Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Whatever happened to OU-Nebraska?

My last post recalled the Big Eight glory days of the OU-Nebraska rivalry. On November 7th 2009 the Sooners and Huskers played out a depressing 10-3 Nebraska win which featured a single touchdown, scored on a drive of one yard. The game will not enter the cannon of great and memorable meetings in this storied series. Both the 2009 Huskers and Sooners have had their problems at the quarterback position while fielding first rate defenses. It wasn’t surprising that the game proved a less-than appetizing spectacle of mutual offensive inertia. Naturally every great rivalry series will occasionally provide an underwhelming spectacle. That in itself is not a problem. The sad fact about this game is that Oklahoma will not play in Lincoln again until 2013. Since the inception of the Big XII the OU-Nebraska series has only been played two of every four years. Season ticket holders in Lincoln and Norman only enjoy the opportunity of seeing their erstwhile rival as often as they can vote for who resides in the White House. That, in my opinion, is a travesty.

So what ever happened to the OU-Nebraska game?

During the 1984 off-season the U.S. Supreme Court heard and ruled upon a
land mark case launched two years earlier to challenge the NCAA’s centrally negotiated television rights monopoly. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma vs. the NCAA proved to be college football’s Brown vs. Topeka. This decision combined with the growing number of channels available to American television sets via cable to pave the way for the near-saturation point levels of exposure enjoyed by the game today. Most importantly, the decision gave individual schools and conference the rights to control and distribute the revenue their games generated. This revolution turned the historical rationale for conference alignments on their heads. Geographical cohesion, natural rivalries, travel costs, institutional bonds and any number of factors that had created and sustained conferences through the mid-1980s were increasingly marginalized as the golden calf of TV revenue grew larger and demanded ever greater sacrifices.

In 1991 the SEC expanded to 12 teams in order to take advantage of a previously over looked NCAA by-law stating that a conference of twelve teams might form into two divisions and create a football championship game. Conference commissioner Roy Kramer saw an opportunity for a high profile game with unparalleled revenue generating capability. He was exactly correct. The SEC set a decade of conference musical chairs in motion after the 1991 season by extent ending invitations to independent South Carolina and long-time Southwest Conference member Arkansas. An ongoing dispute over the school’s radio broadcast and revenue rights made Arkansas administrators only too eager to bolt. This realignment immediately produced two unintended consequences. Firstly, it showed other schools and conferences the immense financial and publicity value of the two-division, championship game format. Secondly, it rendered the SWC an irrelevant, parochial conference geographically rooted in the local identity and tangled political life of a single state.

From the late 1960s onwards a cycle of cheating involving recruitment violation and payment of players infected the entire SWC. Struggling conference rivals attempted to keep from slipping too far behind the increasingly powerful Longhorns and Aggies. Eventually these unscrupulous practices unraveled the entire league. After the NCAA handed SMU’s football program a one-year suspension for the 1987 season boosters at various schools began a sordid retaliatory process of mutual muckraking that reduced the league to an utterly discredited public family feud. Once Arkansas departed UT chancellor William Cunningham began to explore the possibility of following suit. Despite initial flirtations with the academically alluring Pac 10 and Big 10 the most logical choice was the Big Eight. Conversations began primarily with the athletics director of longtime non-conference rival Oklahoma Donnie Duncan. With the model of the SEC’s lucrative expansion as a guide an agreement emerged by February of 1994 to marry the Big Eight with the four largest and most politically influential Texas universities. ABC’s initial contract with the new Big 12 was worth a base $90 million over five years with an extra $10 million incentive to add a championship game. The league obviously possessed the super-regional appeal that the SWC had long since lost.

Conference realignment, the conference championship format, and an increasing volume of nationally televised games through a growing entourage of cable network partners ushered in a new era for college football. Naturally, and perhaps fittingly, many aspects of the game’s former landscape changed. Conference commissioners and school administrators had to balance the weight of history and tradition with the generally more weighty imperatives of garnering the public interest and athletics revenue necessary to sustain competitive advantages. For the Big XII, the two division format added a championship game and created a juggernaut conference of national consequence. But it also involved a geographical divorce for the old Big Eight. Moving OU and Nebraska to different divisions meant potentially losing an annual series that had provided some of college football’s most memorable games and largest television audience. In the SEC several schools refused to allow realignment to disrupt the history of their most important annual fixtures. In order to maintain the Auburn-Georgia and Alabama-Tennessee rivalries the league created four other annual inter-divisional series. This balance the mathematics of an eight game regular season and maintained the fixtures that created the most local and national interest in the league.

Why did the Big XII decide not to pursue a similar option in order to maintain the OU-Nebraska series? I recently discussed this question with Daily Oklahoman columnist Barry Tramel, an outspoken advocate of restoring the OU-Nebraska series to an annual fixture. According to Tramel the old Big Eight rivalry posed two major problems for the new conference alignment. Firstly, the game had traditionally been scheduled for late November since it almost invariably constituted a de facto conference championship play-off. In that slot the fixture garnered enormous national interest and large TV ratings. The new two-division format generated the distinct possibility Nebraska and OU would meet one another in the conference title game not infrequently. In that case a regular season fixture in November would lose the winner-takes-all relevance that had long made it a national staple.

Secondly, in the mid-1990s little appetite for maintaining the series existed in Norman. The possibility was raised of playing the game as a non-conference fixture on the two years of every four that the schools did not meet in conference play. Nebraska lacks a natural geographic rival and over the long history of Cornhusker football only Oklahoma has provided an annual game against an equally weighted powerhouse. Naturally folks in Lincoln wanted to maintain the annual meeting. But times were hard for OU, which had not won a conference title since 1987. NCAA sanctions and negative publicity resulting from recruiting violations and several high-profile player arrests led to Barry Switzer’s tumultuous and bitter departure in 1988. From 1989 to 1994 Gary Gibbs posted an unimpressive 44-23-2 record with only a single win over each of Nebraska and Texas. 1995 brought the disastrous single season tenure of the fossilized Howard Schnellenberger. John Blake failed to right the ship from 1996 to 1998 with an inglorious 12-22 record. While the 1990s were nothing but unkind to OU Tom Osborne’s Cornhuskers won seven conference and two national championships. Offered an opportunity to drop the Huskers from the schedule two of every four years, Donnie Duncan jumped at the chance. The Big XII replaced OU on Nebraska’s annual November slate with Colorado, the only other team from the old Big Eight that might even attempt to claim anything like national prominence. Suffice to say that this annual rivalry game has thus far failed to match the glory years of the OU-Nebraska series.

Despite his columns appealing to the weight of tradition and the spirit of competition, Tramel does not see any momentum for the idea of restoring the series. Short of adopting Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy’s highly unpopular and wildly unrealistic suggestion of an eleven-game, round-robin conference schedule [which would obviously mean eliminating the lucrative championship game for which the conference was initially created], there is no chance that OU and Nebraska will play annually anytime soon.

Board of Regents vs. NCAA and the explosion of television coverage for college football that followed have, largely speaking, been good for the game. They have certainly been good to fans, who can now see almost every game of any significance nationally televised somewhere on their dial. But no transition between historical eras is ever without cost. The Big XII omelet involved the breaking of several proverbial eggs. The messy divorce of the old SWC has made life very difficult for several of the former member schools not fortunate enough to be taken along to the new Promised Land.

By comparison to the continued struggles of the football program at once-proud SMU perhaps the downscaling of the OU-Nebraska series is a relatively minor consequence. But anyone who remembers the days when the Big Eight's two great colossus programs perennially crashed into one another at the business end of the AP poll is likely to disagree.

(Sources: SI scorecard, 03/07/94; Dunnavant, 50 year seduction;; Boyles and Guido, USA Today CFB encyclopedia; oral interview with Barry Tramel; Sally Jenkins, SI, Sorry state)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Clash of the Big Eight titans

Between 1928 and 1940 Nebraska football won nine outright Big Eight championships, six of those coming during Dana X Bible’s eight year tenure as head coach. They did not win another until 1963. In the intervening years Bud Wilkinson turned conference rival Oklahoma into a national juggernaut, going his first eleven years as head coach without losing a single Big Eight game. Up to the time of Wilkinson’s arrival in Norman as assistant to Jim Tatum in 1946 Nebraska held a huge series lead over the Sooners, 16-6-3. The Cornhuskers did not beat OU again until 1959. By the time Bob Devaney became head coach in Lincoln the center of gravity in the series had emphatically shifted with the Sooners winning fifteen of the preceding seventeen. But from that point on, until the Big Eight’s merger with four teams from the old Southwest Conference in 1996, both OU and Nebraska were never far from the business end of college football’s rankings. Their annual clash of titans almost invariably decided the Big Eight champion and often counted for much more. After Oklahoma joined the Big Eight in 1919 the winner of the OU-Nebraska game claimed the conference title a staggering fifty-five times in seventy-six seasons. From 1950 the winner of the game went on to earn a national championship on twelve occasions. No two conference rivals in the college football’s modern era have collectively achieved so much national success.

Dana Bible’s great Nebraska teams largely relied on good coaching of home-state farm boys. In the post-war era as television allowed the game to develop into an inter-regional phenomenon Devaney was able to restore Nebraska’s fortunes by developing national appeal and a recruiting network that spanned a continent. Wilkinson established a legacy in Norman of complete monopoly on in-state talent augmented with cross-border raids of the best Texas High School products. OU and Nebraska football developed into virtual mirror images. Both schools were flagship institutions in sparsely populated, geographically underwhelming football-mad states. Successive coaches at both programs found ways to attract the best players to their quiet towns, enabling them to field technically sound power-running teams characterized by under-stated class. College football evolved from the T and Diamond formations through the wishbone and into the option but one thing never changed. Every year Nebraska and Oklahoma lined up and ran at each other like a head-on train crash. The winner almost always took all.

In 1964 Bob Devaney received a phone call from an ambitious young coach whose three-year NFL career had ended two years earlier. A native Nebraskan and former state prep athlete of the year, Tom Osborne had played his collegiate football at his hometown Hastings College. He talked Devaney into giving him a position as an unpaid graduate assistant and started out coaching receivers in exchange for a dorm room and meals with the team. Osborne possessed a brilliant mind and in addition to pursuing his doctorate in educational psychology impressed Devaney as a coach sufficiently to earn the job as Nebraska offensive coordinator by 1967. Osborne possessed not only obvious tactical genius and profound organizational skills but also a rare personal touch. In 1969 he recruited Johnny Rodgers, a troubled young man from Omaha’s north side who had both been stabbed and shot another boy in the stomach before his sixteenth birthday. As a Nebraska freshman in 1970 Rodgers was involved in a gas station robbery that earned him two years probation. Osborne took responsibility for young man’s development and under his tutelage Rodgers stayed clear of trouble and played well enough to win the 1972 Heisman Trophy. Under Devaney Nebraska won consecutive national championships in 1970 and 1971. Osborne took over as head coach in 1973. The two men had successfully engineered a football revival in Lincoln. Most impressively they had done it without requiring a corresponding drop off in productivity from conference rival Oklahoma. In Devaney’s second championship year Chuck Fairbanks’ OU Sooners finished 2nd in the final AP poll. The two rivals played out a 35-31 Nebraska win in Norman that is widely considered to be ‘the game of the century’. Between 1970 and 1975 Oklahoma and Nebraska each won two national championships. Only once in those six seasons did either team finish outside the AP top ten [OU’s 20th place finish in 1970].

The same year Osborne assumed command in Lincoln Oklahoma’s own long-standing assistant moved up to the head job in Norman. Barry Switzer, a cock-sure young Arkansas graduate, took over for Fairbanks who moved to the NFL. He set about installing a version of Darrel Royal’s new 'wishbone' offense and saw immediate success [even despite NCAA sanctions for transcript irregularities dating to Fairbanks’ tenure]. Switzer’s teams smashed national records for offensive output on the ground. His first Sooner team went 10-0-1 finishing in the AP poll behind only Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes and Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish. Switzer won his first five meetings with Osborne, including a1975 home date in which the unbeaten, second ranked Huskers suffered a 35-10 humiliation at the hands of a seventh ranked OU squad that had picked up an inexplicable loss to the visiting Kansas Jayhawks the preceding week. Osborne’s first five Nebraska teams were good. They were excellent, in fact. From 1973 to 1977 Nebraska went 4-1 in the post-season, including victories over Texas in the 1974 Cotton and Florida in the 1975 Sugar Bowl. But they were not good enough to beat OU.

When the Sooners travelled to Lincoln for Switzer and Osborne’s sixth meeting as head coaches on November 11th 1978 they were again ranked number one and standing unbeaten at 9-0. Behind the explosive running of junior halfback Billy Sims, who would claim Oklahoma’s third Heisman Trophy that year, the Sooners led the nation in rushing with a massive 415 yards per game. Overall, the fourth ranked Huskers were even more productive. Despite a 3-point performance in their season opening loss at eventual national champion Alabama, Nebraska was averaging 515 yards total offense and scoring 41.5 points a game. While neither team relied on vertical passing to any great degree the Huskers showed slightly more balance. Operating out of the Sooners' precision wishbone attack quarterback Thomas Lott was averaging less than seventy yards passing. His counterpart Tom Sorley was passing for 175 yards a game, which only helped Nebraska’s own impressive performances on the ground.

Johnny Rodgers, Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne in more recent times

During a joint mid-week press conference Osborne played some public mind-games, intentionally downplaying his team’s chances. He told reporters in Switzer’s hearing:

“We have good running backs. [Rick] Burns or [Isaiah] Hipp could contribute to their team, but we don’t have anyone they even recruited out of High School.”

Burns had been an overlooked running back out of Wichita Falls, while Hipp was a walk-on from rural Chapin, South Carolina. Despite leading his home-town Eagles to two state AA championships and amassing nearly 3,000 career yards Hipp was not recruited by any college due to a shoulder injury he suffered as a senior. As a High School freshman in 1971, Hipp had watched the OU-Nebraska game on television. Despite never having been near the state of Nebraska he decided on the spot that wanted to be like Johnny Rodgers and would only play for the Huskers. Without any prior contact with Osborne Hipp scraped the money together to fly to Lincoln. He enrolled at NU and managed to catch the coaching staff'’s attention in walk-on try outs. He broke out as redshirt sophomore in 1977 with several hundred yard games, including a 77-yard TD against Indiana that is still Nebraska’s longest scoring run. Hipp was typical of Osborne’s Cornhuskers. Nebraska coaches found talent from across the country, and sometimes talent found them. Osborne’s staff improved players as well as any program in the nation. He may have been serious in talking about his team as over-looked, under-talented and generally not good enough for Norman. But Osborne knew his I-formation offenses, alternating lightening tailbacks Hipp and Tim Wurth with bruising fullbacks Burns and Andra Franklin, could rack up points on anybody. Against Nebraska's prolific offense backed up by famed “black-shirt” defense and playing at home, even Barry Switzer’s Sooners would struggle.

Isaiah Moses Hipp, walk-on

Although the matchup pitted the nation’s two leading offenses both coaches predicted a defensive battle. They were exactly right. In typical fashion OU and Nebraska pounded each other at the line of scrimmage all day. Eventually the narrow margin of victory came from a few fumbles caused by the handful of crucial hits that somehow stood out amid a great host of punishing, text-book tackles.

Virtually nothing separated the teams. Nebraska outgained Oklahoma by only twenty-two yards, 361 to 339. OU ran the ball sixty-one times, Nebraska sixty-two. Oklahoma made only thirteen first downs to Nebraska’s eighteen, but as was characteristic of the wishbone the Sooners made longer runs and outgained the Huskers on the ground by nearly eighty yards and 1.5 yards per carry. OU drew first blood, reaching the end zone on their second possession. The Sooners drove twenty-six yards to the Nebraska forty-four before Billy Sims kick-started his monster day by skipping through the line over right tackle, shaking off a Husker defender at the NU thirty-five and disappearing for a score. Sims was on his way to a 153 yard, two touchdown day and for a moment it looked as though Nebraska would be out classed again. The Huskers followed OU’s score with a Berns fumble on his own thirteen yard line. Fortunately for Osborne the blackshirts responded. Nebraska stuffed OU and pushed them back a yard on the first two plays. On third-and-eleven Lott went around left end on a QB keeper only to meet linebacker Lee Kunz at the corner and have the ball mercilessly stripped. Kunz’ points-saving takeaway provided the first in a string of OU turnovers that defined the game.

The wishbone, like any option offense, can chew up plenty of clock and cover a lot of territory – sometimes quickly in big plays. But the system is one dimensional, and never more so than in Switzer’s version. Lott finished the day with telling passing statistics: zero completions on two attempts. Nebraska defenders knew what was coming and brought pressure consistently, flying to the ball. For success, the wishbone requires misdirection, superior blocking schemes, and above all, ball security. On Oklahoma’s next possession Lott led his team to the Nebraska forty-three before a busted pitch out gave up another turnover. The Sooners simply could not afford such mistakes, but they kept coming. OU put the ball on ground nine times and lost it six. Even the irrepressible Sims was not immune. He lost two fumbles, including one at the Nebraska three yard line in the final minutes of the game with only a field goal separating the two sides. After the game a dejected Sims refused to cut himself any slack, telling reporters:

“I just got hit. But it was carelessness, not the hit. I don’t think I played a good game at all.”

Sims did play a good game. Running backs didn’t gain 150 yards with two scores against Nebraska on poor performances. Not with Osborne running the show. Sims lost the ball because of the hit. OU kept losing the ball all day because everywhere they turned there was a Husker waiting with a hit.

Nebraska answered OU’s relentless ground game with slightly more in the way of balance and variety. After the Sooner’s second turnover Nebraska took the ball fifty-seven yards the other way on a drive that including a ten-yard pace run from Hipp, a deep ball from Sorley to receiver Junior Miller, and a sideline flare pass that Burns converted to a first-and-goal at the OU nine. The drive finished with a straight up power run from Burns out of a deep set I. Nebraska had found their rhythm and very nearly scored again seconds before the break after forcing a David Overstreet fumble on Oklahoma’s own twenty-eight. On that occasion the OU defense limited the damage and Nebraska kicker Billy Todd found only the right upright from twenty-one yards. But even with the score tied and the Huskers’ finishing the half on the disappointment of a botched field goal, it was clear which team possessed the momentum.

The second half picked up exactly where the first had left. Overstreet lost a second fumble on exactly the half way line following a crushing hit from Nebraska’s Derrie Nelson. After OU held the Huskers to nothing on two plays Sorley went deep to Miller again, this time for a thirty-three yard gain. The Nebraska quarterback finished the day with a competent 111 yards on 8 of 20 attempts. That was 111 crucial passing yards more than Oklahoma managed. From third-and-ten Nebraska might have let another turnover slip without converting to points, but Osborne’s power-running offense was backed up by just enough aerial proficiency to keep his team on the field. Four plays took Nebraska the remaining distance with Hipp deftly evading tackles on a quick-footed scoring run from eight yards out.

Nebraska had a precious 14-7 lead but Oklahoma answered immediately. The Sooners drove seventy-three yards on the next possession, showing what they might have done had they been able to protect the football more consistently. Sims capped the march with a thirty yard touchdown run, bursting over the right end of the line before reaching the end zone untouched. For once on the afternoon a Sooner back made a big play without taking a hit or having to physically break a tackle. That would be the last time. On a fifty yard march beginning late in third quarter Sorley brought Nebraska back inside the Sooner ten with a first-and-goal before finally settling for another short field goal attempt from Todd. On his second try the Husker specialist finished the job. Nebraska had a three point lead. Ten minutes later when Sims lost the ball for Oklahoma’s sixth and final time after OU had once again ground their way into scoring position, Osborne finally had his win over Switzer.

The two coaches went head-to-head a total of seventeen times with Switzer earning a clear advantage 12-5. Neither man ever coached at another school. Both achieved astounding success despite sharing a tiny conference with an equally weighted powerhouse rival. Switzer coached at OU until 1988going 157-29-4 with two national titles and at least a share of twelve conference championships. Osborne stayed at Nebraska for a quarter century, eventually surpassing even Bud Wilkinson’s Big Eight win tally with a career record of 255-49-3. He earned three national titles and at least a share of thirteen conference championships. As both assistants and head coaches the tenures of Barry Switzer and Tom Osborne provided the golden age of a rivalry that defined college football on the plains of Middle America for more than half a century.

The defining play of the greatest college game ever played

(Sources: SI, Hipp: Wonder walk-on; AP poll archive;; College football’s 25 greatest teams; Great college football coaches; Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stanford rolls in the Coliseum

Stanford and Southern Cal can only be called rivals in the strict sense that they have always shared a conference and played one another annually. Decade after decade the on-field disparity between the two schools’ football prowess and aspirations could hardly be greater. Thirty-eight times USC has earned at least a shared conference championship. Stanford has managed only twelve, ten of those coming before 1970. USC holds a lopsided 58-26-3 series lead. Prior to 2009 Stanford had managed to win on consecutive visits to the Coliseum only three times. In contrast the Trojans longest streak without a loss in the series ran to almost two decades. USC defenses have held Stanford scoreless on fifteen occasions – more than one of every six meetings. Stanford has not shut out USC since Hitler invaded Russia. Only five times have Stanford teams breached the 30 point barrier against the Trojans, with one of those coming in a loss. Trojan teams have, over the years, taken Stanford to the woodshed not infrequently.

On 14 November 2009 Jim Harbaugh’s team earned Stanford University a second consecutive series road win vs. USC. The Cardinal beat the pre-season Pac-10 favorites emphatically, laying on a staggering 55-21 beat-down. This represents the series’ most complete win since USC throttled Stanford 54-7 in 1952. The ’09 Cardinal exceeded Stanford's best ever offensive productivity versus Southern Cal by twenty points.

On 9 November 1957 the Stanford Indians rolled into Los Angeles and hung a 35-7 thrashing on USC. That win stood as Stanford’s best over the west coast’s most dominant football power for over half a century. The win would have been as unlikely as ever had the Trojans not been under major Pacific Coast Conference sanctions for flagrant violations of league scholarship rules. The PCC, formed in 1915, had a strong constitution and a powerful commissioner to penalize transgressions. The NCAA had virtually no enforcement power in those days. Each conference set different scholarship, recruitment and eligibility boundaries and enforced them how they saw fit. In the early 1950s the PCC members gave athletics scholarships in the form of grants equal to the cost of tuition. The league allowed up to sixty such scholarships to come directly from regular institutional funds but additional scholarships could be given with money raised specifically for the purpose. Players could also earn money through work programs with remuneration limits set at $2.00 an hour not to exceed a total of $100 per month. Money raised for athletics scholarships came through organized booster club accounts.

Evidence that the University of Oregon athletics department had allowed booster club payments to players exceeding the league's limits forced the resignation of head coach Jim Aiken in 1951. Five years later Oregon officials reported similar payments at rival UCLA. Investigations unraveled a web of scandal inculcating most of the conference members in illegal payment schemes channeled through shady booster which reported only a fraction of their payments. Through the 1956 off-season PCC investigators turned up evidence that the activities of UCLA’s “Young Men of Westwood” organization, UW’s “Greater Washington Advertising Fund,” USC’s “Southern California Educational Foundation” and Cal’s “South Seas Fund” amounted to little more than unrestricted slush funds. Harsh penalties followed for the schools involved, accompanied with ongoing acrimonious protests from California schools which argued that a higher cost of living in Los Angeles and the Bay area necessitated additional aid that inflexible conference rules did not permit. The ill-will created eventually caused the PCC to disintegrate. In 1959 the four California schools and Washington began a new affiliation in the Athletics Association of Western Universities, which lacked any formal enforcement mechanism beyond an institutional honor code and did not require every member to play each of the others. Eventually every former PCC member except Idaho joined the AAWU and formed the Pac-Eight, but the league remained little more than a loose affiliation of mutually distrustful programs until well into the 1970s.

Unsurprisingly, squeaky-clean and academically rigorous Stanford was the only California school in the PCC not Penalized for scholarship rule violations in 1956. USC, Cal and UCLA were banned from accepting bowl bids for several years and lost key players to ineligibility rulings. In 1957 Don Clark returned only 15 of 34 lettermen from his 8-2 team of the previous year. The Trojans’ starting lineup was decimated by the loss of virtually every skill player. If there ever was a year for the Indians to score a big win over their perennially merciless big brother, this was it.

Stanford coach Chuck Taylor was a gentleman and an optimist. He accepted the job in 1951 more because he loved Stanford than from any personal ambitions to coach. Taylor never held another job and coached in Palo Alto only seven seasons. As a player he had been an all-American guard and captained Stanford’s 1941 Rose Bowl team to victory over Nebraska. His first Stanford team as coach started 9-0 before dropping the two games that really mattered – Cal and the Rose Bowl against Illinois. None of Taylor’s subsequent teams enjoyed such success, two 6-3 campaigns constituting his high watermarks thereafter. He later served as athletics director, overseeing another Stanford Rose Bowl trip. Even in the late 1950s Taylor faced the problem of academic eligibility in an intellectually rigorous environment. He could only recruit the players who, like him, truly wanted to be at Stanford. Unlike coaches in Los Angeles, Taylor could not easily replace stars. After the graduation of all-American John Brodie, the school’s record setting passer, Taylor had to return to more conservative game planning. First year starting quarterback Jack Douglas could throw down field if necessary but was best utilized as a runner in a well populated backfield. Taylor told reporters before the season that despite graduating two all-Americans, losses of rare magnitude for any Stanford coach, he felt his team’s offense would be better. He was right. Though Taylor’s team stood at only 4-3 heading in to Los Angeles on 9 November they had plenty of competent runners on the roster and employed end-around and pitch-out runs successfully from a Spread-T formation [not entirely unlike the modern spread-option]. The Indians made yards on most of their conference rivals, especially the ones reeling under league sanctions.

Generally inhospitable

Like Taylor, Don Clark coached his alma mater. He had been a successful but not outstanding guard and had played two years of pro football with the San Francisco 49ers after serving in WWII. Also like Taylor he only ever had one head coaching job. He began as an assistant at Navy in 1950 before moving back to USC to work for Jess Hill in 1952. With controversy swirling around the program in 1957 Hill “moved upstairs” to become USC athletics director. It seems strange that a coach leading a program coming under punishment for scholarship rule violations should be promoted to AD, but university administration firmly believe no wrongs had been committed and that the fault lay with unfair enforcement of misguided league standards. That was all well and good for Hill, but on the field Don Clark was left holding the baby. Clark’s three years as Trojan coach included two of the program’s worst. Losing players to ineligibility rulings and without the lure of a Rose Bowl trip to promise recruits Clark struggled. His first team finished with a pitiful 1-9 record. Little wonder he decided to return to his family business in 1960 and never went back to coaching.

The USC team Stanford faced on the field in the Coliseum in November 1957 was not cut from the usual Trojan cloth. Starting center Ken Antle had played only 44 minutes during the previous season, which was fairly typical. Halfbacks Tony Ortega and Rex Johnson were large enough, but lacked elite speed. The Trojans had won their first game of the season 19-12 the preceding week on the road against equally underwhelming 1-4-1 Washington. No one was surprised when Stanford’s more experienced line and faster backfield ran all over Southern Cal.

Before a homecoming crowd of over 50,000 the Indians refused to play the part of obliging visitor and put on a workshop in classic 1950s football. Occasional underneath passes to backfield members served primarily to augment the multi-faceted running game. Fullback Chuck Shea, the PCC’s leading rusher, made 77 yards on the ground with a 6 yard touchdown run. Jack Douglas’ passing figures were competent but far from eye-catching. He went 10 of 16 for 85 yards with his most impressive stat, a 12 yard touchdown strike to future Dallas Texan wide receiver Chris Burford, coming after a third quarter USC fumble that allowed the Indians to ice the game.

For most of the afternoon Stanford was methodical, not aggressive. The Indians made 21 first downs to the Trojans’ 15. They opened the scoring with a first quarter 67 yard drive. USC answered immediately, capping a 76 yard, eleven play drive early in the second quarter with a twenty yard strike from quarterback Willie Wood to end Don Voyne, the only passing play of the drive. At that point it looked as though the two teams might trade blows all day, but Stanford dug in and from that point the difference in depth between the two squads showed. The Indians held Wood to only nine completions in twenty-two attempts for a total of ninety-four yards and two interceptions. The Trojans added 168 yards rushing but lost a crucial fumbled inside their own twenty when they could not afford to give up another point.

Seven points in the first quarter and fourteen in both the second and third put the game beyond doubt. Trojan tempers were obviously frayed and late in the final quarter a fracas erupted on the USC sideline that resulted in the ejection of USC’s Walt Gurasich and Stanford’s Don Dawson. No doubt receiving convincing home-field thrashings from perennial underdog Stanford was as much fun for Trojan lettermen in 1957 as it is today. Tempers flared between Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh after the 2009 meeting over the Stanford coach’s decision to try a two-point conversion in order to crack fifty points with the game already beyond reach. No matter how many years pass and how personnel may change, it is unlikely that USC will ever take a home loss to Stanford as anything other than an unusual and highly frustrating occurrence.

Luckily for USC fans they probably won’t have to get used to the feeling. Jim Harbaugh is fielding job offers from all corners and will likely move on at some stage in the not-too-distant future, while battering-ram running back Toby Gerhardt will almost certainly be giving the most articulate interviews in the NFL next fall. The 2009 Cardinal fielded Stanford’s best offense ever – better even than their efforts with John Elway in the backfield. Stanford fans should enjoy it while they can. The 2010 Cardinal will likely be a lot worse and the chances of the university beating USC by thirty again in the next five decades are probably not brilliant.

"How do ya'like them apples, coach?"
"I dislike them very much, coach."

(Sources: PCC, wiki; SI, Brave new AAWU; New York Times; SI, 1957 PCC preview)