Acknowledgement: Much of what follows is taken from a wonderful paperback manuscript by Jim Brown, a key member of UCLA’s undefeated 1954 team. He would become an All-American guard the following year. All of the personalities and scenes recounted here are taken from that manuscript.
In some ways, UCLA’s one and lonely football National Championship feels as much like a travel piece to another time and place as it does a remembrance of a very great team. For a combination of reasons, the 54’ Bruins have gone somewhat underappreciated considering their extraordinary accomplishments. That their charismatic coach, Henry “Red” Sanders, was one of the unluckier major college coaches seems to me even more undeniable.
I have no idea how many Bruins fans are familiar with the innovations Sanders brought to Westwood from Nashville… even before his team had ever played a game. Today, we’re all familiar with “the UCLA Stripe,” the “serpentine” move out of the huddle, and the pale, “powder-keg-blue” jerseys (now sadly discontinued). But Red brought lesser known changes, too, from the lightweight, gold, KRA LITE helmets to the use of heavier, double soled, clodhoppers in spring practice to lighter, brightly shined, single-soled shoes for the regular season. An advertising jingle of the time urged men to “look sharp, feel sharp, be sharp.” Sanders likely came to this bit of pop wisdom before Madison Avenue. His teams would not only win, they would win big and with distinctive style. All this, in 1949, should have put the west coast on notice that UCLA had hired itself some kind of jock “auteur,” a one-off original whose intelligence, natural charm and attention to detail was immediately recognizable as the author of UCLA’s new football program. But then history isn’t much in vogue today, certainly for people under 30. Even on BRO, reference points don’t extend much further back than Tommy Prothro, certainly not to Bill Barnes. It’s as if anything that occurred before one becomes personally aware of it is reflexively marginalized. Sanders, himself, seems to be gradually morphing into something like a Roman God from antiquity rather than the great football coach that he was. Even back in the day, Jim Murray would refer to Sanders’ balanced line, single wing as “a horse and buggy” offense. And those photos: I understand people generally look younger today, but was he really only 53 when he died? And where’s film of his teams? I believe some exists, but there seems to be precious little of it. Oh well… out of sight, out of mind.
Before 1949 (with the exception of Bill Spaulding, who soldiered on in the early years while easing UCLA into the Pacific Coast Conference) UCLA was certainly not known for football, only for the occasional, individual star player: Bob Waterfield, Al Sparlis, Kenny Washington, Jackie Robinson, Burr Baldwin. They didn’t need a trophy case since they didn’t own a single National Championship trophy. UCLA’s best team, undefeated and #4 in the nation, 10-0 in the regular season, was crushed by the unranked, gutty-little Fighting Illini, 45-14, in the 1946 Rose Bowl. SC, on the other hand, was the west coast’s elite power in the form of Howard Jones’ “Thundering Herd.” In 1934 something like 300,000 fans would turn out at Union Station to welcome home their conquering heroes after a 16-14 upset of Notre Dame.
Sanders’ immediate predecessor, Bert LaBrucherie, was quite an odd fellow. A Bruin alum and ex-player, he’d been tapped for the UCLA job after coaching ten years at his former high school, L. A. High… three of those years coaching the “Bee” team. He resigned the UCLA job after four years (one would hope under pressure) having discovered, after all, he wasn’t the most competitive guy in the world. And so he went directly to Cal Tech, stayed 19 years, and posted a preposterous 19-121-2 record. His Fighting “Beavers,” though very cerebral, did have problems understanding where to line up. Not surprisingly, Bert’s story turned up on a 1951 Saturday Evening Post article titled, “Former Head Coach at UCLA Tells Why Big Time College Football is not for Him.” (Why is this not surprising?)
Jim Brown suggests that the ’54 team should rightfully be considered along with the ’52, ’53 and ’55 teams. Taken together, they posted a cumulative 34-5 record, the losses coming by 2, 1, 8, 7, and 3 points, to teams nationally ranked No. 4, No. 16, No. 8, No. 5, and No. 2. Stars like Paul Cameron, Donn Moomaw, Ernie Stockert, and Bill Stits played through the ’53 season, while the unlucky “Golden Boy,” Ronnie Knox, played only the ‘55 season. (I wouldn’t wish his infamous step-father, Harvey, even on Lane Kiffin.)
UCLA opened 1954 ranked No. 8, but rose to No. 2 after defeating the 1953 National Champions, Maryland, in a hugely anticipated intersectional at the Coliseum before 73,376 fans. They would fall briefly to No. 3 after nearly blowing a 21-0 lead to Washington, but would ascend to No. 1 after defeating Cal 27-6. The movements in the A.P. poll seem to me unclear. Suffice it to say, UCLA held their position with a 41-0 blowout vs. Oregon, but fell behind Ohio State likely due to a scheduled bye week before the SC game. Even the 34-0 trampling of the No. 7 Trojans couldn’t nudge the Bruins ahead of the Buckeyes. And without a chance of fighting for No. 1 on the field, UCLA would have to settle for a split championship. The poisonous “No Repeat Rule” of course cancelled out the proverbial “Game of the Century” in the Rose Bowl. At least the U.P.I. Coaches Poll kept the Bruins at No. 1, and The Coaches Association would name Sanders their Coach of the Year. What’s the old saying about “half a loaf being better than none.” So who would’ve won? I like to think it would’ve been Red’s dream team, but Ohio State was very good. Guess I’d take the Bruins by a point -- with that defense, maybe even a safety.
Take away the narrow escape in Seattle and the ’54 team would’ve given up only 20 points all season! That’s one touchdown apiece to Kansas, Maryland and Cal. Take away the Michigan State Rose Bowl loss in ’53, when they gave up four touchdowns in a 28--20 loss and the ’53 Bruins would’ve given up only 48 points in the regular season. But enough of numbers… let’s get on to the personalities, the human element.
Like Coach Jim Mora, Red Sanders had a charming way with “colorful” speech. The practice field and sidelines are the workplace of players and coaches and, like most masculine endeavors, the culture and language can get salty. For example, Sanders addressing Bob Long during practice. “Long, you look like you’re looking for a sh!t house in the fog.”
Jerry Okuneff, a reserve blocking back was determined to beat out starter Terry DeBay. To this end he worked tirelessly in the off-season refining his technique. In the first fall scrimmage Okuneff shined, culminated by taking a flat pass for a long gain. Returning to the huddle and unable to contain himself, he murmured to Coach Prothro, a former great blocking back at Duke, “What do you think, coach?” Prothro replied, “Okuneff, you’re playing over your head.”
Assistant coach Deke Brackett, a former single wing tailback at Tennessee, was known to be a perfectionist. One cold wet day on the practice field, Brackett was demonstrating how to run an off-tackle play… so many steps, plant, then hit the gap between tackle and end. Unsatisfied with what he was seeing, he said “Give me that damn ball, I’ll show you how to do it.” He then receives the snap, takes three perfect steps, plants the correct foot for the perfect cut… and slips and falls on his ass. Never at a loss for words, he says, “Son, you have this position so screwed up, nobody can play it.”
Here’s Rudy Feldman: “No rules at that time. I spent spring vacation of my senior year in high school at the Delt house hosted by Bob Watson and Roy Jansen. Hard to believe I needed to attend summer school for admittance to UCLA , yet I was accepted to Stanford.” Another from Feldman: “I was playing center on the scout team, working against the varsity defense and I was hit in the nose and it was bleeding fairly heavily. As a result, the ball would get blood all over it, and Ray Nagle (the quarterback) would have to ask for the towel to wipe off the ball. After this happened several times, Sanders stepped in and said, “Damn it, Feldman, quit your bleeding.
Milt Davis, who would later play several impressive seasons for the Baltimore Colts, said quite matter-of-factly, “I attended UCLA because of its proximity to the orphanage where I lived.” He subsequently was discovered on the intra mural field.
Mike Riskas originally chose SC, but broke his back in an auto accident during summer. SC withdrew their offer, UCLA did not.
Chuck Gelfund chose UCLA because, “I didn’t feel comfortable in schools with very wealthy students.” (Who could he have been referring to?)
Don Stalwick remembers the ’52 Stanford game: “We had the ball near the goal line with a few seconds before the half. Cameron threw me a pass that I caught in the endzone. I celebrated by raising the ball in the air and hippity hopped back to our bench. On Sunday evening, while reviewing the game film, my TD catch and celebration came on the screen. Sanders said, “For Chrissake, Stawick, why don’t you act like you’ve been there before.” Thus, one more famous line stolen from Red Sanders, in this case by John McKay.
Bob Davenport remembers hearing this gem: “Get him out of there. It’s like wiping your butt with a hoop. There’s no end to it.”
Jim Brown recalls, “A fellow I worked with over the years had a client, Mike Giddings, who played for the Cal Bears in 1954. Mike later became an SC assistant and had the misfortune of having to play opposite All-American, Jim Salsbury, in the Cal game. Of course, Jim buried him the entire first half. Out of complete frustration, Mike admits to “leg whipping” Jim. As Mike tells the story, a very angry Salsbury left the field accompanied by trainer, Ducky Drake, and yelling that ‘Brown was going to get revenge and kick your butt.’ The great thing is… he said I actually did that. I have no recollection of the event. However, I love the story.”
At practice one day, Bob Heydenfeldt made a very difficult catch. Those watching from the stands, and the other players, started clapping. Sanders response was, “Heydenfeldt, don’t make it look so hard.” Another time he had a pulled muscle and couldn’t suit up. “I was assigned a high school recruit from Notre Dame High. We were walking across the field and saw Coach Sanders. He said, “Heydenfeldt what’s wrong with you.” I replied, ‘I have a leg problem.’ To which he immediately responded, ‘I could’ve told you that a long time ago.’
Bruce Ballard remembers Sanders, during a very hot two-a-day practice in 100 degrees saying, “If you think it’s hot now, just wait until we get back to Kansas: it will be as hot as a fart in a mitten.”
On a recruiting visit Terry DeBay recalls, “Coach Sanders gave us fifteen minutes of straight talk about the program and what we could expect if we came to UCLA. Basically NOTHING! We loved it.”
So what was it like playing the ’54 Bruins? Here are two accounts.
Los Angeles Times 10/16/54
Head’s bowed, stride hesitant, the Stanford football players shuffled reluctantly into their dressing rooms.
Like men walking in their sleep, more than one passed the door that said Stanford and had to turn and go back. It was the dressing room where they would sit down and contemplate the fates that had helped UCLA deal them a 72--0 blow.
Coach Chuck Taylor, with a fixed smile on his face came in.
“I’ll be with you in a few minutes,” he said. “They have a great team!” and there was wonderment in his voice.
He went from man to man, a pat here, a word there – all of encouragement. Soon he beckoned to the press.
“This is pretty hard to analyze. Let me think for a minute,” he begged and cupped his head in his hands.
“We can’t be that bad. It is impossible to be that bad.
“They had a pass defense weakness we tried to hit, but instead came the interceptions. 
“Strangely enough,” and this was a brave statement, “I felt better about this game than I did our defeat by Navy. As bleak as it looks I was pleased. The boys were trying.
Taylor hastened to point out he had not the slightest feeling that UCLA had poured it on.
“On the contrary,” said Chuck. “They used everybody, but you can’t stop a team when it gets rolling like that.”
Asked if the Bruins came up with anything surprising, Taylor had to chuckle.
“No, they didn’t do anything we didn’t expect, except better.
“I didn’t think much of their passing attack though,” and Chuck almost seemed to enjoy the laugh this created.
“UCLA is a sound, solid outfit,” said Taylor, coming back down to earth.” “You can’t single anyone out on the other team in a game like this. It looked like our tackling was poor, but I don’t know but what their runners were good.
Someone asked if Taylor thought the Bruins could beat the Oregon team that lost to Stanford in the second game of the season.
“Are you kidding?” asked the personable Indian mentor in amazement.
Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1954
Well into the third quarter of yesterday’s Coliseum titanic the score was UCLA--7, USC—0.
More than 102,000 fans will tell you today that it really wasn’t that close, but that’s what the scoreboard showed.
UCLA definitely looked and acted like the better team.
But SC had come back from a seven point deficit at halftime and, after Marv Goux’s pass interception, had rushed the ball from the UCLA 45 to the 8, first down, goal to goal.
It didn’t seem possible, but there they were, knocking on the door of the favored Bruins.
Then the roof caved in.
That rugged Bruin line, studded by at least four players of All-American status – Ellena, Salsbury, Cureton and Long – had been applying pressure from the start.
But terrific pressure was still on. The man-eating Bruin line was still bearing down on Jim Contratto as his protection couldn’t stem the on-rushing horde on every play.
This time it was Johnny Herman who came flying in as Contratto again threw short into the left flat. John Miller knocked the Bruin back out of bounds on SC’s 22, temporarily saving the day.
But the Bruins weren’t to be denied. They hit the Trojan line and had their touchdown in five plays, the final three in the last quarter.
After that came the deluge. Twenty seven points in less than 15 minutes!
Cureton hit Jon Arnett so hard on the ensuing kickoff that he fumbled, and two plays from the 16 the score became 21—0.
What happened after that wasn’t too important except to those Bruins who made the points and their fans, who quite naturally revel in the two straight skunkings which Red Sanders and his able staff now have handed their cross-town rivals.
This is the best Bruin team I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen every one since the first Vermont Avenue outfit.
|1954 National Champs.|
“Five players from the ’54 team were in attendance at a Wedding Anniversary party given by our children. A couple of days later I receive a copy of a photo that was in the November 20, 1954 Los Angeles Times from Bob Heydenfeldt. The photo identifies five players carrying Coach Sanders off the field: Heydenfeldt, Terry DeBay, Jack Ellena, Sam Bogosian and John Peterson – The same players at the party.