The venerable Edwin Pope, of The Miami Herald, has written about the teenaged Sanders "tapping his way into silent movie theaters, posing as a blind man, sitting on the laps of dowagers, apologetically extricating himself, then reading the title cards aloud."
You could sense Sanders' self-assured manner on a Jack Benny TV spot before the 1956 Rose Bowl and, better yet, a few weeks earlier when it appeared UCLA would blow the season to Cherberg's hapless four-touchdown-underdog Huskies. The Coliseum was a bedlam as UCLA's Decker lined up a last-second 35-yard-field goal that would decide a game the Bruins should have won easily. As Decker's kick split the uprights Sanders, alone, remained seated, arms folded, legs crossed. "Hell now isn't that nice," he said.
"You know, I'm the one who almost blew that Washington game. I went for the wrong man, and they broke a long run that put us in a big hole." The speaker is Bob Enger, a blocking back/linebacker on the ‘55 team. We're sitting in a pleasant little falafel joint in the west valley. Enger, at the time a teacher at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, has arranged this lunch so I can meet his friend, John Farhood, also an old Sanders boy, and find out exactly how well my childhood recollections jibe with their mature, first-hand knowledge of the man.
I'd met Enger a few weeks earlier when my wife, who was taking a night class at Pierce, mentioned that her teacher had played football and attended UCLA.
"What's his name?" I asked.
"Yeah, sounds very familiar. I think he was a blocking back."
Sure enough, digging through some old programs, there he was.
"Is that him?"
"Yes, I think it is. I recognize the eyes."
We're talking here about a photo taken a long, long time ago. (Is it just me, or do other WWII babies find it unsettling that, to a teenager today, the fifties is as remote to them as the Spanish American War was to us?)
At her next class, football program in hand, my wife confronts her mild mannered teacher with this glamorous pop artifact from his salad days, to which he replies, "So... whose daughter are you?" When he learns that it's her somewhat older husband who's blown his cover and that I'm much interested in Sanders, he's kind enough to set up this lunch date. Enger's the sort of stand-up Bruin who's been known to sit high up underneath the south end zone clock at the Rose Bowl just to avoid Cranks like me making rude remarks about Bruin football coaches. Which brings me to a brief, rude digression...
Incredible as it may seem today, on the eve of the ‘86 opener vs. Oklahoma, there was a feeling around UCLA that Terry Donahue was on his way to surpassing Sanders as the greatest football coach in Bruins history. After having been beaten out for the Oregon St. job by Craig Fertig (the first great break of Terry's charmed career), Donahue, in 1976, found himself in the catbird seat following Dick Vermeil's lightning departure for the "greener" fields of the NFL. As a respected O line coach and top Vermeil assistant, Donahue, at age 31, landed his dream job at his alma mater, not to mention inheriting 39 lettermen from Vermeil's Rose Bowl champions. Then in 1980, with a serious run at #1, Terry soon followed that up with three Rose Bowl wins, two of them spectacular blowouts, together with a dramatic Fiesta Bowl victory over Jimmy Johnson, Bernie Kosar and the "Canes" (not one of Johnson's better Miami teams).
Great recruiting classes were rolling in, wave after wave. Ted Tollner, a kind of Karl Dorrell figure, was no threat at SC. And Troy Aikman, born in West Covina but a prep star from Henryetta, Oklahoma, was red shirting in Westwood (courtesy of Barry Switzer and L.A. prep star, Jamelle Holieway) before taking over for a two-year run as Bruin quarterback. It was fat city for Bruin fans.
At an age when Sanders was still an obscure southern football coach, Donahue, as they say, was "poised for greatness." But Oklahoma's cocky pre-season #1s put a shocking 38-3 whipping on the pre-season #4 Bruins in a nationally televised opener; then rubbed it in as chemically enhanced superstar, Brian Bosworth, couldn't resist reflecting on the queer nature of UCLA's baby blue colors (the soft label). Two years later Aikman's Bruins, after a brief two week stay at #1, playing at home, blew a three touchdown lead in the second half to Dennis Erickson's Washington St. Cougars then, three weeks later, also at the Rose Bowl, blew the SC game and a Rose Bowl bid. Before he had realized what hit him, Donahue's momentum was stalled. Even though, from that point on, he was able to consistently handle the over-rated Trojans, Terry's Bruins suddenly went from national power to regional also-ran. And "young Terry," no longer young, found himself waving bye-bye to potential greatness as it slipped over the horizon of middle age.
Now however academically distinguished UCLA may be, their athletic tradition is even more distinguished; to the point that not even a boy scout, country music lovin' alum like Donahue could long survive five, six, even seven-loss seasons and not have his shirttails catch fire. So, at the close of the ‘95 season, Terry strapped on his golden Bruin parachute and, to most everyone's amazement, landed in a CBS limo, and a brief job as a network color-man… but not before taking a parting shot at us Cranks. He thought we'd "maligned and abused" him, which of course we had, since, to our collective, gimlet eyed stare, he had underachieved.
... On the drive over with Enger I'm on my best behavior. He's warned me that his friend, Farhood, wasn't Sanders' biggest fan. Apparently the guy had chosen to bag it once it became obvious that his practice field beatings would never translate into real playing time. No "Rudy" here but, hey dude, this is L.A., not South Bend.
Like Enger, Farhood proves to be very good company, and I hear nothing to contradict the usual matter of fact admiration expressed by Sanders' ex-players. Of course the fact they were winners doesn't hurt. Consider that even a combustible old warhorse like Woody Hayes, or the abominable showman himself, Bobby Knight, also seem to elicit fond memories from most of their ex-players, and you have some idea how powerful an elixir winning at this level can be.
Like many coaches of his generation, Sanders was one of those men who generate unforgettable memories. "One day he came to practice barefoot," Farhood recalls, smiling. "I don't know why. Maybe he liked the feel of the grass between his toes. You know, like why not? He was a genuine eccentric."
Enger doesn't recall a barefoot Sanders, but the image does coincide with my own notion of a man at home in the world, one more example of the natural masculinity that seemed to grow out of the Great Depression and WW II. Enger comments on how the football establishment of the day wrongly assumed that Tatum, Sanders and Bryant formed some kind of mutual admiration society, something like the initial Jimmy Johnson/Jerry Jones infatuation, which also turned out to be so much sports page romance. He also mentions that Joe Paterno has said what a significant influence Sanders has been on his coaching.
I tell them a story I came across from his Vanderbilt days… how Sanders jerked the young "Bear's" leash after their one year together. Bryant was trying to extort a raise out of Sanders and threatened to go in the armed forces if he didn't get it. So Sanders goes to the local papers, and an astonished Bear soon found himself reading about how he'd volunteered to fight the Fuhrer.
Of course we all laugh over the one about Sanders watering Spaulding Field from his coaching tower during practice.
Since there's no avoiding it, I finally broach the subject of Sanders' drinking. Certain odd characteristics attach themselves to certain public figures: Elvis's Nutty Buddys, Hitler's crummy drawings, Martin Luther's piles. These are curiosities I need to get past before we move on to more substantial things.
I kick it off with a story from Jon Arnett. "Jaguar Jon" of course was the great SC and Rams running back, and a prickly personality to boot; a genuine Crank who, in later years, became the author of a notorious letter to the SC administration (one of a truckload, no doubt) rightfully questioning the fitness of Larry Smith to lead the sacred USC football crusade. So Arnett claims that one night while being recruited by Sanders at a fancy local restaurant, Jon's sensibilities were shocked to observe the great coach passed out at the table, his head resting in his salad. The two old Bruins treat this as the usual Trojan agitprop - you know, like their Sam Gilbert routine, which it may well be. But after you've heard a few of these stories...
Since, on this particular subject, there's virtually nothing on the record (we're not talking Brad and Angelina here), I like to deal with it this way: Except as his drinking touched those close to him and doubtless hastened his death, this personal indulgence may not have been as significant as some of us remember it being.
Sanders' football practices were models of organization, he was always present to run them, and whether or not he showed any deleterious effects from drinking, certainly his teams did not. And even though his drinking was no secret, it wasn't as if he was advertising it either, thought it charming, say, in the tradition of "The Rat Pack." Dean Martin (really the most formidable Rat Packer) once parodied himself to hilarious effect as "Dino," the drunken seducer, in Billy Wilder's "Kiss Me Stupid." Sanders, on the other hand, was never less than apologetic after any public incident. He obviously considered it an embarrassment to his players and to UCLA.
It must be said, however, that Sanders' "Hotel California" checkout couldn't have been worse timed. His ex-assistant and eventual successor at UCLA, Tommy Prothro, had only recently taken the Oregon St. job, turning that dead end program around almost immediately. Prothro couldn't decently bug out of Corvallis in 1958 (much as Rick Neuheisel couldn't decently bug out of Boulder in 1996, and not at all like Lane Kiffin's indecent bug out of Tennessee last year). The subsequent George Dickerson fiasco was both sad and understandable: On being named to succeed Sanders he promptly fell "ill." Oddly enough, Gene Bartow may have had a similar, though delayed, emotional meltdown upon succeeding the other "wizard," John Wooden. In any case, the Billy Barnes era, 1958-1964, combined with the rise of John McKay at USC, became the first modern Bruin Dark Age.
What caused Sanders' drinking problem? Who knows? Whenever the local papers get around to their periodic appreciation of the man (usually UCLA-SC week), you always hear vague talk of "a tortured, complex soul," that sort of reflexive journalese. Furthermore, there's always been a small protective wall of silence surrounding the subject. My own guess is that Sanders had a weakness for more than a few of the masculine, deadly sins: the culture of drinking, bullshitting with your buddies, playing around, and the rest. We know he was sophisticated beyond the norm for his profession, and we know he was well aware of the fast lane dangers inherent in the move from Nashville to L.A. because he warned his assistant coaches about them. But then it was "Red" who became the celebrated head coach in a town that worshipped celebrity; a star going on superstar; a local hero going national. Had he possessed a more recessive, abstinent soul, like Wooden, say, or even Prothro, he might have better withstood such a wretched L.A. ending.
Next, Enger and Farhood set about disabusing me of my infatuation with Sanders' single wing. Above all, they preached, "This was a coach who pressed defense, field position, and the kicking game." Both have been coaches in their time and Enger, in particular, is given to such coachspeak as "the less options you give to a player, the less likely he is to make a mistake."
In the early fifties, because of the Korean War, the colleges briefly returned to a stripped down, one platoon game and, contrary to the way it was done at most schools, including SC, Sanders simply converted his defensive line into his first string line. Thus someone like Dave Levy, later to become a top McKay assistant, went from a first string offensive lineman to a lowly third stringer. The two Bruins were also quick to laugh at that journalistic cliché, "the gutty little Bruins." In addition to his great 4-4 defensive front, the precise execution of his rarely encountered offense, his way of dealing with personnel (they either became successful or they sat), Sanders, like most great coaches, simply attracted better players. (That he had a keen eye for talent is understood.)
In common with the Wooden and McKay approaches, he didn't feel the need to break his style to suit the opposition. Of course he scouted and employed specific game plans. He would pound an opponent's weaknesses, and sometimes their strengths. But he also had complete confidence in his own system, his own players.
In any sport, the proof is always on the field of play, which isn't to oversimplify, to mindlessly shout "scoreboard" and be done with it, but rather to consider each game, each season, each opponent in context. Once Sanders had built his machine (it took him three years), the Bruins didn't just beat you, they pounded you. Superior personnel, well coached, can't help it. Beginning in 1952, if you came into the Bruin game out-manned, ill-prepared, or both, you got your head handed to you. You took it in the neck by 21, 35, 42, even 72 points if you caught them on their very best day. Scoring margin, always considering the relative strength of your opponent's schedule, should not be underestimated as a measuring stick.
In his nine seasons at UCLA, Sanders found himself on the wrong end of a blowout only twice. In his second year, 1950, Sanders felt Pappy Waldorf had poured it on at the end of a 35-0 win in Berkeley. Fair enough. Sanders would never again lose to Cal. Then in 1956, the first year of the PCC penalties, the Bruins took a 42-13 drubbing at Michigan when the seniors, who were playing the early five games of their penalized eligibility, chose to play games three through seven so that they'd get a shot at Stanford. Michigan was game two.
Like most winners, like most successful people, Sanders paid great attention to detail; today we'd call him a control freak. He dressed his players in the very lightest equipment and weighed them after two-a-days in order that they be listed at their lowest weights. Because his players were well conditioned, and because he didn't waste them on the practice field ,his teams were seldom "decimated by injury." Which is not to say the "red team" (today's scout team) didn't catch hell: "Move it over ten yards" was Sanders' habitual refrain whenever a player, usually on the "red team," went down. Richard Macintosh, writing in the left wing Swan's Commentary, vividly recalls attending a Bruin practice one day with some friends: "A player suffered a compound fracture of his lower right leg, with the shattered bone sticking through the skin. Sanders, who was directing practice from a high wooden platform, shouted over his bullhorn, ‘Move the ball or the body, Mr. Prothro. We don't have all day.'"
And since most successful coaches understand that good things happen while exploiting your best players on "game-day," he was more careful with them. Only coaches with a weakness for outthinking themselves employ their stars as decoys.
Sanders loved coaching, loved his sport, knew his game's history and traditions inside and out, and took particular delight in team nicknames. One day, on campus, he spotted Enger who was playing for the Orange County Rhinos, thanks to the conference penalties.
"Who are you playing this week?" Sanders yelled across the street.
"Petaluma," Enger yelled back.
"What are they called?"
"I like it," yelled a delighted Sanders.
He also liked Texas A&M's "Twelfth Man" tradition, and one afternoon at the Coliseum he got the chance to try out his own version. In the first quarter, with backup Doug Peters out of the game, Sanders loses his All American fullback, Bob Davenport, to an ankle injury. George Martin is his third stringer. In the second quarter he calls for Ken Perry, his fourth stringer, only to discover Perry hasn't been suited up. Okay. He then sends an assistant over to the rooting section to have an announcement made for Perry to come out of the stands, a la' Texas A&M, whereupon Perry's brother comes down from the rooting section to inform them that Ken's at home washing his car. Well, son, call him up and get him down here! Which he does. Perry gets the message, jumps in his car, and arrives late during halftime. Since the managers haven't brought Perry's uniform he has to put on Davenport's extra jersey. Finally "UCLA's Twelfth Man" is good to go and, early in the third quarter, "outlined against a blue gray October sky," a lone figure emerges from the vast Coliseum tunnel wearing Davenport's famous number 27. The crowd goes wild, believing he is Davenport, even though, come to think of it, the great fullback does look a bit stunted since his injury. When Perry finally enters the game, he promptly sprains his ankle (The trainers didn't have time to tape him.) So much for traditions that don't travel well.
Texas A&M's regular players had also made a strong impression on the Bruins. During pre-game warm ups of the ‘55 game, several of the Bruins found themselves marveling at one particular Aggie lineman who was missing half his forearm. What a stud! But after receiving a few well-placed blows in the chops from that ugly stump their tune changed to something like "that dirty SOB." Even though the Bruins came away with a 21-0 win, on three TD passes by Ronnie Knox (making his much anticipated debut), the game was, as they say, "closer than the score indicates."
The following night a group of Bruin players took in another game at the Coliseum and, while scanning the section above them, what should greet their horrified gaze but row after row of Jack Palance replicants: Talk about your Aggie jokes! Thank God these guys were off the schedule. Of course some of these Aggie Uglies would go on to an undefeated season two years later.
Sometime during junior high school, probably Easter vacation, I served my rookie year as a Spaulding Field railbird… and loved it. After spending bus fare (seventeen cents) on three nickel candy bars, I'd hitch a ride west, out Sunset Blvd., to the beautiful north campus, then make my way down through this wondrous, park-like setting, all these imposing Italian Renaissance style buildings set amongst gently rolling hills. Walking along what was then a dirt path beside Westwood Blvd., huge dusty pepper trees (?) lining the way, I remember being struck by the quiet, broken only by the sound of cleats hitting the path as the huge players, in twos and threes, came jogging past me on their way to the practice field.
These practices were serious affairs, more serious than, for instance, a Thurman Thomas could ever imagine. (For one thing, the players couldn't lose their helmets since they were never allowed to take them off.) I watched from the bleachers or lying inconspicuously in the grass, away from the playing field. No officious manager tried to kick me out, nor did I have to be told to stay out of the way.
Sanders' practice field manner was rather low key, his abuse very dry. You couldn't imaging him losing it, a la' Lou Holtz for instance. One day I watched him nearly finish off a player with sarcasm alone. Pete O'Garro was a tall skinny end, and either he was having a very bad day or Sanders was creating one for him. Pete couldn't do the drills; he scrimmaged poorly; he seemed to be movement without action; all frenzy, frustration and dropped passes. He seemed to be bleeding inside and out. "O'Garrah, is there anything you can do right?" rang out that familiar drawl, literally, from on high… that and other assorted, well placed barbs. So, when "O'Garrah" picked a blocked punt out of midair and ran it in for the deciding touchdown in the season-making 14-13 upset of Stanford, I felt so good for the guy he might as well have been my older brother.
In a profession not known for it, Sanders was also unusually gracious. He seldom whined. He took his losses straight. He didn't give you any of this, "Not to make excuses, Keith, but damn! I mean we dropped a lot of balls out there today. And turnovers! Good Lord, you know you can't give the ball away to a great team like that and still hope to compete." Which is to say, he didn't publicly scapegoat his players. Not that he ever had to spend much time talking about turnovers, dropped passes, or losses for that matter. Perhaps he understood there were forces in the game over which no man had control. I like to think he was among those men who combine a healthy ego with that saving touch of humility, thus enabling him to recognize the limits of any human capacity to dominate events, more a Wellington than a Napoleon (or even a Pete Carroll).
After absorbing the brutal 14-12 loss to SC, he went out of his way to praise the Trojan defense (there was no Trojan offense). And after a well earned 10-7 Trojan victory in ‘56, he immediately sought out Nick Pappas, a young SC assistant who had helped put together their crunching, up-the-middle game plan. "Nice going," he told him, as they walked towards the tunnel. "That's the first time anyone's ever wedged on me." The startled Pappas walked off the field feeling "ten feet tall."
But even Sanders had his breaking point, the most notable being his relationship with the stage father from hell, Harvey Knox. Harvey was the pain in the ass you had to endure for landing his wonderfully talented stepson, Ronnie, a quiet, good-looking kid who wrote poetry when he wasn't producing touchdowns, who said he would rather read Proust than play football, and who (no great surprise) gravitated towards the precious L.A. literary circle around Anais Nin.
It wasn't enough Sanders had to bear the excruciating, last-second loss to Michigan St. in the ‘56 Rose Bowl. He also had to read Harvey's hysterical screed in next day's Herald. "SANDERS BLEW IT - HARVEY," screamed the headline, slugged over Melvin Durslag's byline. "You have an obligation not to print stories by an asshole like that," a furious Sanders couldn't help lecturing the young sportswriter who was, himself, merely the victim of a sadistic editor.
All this was in sharp contrast to the characteristic petulance of SC's Jess Hill (and even John McKay) after any tough Trojan defeat. Indeed, had Sanders survived only four more years, it's easy to imagine him strangling McKay in the crib. It was commonly thought that McKay's 1960 upset of UCLA saved his job. Working on a one-year contract, McKay was a no-name rookie suffering through an awful season. A week after upsetting the Bruins he would receipt for his fourth shutout loss of the year at the hands of Notre Dame. And McKay was not an old Trojan.
No Billy Barnes, it's a safe bet Sanders would have made better use of Bill Kilmer and a strong defense, thus propelling McKay into a fifteen-year head start on his NFL career. Think of it Trojan fans: John McKay, Trojan footnote, instead of the greatest Trojan of them all (perhaps to have become John McKay, NFL legend, instead of a Tampa Bay footnote.) Had Sanders even made it to age sixty, his won-loss record may have equaled McKay's. And McKay never had to build a tradition from scratch, never had to field a team without seniors, or with five gamers.
Sanders believed that you made your breaks but that chance favors the best and the boldest. Prepare confidently, apply pressure intelligently, and good things should follow. Of course there's always one more thing. the thing we never see. Sanders days at UCLA are like some film project gone wrong: "The Thin Red Line" done by Oliver Stone instead of Terrence Malick, with Woody Harrelson as "Witt" instead of the soldier who blew off his butt. Better yet, imagine some kind of wacked-out, Leroy Nieman on acid: some kind of dark-jock-art-wall-painting stuck in a remote corner of the campus… sinister dwarfs in gray flannel suits with "No Repeat" buttons in their lapels… hookers and high ball glasses… "that's the way the ball bounces" scrawled across a deflated football… and the grim reaper presiding over all.
Sanders finally made the Hall of Fame… forty years after his last game. Donahue would make it six years after his last game.
Before Sanders there was little UCLA athletic tradition. While Howard Jones' "Thundering Herd" was trampling everything in sight, poor "Bunker Bill" Spaulding was sweating bullets across town trying to overcome Cal Tech's infernal domination of the Bruins. In 1923, "The Fight'n Nerds" had piled it on Spaulding's predecessor, 59-6. Four years before that, the bullies of Manual Arts High School crucified them, 74-0. Even my old school, the Hollywood High Sheiks, beat them!
Before Sanders, UCLA football was two decades of struggle built on a decade of mortification. Bob Waterfield, Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson were all more famous than their Bruin teams. UCLA's one "great team" had been flattened like Wile E. Coyote by Buddy Young and underdog Illinois in the ‘47 Rose Bowl. (It could have been worse since what the unbeaten #4 Bruins really wanted was a piece of Red Blaik's great Army team, featuring Blanchard and Davis.)
This golden athletic tradition that we're all so eager to flaunt, and which SI, or some such glossy rag, once dubbed "the Athens of athletics" was basically the creation of two men: Sanders and Wooden. Wooden, of course, has become synonymous with UCLA. His name adorns a campus building and the Pauley Pavilion basketball court. Sanders has only some pissant football award named for him; that's it. And UCLA still likes to call Donahue their "winningest" football coach. (By the same logic, as has been pointed out numerous times, he's also their "losingest.")
Here was John Wooden, toiling away in gypsy obscurity, moving from one home court to another, while Sanders was the instantly recognizable "genius." And he looked every bit the part. Though of average height and a little barrel-chested, he stood very straight in a pale well-cut suit, very much at ease. My friend and I were out to bust an eccentric classmate who claimed to know the great coach personally, claimed he talked to him after games. Sanders indulged our adolescent exercise with good humor, going so far as to ask his wife if she had any idea who, or what, we were talking about. Both spoke in what I took to be upper-class southern accents.
Many years later I ran into another southern gentleman at a local supermarket. It was August and we were taking our ease over the pre-season football magazines while our wives were taking care of business. In the course of conversation it turned out he had played football for George W. "Peahead" Walker at Wake Forest, and this ol' boy didn't have much to say for his old coach. In fact he gave me to believe they didn't call him "Peahead" for nothing.
Walker was of the old, old school which, for all serious purposes, began to die out when crusty old Frank Kush self-destructed at Arizona St. My man hated "Peahead" with such a passion that he transferred out of Wake Forest. And it struck me that this man, at the time old enough to be my father, might have played ball for Sanders at Vanderbilt had he transferred there (he didn‘t). And yet those old films of Sanders' teams, like certain "handsome" older women, seem to have aged quite gracefully.
A couple of days later I'm at a discount book store in Glendale glancing through a remaindered, coffee table history of college football, one of those big handsome brutes with great old photographs and a hollow text. And who should I come across but "Peahead" himself, a big ol' bowl and spoon in his lap, looking like something straight out of Flannery O'Connor or "Deliverance." "Peahead" couldn't have carried Sanders' playbook, yet he rates a photo in this so-called history; Sanders doesn't even rate a mention. And I thought this sort of thing only happened in old Soviet history books. But then this is Bruins football, after all.