Ordinarily when you mention the term "No. 1" to a coach, he fidgets with his whistle, tugs once at the bill of his cap and tries to direct the conversation toward another team—any other team—that might deserve such an onerous preseason honor. But not Jack Mollenkopf, the moon-faced, talkative positivist from Purdue University. Although he is entering his 13th season there and has been hung in effigy enough times to know a man can strangle on his own hopes, Mollenkopf is willing to face up to the possibility of 1968 football fame. "I'm not sure we have a No. 1 team," he says, "but I don't mind that kind of speculation. If you can't look at a season optimistically with our talent, you can't look at anything optimistically."
Mollenkopf has many reasons for his burst of positive thinking, the foremost of which is a 6'3", 205-pound aid to euphoria named Leroy. Last spring as Mollenkopf strode the sidelines of a practice field where his team was working out, he could scarcely contain himself over his good fortune. "Look at that Leroy!" he would shout, slamming an elbow into a visitor's ribs and gazing in glee at the field. "Isn't that Leroy something! There's no better player in the country. There's no better flanker. No better runner. No better defensive man. No one's better than Leroy at anything!"
And out there on the field would be Leroy Keyes (see cover) doing all of it—bursting off tackle with the ball, feinting a cornerback out of his hip pads and turning downfield with the loose and joyous stride that distinguishes his running. An All-America halfback last year in every selection of any consequence, Keyes will be competing with USC's O. J. Simpson this year for the Heisman Trophy and hoping to improve on a season that saw him become the national scoring champion.
If the Boilermakers should make it to the top without blowing a game or a gasket, their achievement will be a spectacular bit of football history, for in 72 years of intercollegiate competition Purdue has gained that rank just once, and then it was a much-tainted proposition—in 1931, one postseason pollster picked Purdue as co-champion along with Pittsburgh, while five other polls selected USC as the nation's best team. However, Purdue has had some splendid teams over the years and for this one to rate potentially as the Boilermakers' best ever means something. Yet the best ever is just what it may be, for the Purdue squad has experience, with 28 returning lettermen, sophomores moving up from a superb freshman team, tremendous size, good speed, unusual depth and Leroy.
Keyes is the key. Switched from defensive halfback to a combined flanker-tailback spot last season, he scored 19 touchdowns, ran for 986 yards, caught 45 passes for 758 yards and six TDs, threw three passes for touchdowns and with his 114 points gave the Big Ten its first national scoring leader since Tom Harmon in 1940. Keyes was involved in 204 of Purdue's 778 offensive plays, and he also played defense during particularly trying moments. It was his interception in the final minutes of the Notre Dame game that insured a 28-21 Purdue victory last fall. This year, in addition to his other chores, Keyes will kick off, attempt long field goals and try for extra points.
Keyes is Mr. Cool about his past and Mr. Confidence about his immediate future. "I think I'll be even better this year," he says. "I know I'll put out a little harder. If I do well, I could get a good pro contract." The pro dough prospect will push Keyes to his limits.
Though it may be easy to lose sight of, there is more to the Purdue offense than Keyes. Quarterback Mike Phipps and Fullback Perry Williams, both of whom lent power to last year's Purdue attack, which scored 291 points, return. Phipps, a tall, strong (6'3", 205 pounds) junior, completed 118 of 243 passes for 1,800 yards and 11 touchdowns and wound up third in the U.S. with a total offense mark of 2,020 yards.
"Phipps has the strongest arm of any quarterback we ever had," says Mollenkopf. Williams, both quick and big (6'2" and 217 pounds), has averaged four yards a carry in the last two years. He will be backed up by a sophomore, John Bullock, who is a product of George Washington Carver High School in Newport News, Va., the school that loosed Keyes on the nation. Bullock had a reputation there as being better on offense than Leroy, but part of his Purdue reputation has included being 20 pounds overweight.
On offense the only spot where Purdue seems weaker than last year is at split end. Neither Bob Dillingham nor Greg Fenner is up to the brilliance of departed Jim Beirne. This could prove important, for it will mean that Keyes will face far more double coverage on his pass patterns than last year. To solve this, Mollenkopf will have Keyes run more, but some of last year's blocking is gone. To compensate at the tackles, 250-pound Clanton King has been moved over from defense and Paul DeNuccio, a big sophomore, will be a starter. They are stronger but probably slower than last year's linemen, and Keyes may not get loose on wide sweeps as easily as he did.
Purdue's offense catches the fancy of the fans, but scouts and coaches have their eyes on the Boilermaker defense. There have been losses, but consider the replacements, such as three huge sophomore tackles. One of them, Alex Davis, who goes 6'5" and 265 pounds, will start, backed up by Ron Maree, 6'6" and 272, and Donnie Green, 6'8" and 270. The other tackle is Bill Yancher, who weighs 240. The ends—Dennis Wirgowski, who switched from offense, and Bill McKoy—are 238 and 222. The defensive leader is 225-pound Middle Guard Chuck Kyle, a fast, combative type. There are two seasoned linebackers, Bob Yunaska and Dick Marvel, while Don Webster and Tim Foley return to the secondary to team up with sophomore Steve deGrandmaison and Larry Emch.
It may be that the national championship will be settled on September 28 when Purdue plays at Notre Dame, but Mollenkopf has his eyes elsewhere. "Sure," he says, "the Notre Dame game is going to be a very emotional one. We'd like very much to win it. But the fact is—and people may get upset about this—I'd trade a Notre Dame victory anytime for a Big Ten win. We want the conference championship, and we are shooting for the Rose Bowl. I think more of that game than I do of any national championship. A poll is an opinion. The Rose Bowl is where the action is." This year, because of USC, all the action there is might be in the Rose Bowl.