Red Sanders and Paradise Lost: Part 2

<b>FEATURE:</b> Charles Chiccoa chronicles the times of UCLA's all-time best football coach, the original "Wizard of Westwood," remembering the greatness, the scandal, and the circumstances that turned a potential dynasty into the quintessential "what-could-have-been."<p> <b>SECOND IN A SERIES</b>


-- TWO --

 Red Sanders, of course, not John Wooden, was the original "Wizard of Westwood."  He was also a kind of Bear Bryant before there ever was a "Bear."  Bryant, in fact, had been Sanders' first line coach at Vanderbilt, and, in 1955, the only time they ever played each other, Sanders' Bruins shut out Bryant's young Texas A&M team, 21-0 at the Coliseum.  I learned words like "juggernaut" and "dynasty" from stolen sports-section accounts of Bruin games (We took the afternoon Herald, and I had to have my weekend, morning sports fix with the L.A. Times).  The shy, bookish-seeming "Johnny"  Wooden, who later, as the legendary John Wooden, would cause every other basketball coach who ever lived to stand in line, could never, in the fifties, escape the  shadow of the expansive, self assured Henry Russell Sanders.

In a rare piece of serendipity, both wizards materialized, almost miraculously, at the tail end of the forties, Sanders with a personal recommendation from Grantland Rice, no less.  His last Vanderbilt team (1948) had finished #12, nationally, surely the last time the Commodores have shared such rarefied air. 

After reaching a verbal agreement to come west, Sanders received a counter offer from Vandy of a lifetime contract.  No fool, he naturally wanted out of the UCLA deal, but the late Vic Kelley, the Bruins' artful publicity director, finessed Sanders over the phone, telling him the announcement in L.A. was already a fait accompli, which it was not.  That settled it. 

In the black and white world of the fifties, Sanders brand new powder-blue jerseys, tan pants and gold helmets made the Bruins appear entirely gray on TV and in the newspapers, a cool monochrome.  It was believed he changed from UCLA's traditional royal blue to this curious pale blue in order to make it harder for opponents to read the fat little white numbers on the distant, wide angle shots of scouting film.  And while most of his contemporaries had converted to variations of the "T" formation, Sanders, almost alone, remained in his balanced line, Tennessee single wing.  The Bruins looked like no others.

When they broke the huddle, single wing left, they would casually peel out in this graceful, serpentine move you never forgot (Bob Toledo, in a well intentioned salute to the ‘54 team, annually opens the homecoming game with this same serpentine move, but it looks stiff and mechanical comparatively.)  The blocking back, on the strong side, a yard off the line, would pause, turning to see that everyone was set, while the fullback and tailback, five yards off the ball, the tailback slightly deeper, settled into receiving stances, elbows on thighs, palms up.

Sanders used a spinning fullback off whom he could initiate direct runs up the middle, wingback reverses and pass plays.  But like the late John McKay's "I" formation, a decade later, on the same Coliseum field, it was the tailback that made Sanders' single wing so seductive.  In fact, McKay's famous "student body right" was nothing more than Sanders' tailback sweep behind an army of blockers.

The tailback had a world of options: He could either drop straight back to pass, fake a sweep and cut back off either tackle, quick kick or, best of all, fake off tackle and sweep either end on a run-pass option, while his lead blocker, like clockwork, knocked down the poor, naked contain man.  Gary Beban would win a Heisman more than a decade later with Tommy Prothro's quarterback variation of this play.

When Sanders had big athletic tailbacks who could throw, like Paul Cameron and Ronnie Knox, and big, quick fullbacks, like Bob Davenport and Doug Peters, the Sanders single wing projected a classical, almost baroque quality: the tight graceful formation, the familiar movements and variations off those movements, and, finally, the relentlessly beautiful execution of the players.  For all the power this offense generated, you couldn't fail to see the finesse of the thing.  I like to think that Stanley Kubrick, had he grown up in Venice Beach instead of Brooklyn, might have been struck by these indelible images. Certainly Kubrick's "Little Alex" would have been.  Sanders gave UCLA style, sex appeal.

In order to help neutralize the natural dominance of the larger urban schools, the Pacific Coast Conference, around this time, pushed through a maddening no-repeat rule for the Rose Bowl: no school could play in the Rose Bowl in consecutive years.  Thus, having appeared the previous year, the ‘54 Bruins were denied one of those "games of the century" vs. Woody Hayes' undefeated Buckeyes, featuring Howard "Hopalong" Cassidy, the same team with which they would ultimately split the National Championship.  To this day the Pac-10 is known both for its imaginative, wide-open offenses and its dull, unimaginative administrators.

Fans and sportswriters wept, and in the dismal course of events. Ohio St. routinely dispatched PCC runner-up USC, on a New Years Day made memorable only by a hard rain that produced the only mudbowl in modern Rose Bowl history.  Afterwards, in a dank dressing room below, the always gracious Woody launched into a characteristically boorish diatribe, rattling on about how the bands had been allowed to tear up his field and, incidentally, how contemptible the Trojans were compared to his Big Ten opposition.  All together, an ugly end to a miserable day.

Now had this genuine American gothic been unlucky enough to face the legitimate PCC champion, this is what he would have been up against: a team that averaged 41 points a game, but also played Sanders' 4-4 defense to perfection (they allowed only 40 points total all year - 20 of them in a single game.)  You couldn't run on them, yet they also forced 28 picks, returning five for touchdowns.   They'd given up only six points in their last five games and were the only team ever to lead the nation in both scoring offense and scoring defense.  They were loaded with All Americans and All Coast stars and they had tremendous depth, but because of the split championship, you won't find the ‘54 Bruins on many lists of college football's greatest teams. 

We all know the one about -- "anything can happen on a given day...," Especially when two great teams finally meet. But, all things considered, it's just as well this cup passed Woody by, since, like his Midwestern gothic brother, coach Bo, he didn't have many happy Rose Bowls.

Sanders was never the luckiest guy in the world.  Not only was his ‘54 team denied a shot at football immortality, both his ‘53 and ‘55 conference champions lost Rose Bowl heart-breakers to very strong Michigan St. teams - the former, leading 14-0 just before the half, saw that game turn on a blocked punt by Ellis Duckett; the latter, tied 14-14, lost on a long, last second field goal by Dave Kaiser (his first attempt of the year!), the try, itself, made possible only by some of the most bizarre end-game officiating in Rose Bowl history.  But the toughest loss of Sanders' career had to be the 14-12 ballbreaker to SC in 1952.  Led by two time All American linebacker, Don Moomaw, this was yet another great defensive team, allowing just 55 points all year, while converting 34 picks for over 500 return yards.  Sanders' own teams rarely turned the ball over, but this team lost just two fumbles all year.  Both the ‘52 Bruins and Trojans came into the game undefeated, UCLA ranked #3, USC #4.   Despite stopping SC's offense cold, the Trojans won the game on two fluke plays: 1) an obviously improvised, possibly forward lateral from Al Carmichael to Jim Sears for a 65-yard TD, and 2) a popped up interception return by a tackle named Elmer, on which the big boy lumbered 80 yards to set up the winning score - a fourth down trick play, no less, all of which came just as the Bruins were threatening to open up a commanding 19-7 third quarter lead. 

I was much too young to appreciate the fine absurdity of such a game, but it must have been this sort of thing that set me on the road of godless existentialism.  And, rubbing salt into this particular wound, SC earned the privilege of bumping off Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, thus becoming the first PCC team to whip the Big 10 since the signing of the post war Rose Bowl pact.  Worse still, this was the very same Wisconsin team, featuring Alan "The Horse" Ameche, that the Bruins had beaten, 20-7, earlier that season at Madison.

In the four seasons, 1952-1955, UCLA lost only three regular season games, all of them excruciating: the 14-12 monster to SC, described above, 21-20 at Stanford in ‘53, and 7-0 at Maryland in ‘55.  A complacent Sanders brought the Stanford fiasco on himself, when, leading 20-7, he pulled his starters too early, and, due to the substitution rules of the time, couldn't return them as Stanford rallied to take the lead. There was also some paranoid-sounding business about unwanted slabs of two-inch prime rib the night before the game, topped off with pre-game steaks the next morning, but I'll leave that story to conspiracy buffs.  In the muddy 7-0 payback loss at Maryland, Doug Peters fumbled away a Bruin touchdown at the goal line when Don Shinnick blew the play, allowing the Terps' All American linebacker, Bob Pellegrini, a clean shot at Peters (Shinnick, of course, would later return to this area for many happier days, and a long, successful career as a Baltimore Colts linebacker, while his son, Josh, would also play for UCLA.)

If Sanders catches a break in those three games, he has four consecutive undefeated regular seasons, who knows how many #1s (they used to close the vote before the bowls), six straight over SC, not to mention recruits backed up from Calexico to the Canadian border.  Throw out the no-repeat rule and he has the deed to the Rose Bowl, not to mention his bust on the same shelf as Blaik, Leahy, Wilkinson and "the Bear."  This may sound like so much whining, which of course it is, but then not all "coulda's" are equally lame.  Certainly Sanders himself never publicly indulged in this sort of thing.

Speaking of "the Bear," Sanders seems to have shared some coaching traits with his more famous line coach from Vanderbilt days.  Both coaches consistently produced poised, talented teams that seldom beat themselves.  Both featured quick, tough, aggressive defenses, yet neither was conservative, in the narrow sense of being afraid to force play and apply pressure, the absence of which usually produces your big game loser, your perennial runner-up, your "little gentleman," your " true sportsman," your humble, self-effacing chump so beloved of college administrators, Timesmen, and sports dilatants.  Also, in common with Bryant, Sanders was subtle enough never to have sacrificed deception and an effective passing game just because he could steamroll an opponent, a lesson it took the Big 10 years of big game pratfalls to absorb.   And anyone familiar with Sanders can have little doubt he would have easily adjusted to the modern passing game, just as Bryant did, even at the cost of either radically modifying or even abandoning his signature balanced line, single wing.

The most superficial aspect of any Sanders/Bryant comparison, however, is the "southern" business.  Sanders was much less the self-conscious, foxy grampa, less down-home, less guarded and vain - in a word, less Lyndonesque - which isn't to say he was completely absent these traits, just that he didn't wear them like a badge (or like Bryant's cocky little houndstooth hat).  I also like to think the more sophisticated Sanders might have felt silly trailing around that gaggle of state troopers (a cornball, rustic tradition that survives to this day).  And, since Sanders origins were decidedly middle-class, there was no trace of the cracker in him.  

Sanders was leading the PCC around on a leash when, in January, 1956, a sorry, long forgotten Washington coach named John Cherberg got himself fired.  Bitter, Cherberg blew the whistle on U.W's Roscoe (Torchy) Torrance slush fund, and the conference proceeded to go up in flames.

In the fifties, "cheating" in the PCC was as common as butch wax on campus.  This is the heinous form it took at UCLA (the so-called 75-40 formula):  To supplement the $75.00 a month "laundry money" each football player was legally entitled to, these players got an additional $40.00 "under the table," courtesy of a booster group.  For UCLA, the forty bucks came from the Young Men's Club of Westwood; for SC, the Southern California Educational Foundation.  The payments were no great secret, and in fact the booster groups had previously attempted to have the $40.00 channeled through the universities, but were unsuccessful.  Certainly this forty bucks provided no greater competitive advantage than the big schools already had.  Orlando J. Hollis, a law school dean at Oregon, had written the PCC's financial aid code, and, oddly enough, it seemed to benefit the smaller northwest schools, where the cost of living was simply cheaper.  Hollis and the faculty reps of each school were responsible for the draconian penalties.

Though presumably biased, Jim Hardy, SC's two time former Rose Bowl hero, had this to say about the penalties: "...I've lost all hope for the PCC.  I'm disappointed, no, disgusted with the men who are running this thing.  They are all vindictive, hypocritical men too small ever to be placed in the position of such authority over human lives.  They have set a far worse example by their actions than the athletic men whom they have judged and chastised."

Paul Wellman, the historical novelist and a Bruin booster said, "...Our conference has been smashed by nine, old, self-indulgent men who don't know what it's all about and don't care to learn.  It's sinful to give that amount of power to such a bunch of small, narrow, biased men."     

Once Cal ratted out their uppity, young cousin, UCLA, the farce began in earnest.  J. Miller Leavy, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles (and a Bruin alum), quickly retaliated, ratting out the Golden Bears, and, loyal Bruin that he was, naturally tossed SC onto the bonfire.  Feeling the heat, Stanford's smarmy athletic director, Al Masters, turned in his own boys, but characterized their sins as "minor."  In exchange for "secret testimony to the governor," Stanford was able to align itself with the saintly brethren of the northwest, who, righteously and with great relish, stuck it to the L.A. schools good and hard.  One Grand Whim Wham of the northwest dissed a southern miscreant as having "the bark of a purebred, but the hair and heart of a mongrel."  A full two years after the scandal broke, another northwest homie was still raging that "UCLA and profanity are synonymous."  Clearly, a gang of Savanarolas in business suits was running wild on the coast.

In the more civil pages of the New York Herald Tribune, Red Smith noted, "the lip smacking enthusiasm with which the conference brass lowered the boom on UCLA... on the coast you are told UCLA's real crime is winning... Like the Yankees, UCLA has offended the other league members by getting better results out of similar methods."

For committing infractions roughly equivalent to flogging player's tickets to the alums, the PCC proceeded to operate on UCLA and SC without anesthetic: heavy fines and three years probation (which in those days meant three years hard time).  Then they twisted the knife:  In addition to being ineligible for the Rose Bowl, the senior class of ‘56 would have their eligibility cut to five consecutive games; the class of ‘57 would have their eligibility completely excised; and the class of ‘58 would once again receive the five-game torture.  The ever-zealous Masters even tried to extort an agreement from UCLA to sacrifice Sanders and athletic director, Wilbur Johns, in exchange for leniency.  To its credit, UCLA told him to work it.    

Life went on, and, with one hand tied behind his back, Sanders proceeded to go 15-5 over the next two years, including his most "satisfying" win, a 14-13 upset of hated Stanford in 1956.  At a huge, ‘50s -style football rally the night before the game, some typically dim cheerleader patched a phone call to Sanders' home into a p.a. system.  Apparently caught by surprise, the gracious coach sounded as if he'd just "taken his medicine."  The following day poor John Brodie was forced to swallow his, as the Bruin defense, amid howls of "Omaha," buried the noble young Indian, er...Cardinal, under a ferocious pass rush.  It seems as if the Harvard of the west coast had failed to notice their quarterback was tipping off his pass plays under center by dropping one foot behind the other.  More extraordinary still, the Bruins had been tipped off by none other than the "brain surgeons" across town, who, themselves, had been unable to exploit this piece of intelligence and were more than a little put out when the Bruins got credit for the discovery.  Only Stanford could have succeeded in uniting UCLA and SC, no matter how briefly.

The bitterness, especially in Westwood, soon led to the demise of the conference.  UCLA split in 1958, taking along fellow miscreants, USC, Cal and Washington, to form the torturously named Athletic Association of Western Universities (AAWU).   Stanford, of course, ultimately wormed their way on board, leaving Oregon, Oregon St. and Washington St. stranded on the dock.  Sports Illustrated clucked their usual, preppy, PC disapproval. 

Ten years later the conference, unlike Humpty-Dumpty, was put back together again.  College administrators, like most dull pragmatists, will invariably choose careful self-interest over a righteous blood feud any day.  So, the Pendleton shirt crowd in Eugene, Corvallis and Pullman were lucky not to have been condemned to life in the Big Sky Conference, where, at the time, they probably belonged.

Sanders' last and worst piece of luck came on a scorching August day in 1958, five weeks before the Bruins' opener vs. Pitt.  The story has it that he'd gone to visit an old friend, one William T. "Pop" Grimes, at the Lafayette Hotel, near downtown.  Sanders complained of the heat and "Pop" went to fetch him a cold one.  When he returned Sanders was dead of a heart attack; he was fifty-three years old and in his coaching prime.  A witness at the scene, Ernestine Drake, said she could only remember the great coach talking football, but little else.  This being the fifties, nothing very salacious was written (except, of course, in the bay area), but the insiders were satisfied, and word certainly got around, that Red, the old reprobate, wasn't just diagramming plays that afternoon.  Today, with the Kennedy revelations hammered in stone and such a K-Mart-type Kennedy knockoff as Bill Clinton still sleazoning our breakfast eggs, most of us would treat this sort of thing with the shrug and a grin it deserves.

Sanders' sudden death was catastrophic for UCLA, a great piece of luck for the conference, and an absolute godsend for USC. Both Florida and Texas A&M had made Sanders fabulous offers, but he was content in Westwood, having just signed a new ten year contract.  He had won at a 77% clip and was a sure bet to keep rising, and, with his 36 wins at Vanderbilt, was a cinch for 200 career wins.  Though he certainly looked much older, his shocking death came at the same age as the boyish looking Francois Truffaut, and I, for one, don't miss, any the less, those lost Sanders teams than I do those lost Truffaut films.  Both of them were "grand originals."


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