Although most of the teams seemed right out of last fall's football Top 20—Southern California. Oklahoma, Texas, Penn State, Arizona State—what it was was baseball. Oh, sure enough, there was a Heisman Trophy candidate here, a defensive halfback there and a reminder everywhere that you were in Nebraska's Big Red country, but the prevailing spirit in Omaha last week centered on The College World Series.
The exceptionally strong field also included a trio of gridiron nonpowers: newcomer Georgia Southern; Minnesota, which had won the baseball title in each of three tries under Coach Richard (Chief) Siebert (1956, '60 and '64); and Harvard, which, of all things, would next be playing Italian baseball teams in Italy. After five days of double-elimination paranoia, in which coaches never seemed quite sure if they wanted to win today or tomorrow, the finalists, unsurprisingly, turned out to be Southern California and Arizona State. As in 1972, the Trojans' poise and a confidence verging on arrogance bedeviled the Sun Devils, who had lately been accused of swallowing the big apple, core and all, at the opening strains of Fight On.
ASU had previously won the series with a bunch of Sal Bandos, Rick Mondays and Gary Gentrys in 1965, '67 and '69. But the Trojans came to town with eight titles, including the last three, and a high-stakes mastery of Arizona State that was extraordinary. "They have a good team this year," said SC's All-America pitcher. Randy Scarberry, a first-round draft pick of Oakland's, "but they don't win the big ones. They beat us three times at their place during the regular season but then we beat them twice in the Riverside tournament, where it really meant something. Those games at Phoenix were fun games, exhibitions. They play a weak schedule, beat a lot of people, get ranked No. 1 and then lose the important games. The poised, intelligent team will beat them. A team like ours."
Such talk became fashionable following last year's College World Series in which favored Arizona State won its first game against Southern California but then dropped two in a row to the Trojans. The Sun Devils, it was said, were great at rewriting record books (this year's team hit .340 during a 56-6 season before coming to Omaha) but dripped of goose grease when it came to picking up trophies.
"I want to beat those guys so bad," said ASU Shortstop Bump Wills, Maury's son. And then Bump let out an honest-to-goodness growl. First Baseman Clay Westlake, one of four Southern Californians among the eight Sun Devil regulars, was just as intense. "Those guys are bush, the way they razz the opposition. That's Little League stuff."
The Southern Cal viewpoint was expressed by Pitcher Russ McQueen, a philosophical banjo-plucker. "Why do Southern Californians go to Arizona State?" he asked rhetorically. "They know they are going to finish second."
Tormenting mentally as well as physically—that is the way the Trojans operate under Coach Rod Dedeaux, a fine strategist on the field and a millionaire trucking executive off it. Dedeaux has been Southern Cat's coach for 32 of his 58 years and his control over the baseball program is total.
It was Dedeaux's unwillingness to share responsibility that eased Pat Kuehner's switch from the Trojan to the ASU coaching staff this season. "I feel I'm more a part of the program at Arizona State," said Kuehner. "I'd rather be chasing Southern Cal than be back there being chased by Arizona State."
With Kuehner around, the Sun Devils could better understand the psychological traps set by Dedeaux. Coming into Omaha with a 46-11 record for the season, Dedeaux allowed that the Trojans were probably a year away. And that it was fifth-ranked Texas, not top-ranked Arizona State, whom the Trojans feared most. "Rod would have people believe we don't even exist," said ASU Coach Jim Brock, who is often as anxious to share a critical opinion of his team or opponent as Dedeaux is to disguise one.
SC opened with a 4-1 win over Harvard. Against Texas, however, the Trojans were mired in a 1-1 seventh-inning tie when an intentional walk brought up Centerfielder Fred Lynn. Before Lynn went to the plate Dedeaux whispered something like, "Now, Fred, you aren't going to let them do that to you, are you?" The SC bench had barely finished advising the Texas pitcher, loudly, that he had just made the mistake of his life by issuing that walk when Fred slammed a three-run homer, his first hit of the series.
Next night came the first game in what Brock expected would be a best-of-three series between SC and ASU, "since we're the two best and it's silly to mess around with all these other teams." The score was again 1-1 when another intentional walk loaded the bases for SC's Ed Putnam. Though hitless in five previous games against the Sun Devils, Putnam drove in the winning runs with a single and Southern California had its second win in a row despite getting only four hits in each.
The teams took on different opponents the following evening. After the Sun Devils eliminated Texas 6-5, the Trojans found themselves in trouble against Minnesota. Through eight innings Gopher Dave Winfield had upped his series batting average to .466 with three hits and was within three outs of a one-hitter and his second pitching victory. The score at the time was 7-0. The final score—after eight singles, an error, a passed ball, a wild pitch, a sacrifice fly, a stolen base (with two out and the score tied) and an umpire's call at first that so enraged Minnesota's Siebert he was thrown out of the game—was 8-7, USC. Dedeaux said the rally was merely "a good example of the Trojan tradition."
So that left Southern Cal and Arizona State, and after three innings of Wednesday's finale it seemed no contest. The Trojans were ahead 4-0 against Pitcher Jim Umbarger, who had been very effective against SC previously and had said earlier in the day, "I've got them figured out. They're all robots programmed by Dedeaux."
But instead of heading for the apple orchard again, ASU battled back and entered the ninth inning down only 4-3. For the second game in a row Dedeaux was depending on a seldom-used basketball recruit, Jeff Reinke in this case, to pitch the final outs. Brian Hueblein had defeated Minnesota with two strong relief innings the night before, but Reinke was even more effective. When Dedeaux wants outs, he gets them, although he got one the hard way, Leftfielder Ken Huizenga robbing ASU's Clint Myers of at least a double with a diving catch. If that ball had not been caught, would the Sun Devils have scored and maybe even gone ahead, depriving SC and senior First Baseman Daryl Arenstein of a fourth-straight national championship?
"No," said one merciless Trojan, "they would have choked eventually."