Every year a rapidly diminishing group of football players who played for UCLA football coach Red Sanders has a reunion at UCLA. This year they met on the UCLA campus at the JD Morgan Center.
It was heartwarming to see these aging athletes meet and greet one another and to listen to their tales. This year the 1952 and 1957 teams were honored. A speaker from each team ran through the schedule and told something about each game. The 1952 team, led by all Americans Donn Moomaw and Paul Cameron, came into the SC game undefeated (as did SC) and were playing for the Rose Bowl, an undefeated season, and a possible number one ranking. UCLA suffered a heart-breaking 14-12 loss. UCLA actually outplayed USC in that game, but a third quarter interception by USC guard Elmer Wilhoite as UCLA was driving for a touchdown that would’ve increased its lead to 19 to 7, turned the game around.
That play was described in detail by Ed Flynn, an offensive guard, and how it was one of the most pivotal plays in UCLA football history. With UCLA driving, on SC’s 18 yard line, Paul Cameron threw a pass that was intercepted by Wilhoite, who ran the ball 72 yards to UCLA’s eight yard line. On fourth down, SC threw a touchdown pass for the winning touchdown. Explained Flynn:
The play called was a pass by Paul Cameron. I was supposed to pull and block Wilhoite. Ike Jones (the first black graduate of UCLA Film School and husband of actress Inger Stevens from 1961 until her death in 1970), our end, for some reason lined up split out wide, which he wasn’t supposed to do. As a result Wilhoite did not rush but stayed back, and I could not block him. Cameron threw the ball where he thought receiver Ernie Stockert would be. Instead, because Ike split out when he wasn’t supposed to and because Wilhoite didn’t rush, Wilhoite was there to intercept the ball and run it all the way back to our 12 yard line, from where USC scored the winning touchdown. We outplayed them throughout the game, as the statistics show. We should have gone up 19 to 7, instead of SC leading 14-12.
The effect that had on UCLA football history was tremendous for several reasons. The first was that Wisconsin and Purdue finished in a tie for the Big Ten title (with identical conference records of 4-1-1). We had already beaten Wisconsin earlier in the year (20-7 at Wisconsin) so we undoubtedly would’ve played Purdue (4-3-2 overall), and probably beaten them easily.
But even more important, the next year, 1953, we were good enough to win the conference and go to the Rose Bowl where we lost to Michigan State. Because the Pacific Coast conference and the Big Ten had a no repeat rule, that meant we could not go to the Rose Bowl the following year, 1954, when UCLA had its best football team in history, going undefeated and beating teams like Stanford and Oregon 72-0 and 67-0 respectively. But because of the no repeat rule UCLA could not go to the Rose Bowl that year and Ohio State beat USC.
Had UCLA won the 1952 game with USC, the Bruins not only would have gone to the Rose Bowl and probably won, but it would’ve been ineligible in 1953 for the Rose Bowl, which would have made it eligible for the 1954 Rose Bowl, setting up a meeting between the number one and number two ranked teams in the country UCLA versus Ohio State, and UCLA was so powerful it’s unlikely it would’ve lost.
So that one play in 1952 had dramatic and far-reaching consequences.
Other players spoke about their experiences in 1952 and 1957 and it was a fascinating meeting. But the highlight occurred when, about halfway through, present UCLA coach Jim Mora came into the room to say hello.
I had never met him and had only been exposed to him through television and the ridiculous articles by a Los Angeles Times’ sportswriter who delights in writing silly articles blasting the character of local sports figures.
Mora is especially impressive. He’s enthusiastic and personable. Before he left he asked if there were any questions. I asked the third and last, “Which is more difficult, coaching in the NFL or coaching college?”
His answer was inspiring. I didn’t take notes but the basis of what he said was that coaching college was far more rewarding than coaching in the NFL. The reason, he said, is because college coaches are dealing with young impressionable athletes, who pay attention and whose lives can be affected by what the coaches teach. He said it’s important that they not live their lives bound up entirely by possibly playing in NFL, but that they take advantage of the opportunity afforded them by getting a good education at UCLA and preparing for either life after the NFL, or far more probably life in lieu of the NFL. He also said that college players are far more enthusiastic and it’s much more rewarding to coach them and to see that spontaneous enthusiasm than it is to coach the older NFL professionals.
After listening to Coach Mora, I felt better about my alma mater than I have in a long, long time.
Following the meeting, we were invited to meet outside the new Pauley Pavilion by the new John Wooden statue. There we were given a private tour. What they have done is gorgeous, very impressive. It looks nothing like the old Pauley Pavilion.