In a rare piece of serendipity, both "wizards" materialized, here, almost simultaneously 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 virtual lifetime contract. No fool, he naturally wanted out of the UCLA deal, but 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. For Sanders, that settled it. Unlike so many sports personalities today, he conducted business like a gentleman.
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 very 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 would convert 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 (The Bruins, in a well intentioned salute to the ‘54 team, annually opens the homecoming game with this same serpentine move, but it always looks stiff and mechanical in comparison.) 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 employed a spinning fullback off whom he could initiate direct runs up the middle, wingback reverses and pass plays. But like 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 back to pass, fake a sweep and cut back off either tackle, or, best of all, make a move off tackle, then 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. (Actually many shotgun, spread-options today look more than a little like a single wing offense, though with receivers spread wide.)
When Sanders had big athletic tailbacks that 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 relentless execution of the players. For all the power this offense generated, you couldn't fail to appreciate the finesse of the thing. I like to think that even Stanley Kubrick - an NFL fan, incidentally - had he grown up in Venice Beach instead of the Bronx, might have been struck by these vivid 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 they would ultimately split the National Championship with.
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 biggest mud-bowl 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. Altogether, 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've 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 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, total, 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 that "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, Bo Schembechler, he didn't have a lot of happy Rose Bowls.
Red was never the luckiest guy in the world. Not only was his ‘54 team denied a shot at college 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 the 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 the most bizarre end-game officiating in Rose Bowl history. But the toughest loss of Sanders' career had to be the 14-12 ball-breaker 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 improvised, possibly forward lateral, from Al Carmichael to Jim Sears for a 65-yard TD, and 2) a popped up pass 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, 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 surely have been this sort of thing that set me on the road of godless existentialism. And, rubbing salt in this particular wound, SC earned the privilege of bumping off Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, thus becoming the first PCC team to whip a Big 10 team since the signing of the post war Rose Bowl pact. Worse still, these were the very same Badgers, 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 likely brought the Stanford fiasco on himself, when, leading 20-7, at Palo Alto, he pulled his starters prematurely and, due to the substitution rules of the time, couldn't return them as Stanford rallied to take the lead, and the game. There was also some strange sounding business over 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 logy story to constipiracy 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 call, 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, possibly an additional #1(they used to close the vote before the bowl games), six straight over SC, not to mention recruits backed up from Calexico to the Oregon 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, Bud Wilkinson and "the Bear." This may sound like so much whinging, which of course it is, but then not all "coulda's" are equally lame. Certainly Sanders, himself, would never make such a case.
Speaking of "The Bear," Sanders does seem to have shared some coaching traits with his more famous line coach from Vanderbilt days. Both 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 often produces your big game loser, your perennial runner-up, your "little gentleman," your "true sportsman," your humble, self-effacing chump so beloved of Timesmen and sports dilettantes. 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 adjusted to the modern passing game, just as Bryant did, just as Prothro did… even at the cost of 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 hounds tooth hat. I also suspect the more sophisticated Sanders might have been amused trailing around a gaggle of state troopers each Saturday. And likely because Sanders origins were decidedly middle-class, there was little trace of the cracker in him.
Sanders was leading the PCC around on a leash when, in January, 1956, a sorry, long forgotten Washington football coach, John Cherberg, got himself fired. Bitter, Cherberg blew the whistle on UDub'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. This is the heinous form it took at UCLA (the so-called 75-40 formula): To supplement the $75.00 per month "laundry money" each player was entitled to, the 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, it was "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 schools but were unsuccessful. Certainly this $40.00 provided no greater competitive advantage than the big schools already possessed. 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, along with the faculty reps of each school, were responsible for the Draconian penalties which were as close to the "death penalty" as you can imagine.
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, younger brother, UCLA, the farce commenced 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 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 characterized a southern scoundrel 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 civilized 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, in effect, 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 ‘56. At a huge ‘50s-style football rally the night before the game, some cheerleader patched a phone call to Sanders' home into a public address 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 take his as the Bruin defense, amid howls of "Omaha," buried the noble young "Indian" under a ferocious pass rush. 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, it turns out, 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 a school like 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, wormed its way on board, leaving their compatriots, Oregon, Oregon St. and Washington St. stranded on the dock. "Sports Illustrated" clucked its usual, preppy, PC disapproval.
Ten years later the conference, unlike Humpty-Dumpty, was (unfortunately) put back together again. College administrators, like most dull pragmatists, will invariably choose a 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 14th in 1958, just five weeks before the Bruins' home 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. At some point Sanders complained of the heat and "Pop" went to fetch him a cold drink. When he returned Sanders was dead of a heart attack. He was 53 years old and in his coaching prime.
A "witness" at the scene, Ernestine Drake, said she remembered the great coach talking football but not much else. She did say his last words were, "Football is a great game. You should come out this fall and see a few games." This being the fifties, nothing very salacious was published, at least in LA, but insiders were satisfied, and word certainly got around that Red, the old reprobate, wasn't diagramming plays that afternoon.
Not surprisingly reports in the Bay Area cut closer to the bone. Two days later, the San Francisco Examiner went with an AP story which described Mrs. Drake as "a blonde in a downtown hotel room" who had just been "introduced to Sanders a few minutes before by Grimes, 81, the registered occupant of the room." The article continued: "Mrs. Drake, a divorcee, was convicted as a prostitute in nearby Beverly Hills in 1957 and served a jail term. Grimes has a long record of arrests for pandering and served a San Quentin Prison term after one conviction."
Today, with the Kennedy revelations hammered in stone and such Kennedy knockoffs as Bill Clinton, John Edwards and God knows who else still sleasoning 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 him fabulous offers, but he was content in Westwood, having just signed a new ten year contract. He was winning at a 77% clip and, with his 36 wins at Vanderbilt, should have been on his way to 200 career wins. Though he certainly looked older, his shocking death came at roughly 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 men were "grand originals."