Aside from all the groovy coeds and the postgame parties—called trips by some—the dandiest thing about college football is that teams can still win with pure miracles instead of by juking cornermen, flooding zones, reading dogs, running double Z-outs and—well, we all know how the pros explain everything. It must be that the college players really do sniff those mums and listen to those yells and believe that jerseys are sometimes retired because they will go crazy on you. Full whacko, as they say in TV. Freak—as they say—o-rama. A slow guy will outrun a fast guy, a little guy will block a big one, a player who can't keep his socks taped up will sidestep one who can. And now and then a freaky sophomore like last year's Gary Beban of UCLA (see cover) will come along and put his team in the Rose Bowl the way fictional quarterbacks do.
This is how it always has been with the college game, and this is how it will be again in 1966. To be sure, most of the teams that succeed will have their opponents outmaterialed, outcoached and outdormitoried, like No. 1 Alabama. But some will win simply because they want to, regardless of who gets juked, and because they are simply miraculous.
Right now, in fact, as nearly 30 million ticket-buying college enthusiasts prepare for the annual ritual of either firing their coaches or giving them new automobiles, there arc collegians who have no idea they are going to be winners. Perhaps there is another Red Grange at Illinois, or a Frankie Albert at Stanford, or a Fran Tarkenton at Georgia, or a George Welsh on a Team Called Desire at Navy, or another Doak Walker at SMU. If so, they probably won't even know who they are or what they are until a few desperate Saturdays have passed and, very much like Doak Walker (the last three-year-consensus All-America), they will have been seized by that mysterious, indefinable feeling that compels certain athletes to do the right thing at the right time—and win.
Miracle teams have been spiraling up in college football for as long as forecasters have been trying to ferret them out in September—which is about 40 years. Last year there were three—Michigan State, believing Coach Dully Daugherty when he said, "It's bad luck to be behind at the end of the game"; UCLA, believing mostly in Gary Beban; and Tennessee, believing in whatever it is that Alabama's Bear Bryant means when he says of the Vols, "They scare me, because their players are the kind who care about winning."
They have joined the elite, just as Notre Dame did in 1964 under Ara Parseghian after several years of being out to lunch with Joe Kuharich; just as Nebraska did with Bob Devaney in 1963; as USC did with John McKay in 1962. Now these six teams take their places with those old standbys of the 1960s—Alabama, of course, and the teams that push Bryant to national championships: Texas, Arkansas and LSU. All 10 of these teams will be tough again this season, which is about as surprising as saying Knute Rockne was an O.K. coach.
If it seems to the casual follower of college football that the same teams dominate play year after year, that it is a rare sight to find a Purdue or a Baylor or a Tulane mucking up the national scene, there is a lot of proof that he is right. While 116 teams are currently rated as major by the NCAA, and while only a few more than that used to play first-class schedules, an upper-crust society of approximately 25 teams does exist. What it constitutes is in actuality a sort of collegiate NFL.
Like most societies, except perhaps one in which everybody's great-grandfather was a whaling skipper, it can be crashed. And from time to time it will show gradual change, but, as the chart on pages 50 and 51 suggests, the struggle for national honors annually involves a list of teams not much longer than Pudge Heffelfinger's name. There are six teams from the Big Ten, five from the Southeastern Conference, counting recently eloped Georgia Tech, three from the Southwest, four from the West Coast, four from eastern colleges, two from the Big Eight and, naturally, Notre Dame. In any given year you could select a like number of teams from the same areas, if not the identical ones on the chart, and the eventual national champion would be among them. If not, it would have to be the year for Drexel Institute.
This season will be Alabama's again. Already the Crimson Tide has won three national titles in this decade—the AP and UPI awards in 1961, the same ones again in 1964 before losing to Texas in the Orange Bowl, and the AP and Football Writers last season, a minor miracle in itself, since the Tide, in the Orange Bowl again, came back from a loss and a tie and beat Nebraska, the only other team with a chance for the title. Now Alabama could become the third school to win three championships in a row (Minnesota did it in 1934, 1935 and 1936, Army did it in 1944, 1945 and 1946). And Alabama also has another chance to become the second school to win four in a single decade, as Notre Dame did under Frank Leahy in 1943, 1946, 1947 and 1949.
As early as last June, Bear Bryant said, "Heck, I get fired up just thinking about it." He should. Despite Bryant's usual habit of moaning (not that that makes him different from any other coach) and trying to elicit sympathy with such remarks as, "Our skinny little old kids are just bound to make four or five mistakes every game, the kind that worry you to death," the Crimson is a food Tide.
The ends, tackles, guards and running backs are as good as ever, and there are more of them. If a couple of them, End Ray Perkins and Tackle Cecil Dowdy, can just manage to suit up every week they may lope into Alabama's own Hall of Fame.
In college football smart money insists that one go first with those teams that have good coaches and good quarterbacks, and this sounds an awful lot like most of the teams in the Eleven Best. For example, there are Tommy Prothro and Gary Beban at UCLA, Frank Broyles and Jon Brittenum at Arkansas, Bob Devaney and Bob Churchich at Nebraska, Bobby Dodd and Kim King at Georgia Tech, Darrell Royal and Bill Bradley at Texas and Doug Dickey and Dewey Warren at Tennessee. But if there is ever a time to go against the book, it is where Bryant and Alabama are concerned.
The player who must produce is named Ken (Snake) Stabler. Bear is sick—just plain sick—with the fear that Stabler won't be a good enough quarterback, so he has moved senior Halfback Wayne Trimble, a noted high school signal-caller, into the position as well. But he isn't sure Trimble can do it, either. One of them will, most likely Stabler. In any event, it won't be the kind of Alabama team Tuscaloosa and Birmingham have been seeing since 1962, when first Joe Namath and then Steve Sloan started throwing footballs as if Bear had took really sick. It will be more of an old-fashioned Bryant team, with its guts in the defense and its heart in the running game. Stabler and Trimble can each blaze the Tide out of the huddle, and they will handle the sprint-outs to perfection. And if they can only two-hand-push the ball into the air, Ray Perkins will beat everyone to it. Quickness, blocking, tackling and pride are Bryant's true secrets, and Alabama has seldom had more of all this going for it than it has in 1966.
An added advantage in what could be both Bryant's and Alabama's epic season is the schedule. You just know that rascal had this plotted years ahead. Alabama conveniently opens with dreaded Louisiana Tech and, next to last, before Auburn, the Tide draws awe-inspiring Southern Mississippi. Things aren't all that cheerful, however. In between Alabama must go to Jackson to play Ole Miss, and to Knoxville to meet suddenly powerful Tennessee, which it tied last year. And LSU will be around. But the point is that Bear has gone undefeated before with weaker teams on tougher schedules.
Curiously, on Oct. 15, the date that Alabama meets Tennessee, the championships of the three strongest conferences could be decided. That is also the Saturday on which Michigan State plays Ohio State in Columbus and Arkansas faces Texas in Austin. Thus the Big Ten, Southeastern and Southwest titles may all be in the balance that afternoon—not to mention the national championship. The schedule quirk is the sort that drives television executives nutty—and it did.
It is something of a miracle in itself that this year, for the first time, television gave deeper thought and energy than ever before to the games it will show. The result is that ABC-TV, which takes on the college package this season, has managed to work out what should be a lively and pertinent 14 days of action, giving hope to the long-suffering multitudes who have been conditioned to watching Brigham Young vs. Wyoming when the world knows that at that very moment Notre Dame is playing USC for the whole store.
A rash of upsets could spoil things worse than a loose vertical knob. And last year's trend toward higher scores (Alabama 39, Nebraska 28; West Virginia 63, Pitt 48) indicates that continued platooning and passing attacks will create more of them. But it is a credit to Roone Arledge, the vice-president and executive producer of ABC Sports (SI, April 25), that, going in, television football fans seem to be in for their best season ever. Consider: the strictly nationwide TV games, which began last week with Syracuse-Baylor, are Texas-USC, Purdue-Notre Dame, Missouri-UCLA, Tennessee-Georgia Tech, Nebraska-Oklahoma, Army-Navy and Auburn-Alabama. On three of the five regional dates, when four games are televised at once to different parts of the country, the most significant ones are practically national. For instance, if you live in New York, Los Angeles or Kansas City you will see Arkansas-Texas, which is an Emmy performance every year, as well as Purdue-Michigan State and Nebraska-Missouri. Finally, on Nov. 19, Arledge has devised an important doubleheader. You'll turn on the set and get Notre Dame-Michigan State, followed by UCLA-USC, or, in the South, Tennessee-Kentucky followed by California-Stanford. That means a lot of flip-top cans and plenty of salami sandwiches.
A lot of seasons acquire instant labels because of the quality of performers at certain positions. For example, both 1962 and 1963 were generally regarded as The Year of the Quarterbacks, because the pro scouts were all enthralled by the likes of Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Pete Beathard, Tom Myers, Don Trull and George Mira. And then came 1964 and 1965, each The Year of the Running Backs, with Donny Anderson, Mike Garrett, Johnny Roland, Gayle Sayers, Jim Grabowski and Tucker Frederickson. Now 1966 looks like The Year of Both.
Professional salaries for rookies have gone back to reality since the NFL-AFL peace, and undoubtedly the armistice cost four senior quarterbacks more money than they prefer to think about. Florida's Steve Spurrier, Purdue's Bob Griese, Baylor's Terry Southall and Arkansas' Jon Brittenum are all on the highly preferred list, with Spurrier, a rangy thrower-runner, at the top. Spurrier is good, though not as almighty as Florida's sportswriters, who have already forgotten George Mira, would have you believe. Before the merger they predicted a million-dollar contract for him. If Spurrier bargains hard, he may get $30,000.
There are splendid runners everywhere, from Syracuse's Floyd Little, who is short and nifty, to Idaho's Ray McDonald, who is big and terrifying. In between come Georgia Tech's Lenny Snow, Arkansas' Harry Jones, Notre Dame's Nick Eddy, UCLA's Mel Farr, Michigan State's Clinton Jones and Nebraska's Harry Wilson.
Of all these glittering miracle-workers, none is likely to provide quite so many thrills as UCLA's Gary Beban, a junior who has grown one inch to 6 feet 1 and gained 12 pounds to 193 since he destroyed Michigan State 14-12 in the Rose Bowl. Before Coach Tommy Prothro had discovered Beban, which was shortly after Prothro left Oregon State and memories of Terry Baker, the joke on the West Coast was, "Prothro didn't come to UCLA to lose, but he'll learn." The Bruins had been down in the years since Red Sanders' death.
A few short weeks into the season, however, Prothro, a big, unsmiling man who is heir to a real-estate fortune in Memphis and who comes straight to the point or doesn't say anything, was having to learn how to live with a precious commodity—Beban. And West Coast fans were already thinking that if UCLA could make the Rose Bowl it would be the grandest success story since Stanford in 1940. Beban's miraculous—there is no other word—passing got his team there in the final game against heavily favored USC. He pitched two touchdown strikes to win 20-16 in the final four minutes while the Trojans' John McKay and Heisman Trophy Winner Mike Garrett and 94,000 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum accused Sheilah Graham of making it all up.
"Gary is 100% coachable," says Prothro, who became Coach of the Year on Beban's quarterbacking. "You tell him something once and he goes to work on it until he thinks he's achieved perfection. He throws the bomb as well as anyone I've seen. But he's best in a tight situation. He rises to the big effort. I don't mean the big good effort. I mean the big great effort."
Then Prothro adds. "But no amount of coaching could have made Beban the kind of quarterback he was last year."
One kind of quarterback people whispered Beban was last year was one with a transistorized receiver built into his gold headgear so that UCLA coaches could instruct him to "hit the tight end" or "keep and run wide" when he was in the midst of a play. This, of course, is about as illegal as narcotics. The story circulated around the country after the UCLA-Penn State game. It apparently started with a fan who told someone he had heard it happening accidentally when his own transistor radio picked it up. Prothro, who among other things is about the only coach who doesn't play golf (football is his hobby), shrugs off the ugly rumor as a man would who knows it is untrue. "Anyone," says he, "can look at our helmets anytime they want to."
In or out of headgear, Gary Beban is determined to prove last season wasn't merely a happy accident. From Redwood, Calif., of part Italian and part Yugoslavian descent, Beban is handsome in a short-cropped-brown-hair, oval-face, mellow-tan, deep-set eyes kind of way. His most impressive feature is his hands. Big. Great big. "I can palm a basketball," he says.
He was working out twice a day long before Sept. 1. "Playing quarterback is not natural," he says. "Throwing is, but that position behind the center, taking the ball, your footwork, your handoffs, your fakes—that's all sweat." He believes in himself, but he also believes in Prothro, and both of them believe in another season of success. "Confidence and assurance are what Coach Prothro develops. We believe we can do exactly what he says," Beban says. "He inspires total confidence, and we know we'll never go into a game that we're not prepared for physically and mechanically."
While it may not be such a miracle this year if Beban and UCLA win again, a notable one is already assured in the coaching ranks. Not the obvious one, that old powerhouses like Oklahoma, Army, Pitt, Iowa, Penn State, Duke and Iowa will have new men, but the fact that Jess Neely, after completing his 40th—fortieth—season as head coach at Southwestern of Memphis, Clemson and Rice, will finally retire. Life won't be the same for those accustomed to hearing the genteel Southerner explain every game in an identical manner, whether Rice had just narrowly beaten No. 1 Texas A&M, as it did in 1957, or had narrowly lost to No. 1 Texas, as in 1963.
Jess would always say, "Well, gentlemen, it's simply gratifying to me to think that our crowd could put forth such an unselfish effort as they did out there today."
And that's it, isn't it, Jess? That's really what it's all about.
Surprise successes of 1965, UCLA's Prothro and Beban, plot campaign ahead.
11 BEST 11S
NOTRE DAME 9-1
MICHIGAN STATE 8-2
OHIO STATE 7-2
GEORGIA TECH 8-2
OREGON STATE 7-3