose Bowl!", they read. "USC vs. Stanford, October 10, Palo Alto." 

 

That was it.  No splashy graphics, no giveaways, no enticements of pre-game diversionary frolics for the small-fry. No free tickets. Just a simple proclamation.  Considering it was something the college football universe had been anticipating for a year, was further adieu really necessary?  The moment had arrived. In the short countdown of days leading up to The Game, anticipation was bumping the top of the thermometer.  Northern California had a raging case of "Stanford-USC Fever".  And it was resonating coast to coast.     

 

This weekend's matchup against USC, of course, marks the 40th anniversary of that 1970 clash with the Trojans.  As for that moment of yesteryear, it is one that many, especially those who attended, consider one of the most significant, emotional and satisfying regular-season wins in school history.  I was there.  Honestly, I've never seen a more memorable game of any kind, anywhere, played by any team.

 

So what, exactly, made this such a big deal?  Why is it that after 40 autumns it's recalled with such fond satisfaction by so many?  And how did it get the billing as "bigger than the Rose Bowl"?   

 

Was it the sign-of-the-sorry-times bomb scare the day of the game when callers, identifying themselves as the Marin County cell of the infamous "Weathermen" (yes, Marin County), announced that a packed Stanford Stadium was their next target?  Was it the concert by Sly and the Family Stone at Frost Amphitheater, the night before?  (Could  Sly actually "take" Stanford fans any "higher" than they already were?) 

 

No, no and no. Indeed, in one of his signature SF Chronicle Sporting Green columns, published the following Monday, the late Ron Fimrite observed that "the only bomb was Plunkett's".  And that "this is not so much the Age of Aquarius as it is the Age of (19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail) Makunin." But more on Plunkett's "bomb", later.    

 

The drumbeat for this one began right after the final gun of the prior year's contest when Stanford was stunned by Trojan Ron Ayala's last-second, game-winning field goal.  Under Saturday night lights in Los Angeles, yet another Indian Rose Bowl dream was dashed and then symbolically trampled into the Coliseum floor by the herd of exultant USC fans.  As the ball tumbled through the uprights with no time left, Stanford players lay sprawled -- some pounding on the turf in agonized frustration -- or wandered dazedly, wondering if the program was cursed to spend eternity barred from the Rose Bowl, the victim of another soul-crushing loss to the hated Trojans.  Poor old Stanford, pushing the boulder of football up the mountain of each season only to have it roll back again after another loss to USC.  Indeed, Stanford had not beaten the Trojans since 1957 and the Indians' last Rose Bowl appearance, following the 1951 season, seemed lost in the mists of time. 

 

But close readings of the post-game Stanford player interviews in 1969 revealed the unmistakable tone of a resolve containing much more flint than the obligatory "we'll-get-'em-next-year" clichés.  It wasn't a melodramatic "vow" so much as a Greek chorus pointing to a date that lay 12 months hence: October 10, 1970.

 

The sophomores and juniors knew that the heart and soul of this team, on offense and defense, would return almost intact in 1970.  The motivation for "next year" would escalate into an obsession and mobilize into an all-out, all-in crusade.  The returnees? A stellar and sure-handed corps of receivers led by Randy Vataha, Bob Moore and Jack Lasater.  The running game, with Hillary Shockley and Jackie Brown, was hard-nosed and reliable, especially in short-yardage.   The O-line was stalwart: John Sande, Younger Klippert, Steve Jubb, Tim Schallich, and Bill Alexander, among others, could run-block and pass-block as well as anybody in any conference.  The defensive backfield showcased Benny Barnes, Jim Kauffman and Jack Schultz.  Linebackers Jeff Siemon and Mike Simone were the nation's best.  The "down linemen" --  Dave Tipton, Ron Kadziel and Thunderchickens-to-be Pete Lazetich, Greg Sampson, Roger Cowan and Larry Butler were prototypical of the new, rangy, mobile-agile-hostile DL.  Indeed, the number of future "play-on-Sunday" guys, including future NFL Hall-of-Famers, made 1970 a vintage year, to say least, for Stanford's football talent. In 1970, each key position would be manned by an richly experienced player who knew what it took to win, knew the taste of a bitter defeat and, above all, suffered epic hunger for a Rose Bowl invitation.  

 

But everyone knew who the centerpiece of Stanford Football was. The linchpin that made the team what it was and how it played. And he, too, had another year of eligibility.  But would Jim Plunkett, academic class of '70, decide to come back?  Could he pass up the NFL contract, expected to come from the Philadelphia Eagles in the spring, an opportunity that would assure life-changing circumstances for his family?  There was no shortage of storylines.  And they were played to the hilt, in print and broadcast, coast-to-coast, especially in the months leading up to the season and the weeks before the USC game. 

 

And what about the broader circumstances?  While this was still the pre-ESPN era, ABC Sports had been injecting new prominence into the college game and had just introduced Monday Night Football, using it as a vehicle to showcase upcoming college games. Indeed, ABC's trademark invitation, The pomp, the color and excitement of college football!  What better way to spend an autumn afternoon? had become part of popular culture. Playboy Magazine cribbed the second sentence as the caption for an iconic cartoon depicting a couple watching a game on TV from under the sheets. What's more, 1969 had marked the 100th anniversary of the first collegiate football game, Rutgers vs. Princeton.  The season-long commemoration fueled new awareness of the college game and further boosted its popularity -- and revenue from media and sponsors.  By 1970 college football was hotter and cooler than ever.  This was the atmosphere in which big college games were now played. This was the spotlight that would showcase Stanford, its stars and their quest for redemption.

 

For his part, Plunkett quickly dispelled any doubt about his return.  He famously  declared early and often that he owed it to the youth groups he mentored - the kids he urged to stay in school and finish whatever it was they started - to stick around his own campus for one last shot at those elusive roses. No one, least of all Plunkett, his protégés, teammates, coaches and legion of fans, would regret his decision.  Indeed, it added a year's worth of build-up to the excitement and expectations for football on the Farm.  It also earned a national audience. Jim Plunkett was the ultimate human-interest story.

 

As for the "game within the game" and the notorious enmity between head coaches, the Jostling Johns (McKay and Ralston) were expected to add their own fuel to the fire.  There was never anything resembling goodwill between the two and writers looked for something personal in every utterance by either man.  It was Ralston, whose comment that he wasn't sure "the best team won today" after losing to USC 14-0 in 1965, that inspired McKay's scalding riposte: "How can you win when you don't score?"  Sometime later, McKay claimed that he'd heard racial slurs aimed at his players by "Stanford people". 

 

A week after the Arkansas triumph and the national statement it made, Stanford opened its 1970 home season with a workman-like dispatching of San Jose State, 34-3. The following week in Eugene, the Indians disposed of a good Oregon team, 33-10.  Back home on October 3, the purring engine sputtered and stalled.  Against Purdue, Plunkett & Co. faltered and fell, 26-14.  "We were flat," Ralston said, in an understatement, and took full responsibility for the egg his team had layed.  It would be the first of three, inexplicable upset losses that year.  In each one Stanford would score 14 points, the next two being against Air Force and California.  

 

In fact, as it was reported later in Sports Illustrated, the loss to Purdue was an indication of how much Stanford really was looking ahead to USC. "We weren't exactly overlooking Purdue," Plunkett told SI, "but we planned to play through them and peak for USC. Preparing for the Trojans, we only suited up once all week. We had done our physical training the previous week." It turned out that Ralston held five players out of the Purdue game so they could be ready to go the next week.

 

USC advance-scout Joe Margucci watched the Purdue game and decided it wasn't worth reporting back to McKay. He noted that the team wasn't mentally in it and said that Stanford wasn't playing like Stanford.   Purdue had dropped as many as eight defenders to thwart Plunkett and it had worked. Plunkett wasn't playing like Plunkett. 

 

Fatefully, McKay took Margucci at his word and applied Purdue strategy. To his eternal regret.

 

October 10, 1970 dawned bright and warm.  A postcard Indian-summer day in the Bay Area.  The buzz around Stanford Stadium had commenced long before the gates opened, emanating from the many tailgate encampments that had been set up days before in the shadow of the big stadium.  On Friday night, empty seats in the restaurants up and down El Camino, from L'Ommies to The Oasis, were scarce, if they were available at all.  The visiting USC contingent was large, thirsty and in full throat. Still, Stanford partisans far outnumbered them and came from far and wide.  This was very big.  

 

Bomb scare or no, and with or without the marginal ad campaign, this one had been sold out for weeks.  And in 1970, in old Stanford Stadium, this meant 86,000+. The pratfall against Purdue now seemed meaningless. All but forgotten.

 

Senior place-kicker Steve Horowitz boomed long, towering kicks throughout pre-game warm-ups.  It had been his misses in the 1969 game that set the stage for Ayala.  It didn't take much imagination to picture Horowitz's thoughts as his toe met each practice ball and sent one after another sailing through the uprights from as distant as mid-field. The student section filled up early. Their "welcoming" cheers to the USC student section across the way were edgy and in-your-face. Each generated a raucous return comment that got its own custom response. This was getting good.

 

First-year Stanford president Richard Lyman spoke on the public-address system  just before kick-off (and before Stanford's cannon accented the playing of the National Anthem): Regarding the bomb threat, every precaution has been taken for your safety. No one is disposed to ignore this type of a threat, yet blackmail must not be allowed to paralyze a nation or an institution. If it once becomes established that such tactics can succeed, we shall have magnified the capacity of a malicious few to sabotage society.

 

As San Francisco Chronicle sports editor, Art Rosenbaum would write later, "And on that cheery note, the game began".

 

Each team held the other on the first two possessions.  When Stanford got the ball again, Plunkett electrified the crowd on second down, bringing the multitude to its feet with a bomb of his own. When USC triple-covered Vataha, exactly what Purdue had done the prior week, Plunkett, looking left, spotted a wide-open Bob Moore sprinting down the east sideline on a "seam" route. He launched a rocket that hit the tight-end's outstretched hands, in stride at the 18 yard-line. Moore broke a tackle and ran the rest of the way for a spectacular 50-yard touchdown. Horowitz kicked the extra point, the ball nearly clanging off the Pennzoil banner atop the scoreboard high in the south (open) end of the stadium. After a brilliant 47-yard punt return from Eric Cross and a 14-yard run by Jackie Brown to the USC two-yard-line, the Indians added a second touchdown and took a 14-0 lead. Troy threatened at the end of the half, but Stanford's outstanding linebacker Jeff Siemon came up with two huge stops and USC was denied at the Stanford one-yard-line! 

 

Covering the game for SI, Rosenbaum wrote:  "Stanford scored again in the second period and retired at halftime leading 14-0, which probably left a lot of skeptics wondering how in the world the Indians would blow it this year. As any veteran Stanford rooter knows, a lead over USC means nothing. In 1968, Stanford led 7-3 in the second quarter and again 24-17 in the third, but then O.J. Simpson scored his third touchdown of the game and Ron Ayala kicked a 34-yard field goal. Sorry, Stanford."

 

Whatever skeptics may have been in the stadium, they found their voice that day. The half-time lead inspired something rarely heard at a Stanford game, an exhortation for victory from both sunnyside and shadyside, in unison, as the team left the field: "Beat SC! Beat SC! Beat SC! reverberated and echoed around the old wooden bowl with an unforgettable resonance. This was a football game, folks.

 

The strapping, white-haired man on the field was recognizable to the older generations of Stanford football followers.  His jersey, #1, was being retired in a brief and moving ceremony presided over by Stanford Athletic Director Chuck Taylor.  It was the first time the school had so recognized a player. The honors came late, but thankfully in time.  The great Ernie Nevers, now 68, would live just six more years.

 

"How about that!" a spectator of a certain age, a life-long Stanford follower, said to his son sitting beside him and to anyone within earshot.  "There's Ernie Nevers!  He damned near beat Rockne!"

 

Undaunted and unimpressed by the ceremony, Troy came out in the third quarter and methodically marched 74 yards for a Rod McNeil touchdown that cut the Indian lead in half, 14-7.


Plunkett answered with an 89-yard drive featuring four completions, including a clutch 34-yarder to Vataha on third down. At the one-yard-line, junior running back Jackie Brown took the hand-off and plunged in for the score, his second one-yard touchdown of the day. The lead grew to 21-7 after Horowitz' kick. 

Now it was nail-biting time for the Stanford faithful, many of whom began to wonder what could go wrong this time.  They moved closer to the edge of their wooden planks when, with four minutes and change still left in the ballgame, USC quarterback Jimmie Jones fired a 17-yard strike to split-end Bob Chandler in the right corner of the end zone. Stanford 21, USC 14. 

In the words of Rosenbaum:
"So now every Stanford fan knew what would happen. Plunkett would have one intercepted, USC would score. An onside kick, USC recovers and, with one second left on the clock, Ayala kicks a field goal..."

 

In later years, Plunkett would recall the high-risk play of defensive back Jim Kauffman who, towards the end of the game, would free-lance and gamble on USC pass plays.  Had Kauffman, who in run support made a key tackle-for-loss on a fourth & one from the Stanford three-yard-line early in the fourth quarter, guessed wrong, or faltered even once, Plunkett admitted, the game might have taken a different turn.

 

Kauffman wasn't the only risk-taker. In the closing minutes, Ralston rolled the dice with Plunkett and called for a pass from deep in Stanford territory. The ball was tipped and nearly intercepted by Walt Failor, but it dropped into the arms of tight-end Moore and into USC territory. But then the Trojan defense stiffened. It was now it was up to Horowitz to exorcise the final demons and ghosts of USC games past. Which he did, booting it perfectly. Just like pre-game warmups.  Stanford 24, USC 14. 

 

There would be no miracle finish for the Trojans. It was the Trojans first regular season loss since 1967!  And coupled with Oregon's 41-40 win over UCLA, Stanford was now in the express lane to Pasadena.  The Indians would finally taste the Roses one month later, in Palo Alto, sealing the conference championship against Washington and Sonny Sixkiller, 29-22.   Still, of the win against USC in 1970,  Plunkett, who was 19 of 31 for 275 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon, would say it was "the most important thing of the season to me."

 

As the sun sank below the eucalyptus trees and the shadows lengthened, the heat of the afternoon could still be felt by most of the 86,000 drained spectators descending the ancient concrete steps.  For the victors, the campus gloaming enhanced the glow of the win.  The man who had marvelled at the sight of the legendary Nevers and recalled the Stanford fullback's 1925 Rose Bowl exploits during the half-time ceremony, his son at his side, slowly exited the south end of the stadium and relived the day's highlights. Both were reluctant to end the day. "Well," said the older man, "today I saw the two best players in Stanford history.  The one on the field playing quarterback and the one on the field at half-time".  The younger man smiled as he put his arm around the older one, so glad that his dad was there to see this day.  And just as the headline in those little ads had said everything that needed saying in the weeks before the game, the headline of the next day's San Francisco Sunday Examiner amounted to the sum of the national storylines:  "Plunkett Keeps His Promise." 


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