Skip to main content
Original Issue

IT'S NOT JUST A RUN OF LUCK

Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and, now, this man, Charles White. There has to be a reason to explain USC's illustrious dynasty at tailback

Since the early 1960s, the University of Southern California has been winning football games and influencing polltakers with a modern folk hero known as the USC Tailback. According to his legend, the USC Tailback is a colossus who carries the ball 40 times a game and cannot be stopped with conventional weapons. Alexander the Great did not scorch as much earth as the USC Tailback. Elton John has not made as many records. The USC Tailback rushes for around 1,000 yards a year and goes on to make all the All-teams and, eventually, a million dollars in the pros. His aliases are Mike Garrett, O. J. Simpson, Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and Charles White. Two of the above—Garrett and Simpson—won Heisman Trophies. Two others—Anthony Davis and Bell—were runners-up. White is certain to come close, if not this year—in which he has performed such eye-opening feats as to run for 199 yards against Alabama and 201 against Stanford, is averaging 140 yards a game and is well on his way to breaking the rushing records of all his predecessors (131 yards with three more regular-season games to be played)—then surely next season, when he will be a senior.

The USC Tailback has come to be what the Notre Dame quarterback (Bertelli, Lujack, Hornung, et al.) used to be: the glamour player-position of football. He is an almost lineal figure, like royalty. Rival coaches refer to the wellspring as the "USC Pipeline" and contend they could be big winners, too, if only they could tap it.

USC Tailbacks have certain common denominators. They are all black. They are all tough. The first time a USC coach saw Clarence Davis play, Davis' front teeth were knocked out early in the game; he had his gums sewed up at halftime, and was back on the field for the second half. O. J. Simpson once rushed for 220 yards on a sprained ankle. Ricky Bell, taken from a game when his shoulder popped out of its socket, jammed it back in place and complained to Coach John Robinson, "Why did you take me out?"

They all come from urban Los Angeles, except Simpson, who grew up in urban San Francisco. Clarence Davis went to George Washington High and Garrett attended Roosevelt High; Anthony Davis and White went to San Fernando. All six were raised in low-income neighborhoods, in what sociologists call a "matriarchal environment" (i.e., their fathers weren't around much). They all make it sound as if they were turned from lives of crime by discovering it was more fun to flatten opponents with end sweeps than with shivs. Simpson says he used to rumble and snitch hubcaps. Anthony Davis wears a permanent chevron on his elbow from a knife wound. White tells of a neighborhood park so tough he got beat up "just going there to have fun."

But none of them remembers ever missing a meal, and all recall a fairly stable home life, with responsibilities. Responsibility, another common thread. But in the end the only similarity that counts is that all six of these remarkable men can run like hell.

If anything, the dissimilarities among the USC Tailbacks are more revealing. Or, at least, more interesting.

To begin with, the six vary greatly in size and style. Garrett and Anthony Davis were tiny as tailbacks go (in the 5'9", 180-pound class); Simpson, the "ideal," was 6'2", 207 as an undergraduate; the menacing Ricky Bell, 6'2", 220. Like Clarence Davis, White is of medium build (5'11", 185), not split as high as Anthony Davis, but with a running style he copied watching Davis in high school. Under way, the strides of these two become so elongated they appear to prance like drum majors.

Garrett, on the other hand, was a land crab who could scuttle almost as fast as he could run. Simpson, who was a world-class sprinter, was a sliding, gliding type who emerged from holes almost upright. If Simpson's battle hymn was a medley of pace and acceleration, Ricky Bell's was an anvil chorus. Simpson you would enter in a Grand Prix, Bell in a demolition derby. "Bell makes 'em pay for every inch," a USC coach used to say. Bell ran like what he was: a linebacker playing tailback, and he made frightening sounds. His USC teammates called him "Mad Dog," and growled when he carried the ball.

As personalities, the six are equally disparate. Garrett, the first of the line, was sensitive and introspective. Simpson was outgoing and affable but, like Garrett, a conservative dresser in T shirts, jeans and sneakers. Anthony Davis was a vision in double knits and hats with B-47 wingspans. White, though Davis' idolater, prefers a quiet evening at home with his girl friend. His apartment, he says, is intentionally situated four miles from the campus hubbub, "in an old-folks neighborhood."

Clarence Davis barely said a word. Anthony Davis never stopped talking. C.D. was so uncocky before his first start as a USC Tailback that he lost 11 pounds the week of the game. A.D. in the same situation blithely predicted he would be better than O.J. In turn, White was so confident that he said he wanted to win "a couple of Heisman Trophies." Bell didn't think he was going to be better than anybody and, though the most punishing runner of all, "was a frightened man" according to Coach Robinson.

Anthony Davis did knee dances when he scored; Bell looked embarrassed. "Spiking," he said, "is not my style." He threw up before games. Garrett went to sleep. On a day when the Trojans were going to play Notre Dame, Craig Fertig, then the USC quarterback and now the Oregon State coach, remembers Garrett going back to his room after the team meal for a midday snooze, then falling asleep on the bus to the game. White is so intense he can hardly sleep at all.

Curiously, not one of the six gave much early evidence of excellence, at least not as a running back. O. J. Simpson had such flimsy legs as a youth he had to wear braces. His Pop Warner League coach cut him, and his high school coach made him a tackle. Clarence Davis was at first a guard in high school. Bell was a fullback-linebacker, White a wishbone fullback, Anthony Davis, an All-LA quarterback and baseball player, was so puny (5'6", 130 pounds) he was considered a better college baseball prospect.

Only one school, Arizona State, tried to recruit Simpson out of high school (his grades were poor). Only Arizona State and Oregon were interested in Clarence Davis. By then Davis had become a running back, because his high school team had got beaten up so badly by the bullies on its schedule that noboby else wanted to be caught holding the ball in his hands. Both Simpson and Davis showed their mettle by setting records in junior college.

The above is not to suggest that all this talent would have gone undiscovered had USC not turned the last shovel. The suggestion, rather, is that it is easier to see a diamond when it is sparkling in a showcase. Even at USC the casting was not always perfect. Ricky Bell played linebacker as a freshman, fullback as a sophomore. Anthony Davis was elevated from third string only when the people who played ahead of him were injured. In 1965, when Mike Garrett won the Heisman Trophy, he was named to Playboy's preseason All-America team—as a defensive back.

As for their statistics, they are not all that compelling. On the NCAA's alltime list of rushing leaders through 1977, which does not include bowl-game yardage, Tony Dorsett's record 6,082 yards is far ahead of Bell's 3,553 (15th), Anthony Davis' 3,426 (18th), Garrett's 3,221 (32nd) and Simpson's 3,124 (40th). The career totals of Archie Griffin, Ed Marinaro, Terry Miller, Earl Campbell, Joe Washington, Mike Voight, Steve Owens and Woody Green are among those separating Dorsett's from Bell's. Mike Garrett's and Charles White's averages (including Bowls) of 5.27 yards per carry (the best of the USC Tailbacks) are well under Art Luppino's record 6.59. Ed Marinaro's 209-yards-per-game single-season average is almost 40 yards better than Simpson's 170.9, fourth on the list, and Bell's 170.5, fifth. For all his workhorse image, a USC Tailback does not even hold the record for most carries in a game (Kent Kitzmann, 57), a season (Steve Owens, 358) or a career (Dorsett, 1,074). It is the dependable, recurring presence of the USC Tailback in the record books that makes the position so special. That the individual also "rises to the position," as Robinson says, to become beloved as a leader and team man (White is now so humble he doesn't even talk about one Heisman Trophy), or finds, as Bell did, "a source of strength" in it, is significant but beside the point. The point is that it is not their size, their temperament, their ability or even the speed with which they hurdle airport railings to get to the car-rental counter that sets them apart.

What distinguishes them is a very special set of circumstances that comes along every so often and makes football such a compelling game for those brooding masochists who sometimes coach it. Something happened at USC. Whether you are the football equivalent of a big-bang creationist or a steady-stater, you have to realize that something happened at USC to give life to the USC Tailback. It was a combination of the right coach (John McKay), the right philosophy (McKay's), the right formation (the power I, a McKay original) and, as the pieces de resistance, the right athletes.

Football coaches spend half their lives coaxing and shaping inconsistent youth, trying—desperately, at times—to keep here today from going tomorrow. They spend countless hours at the altars of inspiration (mostly tables strewn with coffee cups), plotting and scheming. They watch game films until their eyes roll in their sockets. They fill volumes with the ingredients of a single game plan.

Then on Saturday, when they win, coaches talk as if it were all an accident.

"Why did you close practice last week and station armed guards on the tops of nearby buildings, Coach?"

"Oh, we installed a few wrinkles, but there's nothing new in football. Fundamentals win games."

"What about that Split P, Double Feedback Formation?"

"Formations don't win games, people win games. The left tackle gained 240 yards on laterals because of God-given running ability. You can't coach that."

"Was it an accident that the referee got blocked out on every play?"

"I can't tell until I see the game films."

There is much truth to the clichè about game films. Much of what goes on escapes the naked eye. The trouble is that coaches usually don't try to explain all the terrific stuff they do until they have stopped winning and have been fired. Or until they write books.

Before he went to the pros, John McKay (USC coach, 1960-75) wrote a book in which he tried to confess everything. McKay, A Coach's Story (written with USC Sports Information Director Jim Perry) was not a bestseller. And strategists looking for a by-the-numbers guide-to Top 20 ranking found most of the classified stuff McKay revealed about the evolution of the USC Tailback was buried under the weight of his persimmon personality and bristling wit. At post-game interviews, he can be as unrevealing as any coach, only funnier.

"What special plays did you put in for O.J., Coach?"

"Two. I nod right, O.J. runs right. I nod left, O.J. runs left."

"Yes, but he ran 38 times."

"Why shouldn't he? The ball isn't very heavy. And besides, he doesn't belong to any union."

"But don't you have any depth at tailback?"

"O.J. is depth."

That was vintage McKay and it is still packing 'em in. At Tampa, he answers irritating comparisons to his days as a college coach by saying that if his Tampa Bay Buccaneers have to win a Super Bowl for him to "prove" himself as a coach, then Tom Landry should have to win four national collegiate championships. McKay won four at USC. He did not do it by quipping his teams into shape. It only seemed that way. Here's how he did it:

In the mid-1950s, a coach named Tom Nugent made Florida State into a respectable football power by springing on the world a formation he called, simply, the "I." It featured the quarterback under the center in T-formation fashion but the running backs snugged up directly behind in a kind of three-point conga line.

The formation got Nugent some notoriety and, eventually, the head coaching job at Maryland. But it got little currency beyond that. Coaches complained that the I lacked versatility and questioned its capacity to get ballcarriers outside the ends.

McKay did not consider the I as a way to go until his second year at USC, and only because the defenses of the day had begun to shoot down the pro sets and split Ts then in vogue. Coaches are great copycats. McKay's first I, which bore a slight resemblance to Nugent's, was not intended to exalt the tailback but to combat the new smash hit of college defenses devised by Frank Broyles at Arkansas. In essence it was a version of the old Oklahoma 5-4 defense, a five-man front with stunting linebackers and a floating secondary man known as the "monster back."

Ideally, an offense makes its living by finding places where blockers can outnumber defenders. At the very least, offensive coaches want an even break—a balanced defense. Broyles' swarming, stunting Arkansas teams had consistently shut plays down at the point of attack. Intrigued, McKay made a pilgrimage to a coaches' clinic to compare notes, then went back to Los Angeles and, while installing elements of Broyles' defense, decided he had also best come up with a way of counterattacking if faced with the same defense himself.

McKay's fledgling USC I was unveiled, somewhat timidly, in 1961. It was used mainly for leverage, to disguise the intentions of a play. When USC lined up in the I that season, it generally shifted into something else, hoping to catch the defense out of position. In the first game of 1961, Georgia Tech walloped the Trojans 27-7. From there the Trojans slogged to a 4-5-1 finish. McKay's critics declared the I stood for Incompetence.

In the spring of 1962 McKay's assistant coaches were hit with a startling announcement: not only were they going to keep the I, but they were also going to use it exclusively. To open it up, a basic change would be made in the set: one end would split on the side opposite the flanker. And there would be a lot of shifting and men-in-motion gambits.

But the crucial change, the real stick of dynamite, the power of the power I, was what McKay had in mind for the deep back, the man at the top of the I—the USC Tailback. McKay remembered something from his days as a star high school single-wing tailback in West Virginia—and from his less fulfilling experience as a defensive back and part-time T-formation halfback at Purdue just after World War II and later at Oregon.

"A single-wing tailback," he said in his book, "has the ideal running posture. He's in the middle of the formation, directly behind the center, and back far enough to get the best running angles. But more important, he can see what's going on—because he's almost upright. He's not scrunched over in a three-point stance, his hands are on his knees. He has to be that way in order to do all the things required of a single-wing tailback.

"The T formation was great, but as a T-formation halfback, the view I got was mostly somebody's rear end. That kind of thing can leave an impression on you, especially when you're on a bad team and every time you run where the hole is supposed to be there's nothing but trouser seams. I liked it better in the single wing."

In effect, McKay's scheme was to make' a single-wing tailback out of the deep, back in the I (now sometimes called the "I back"). He would have all the responsibilities of the position save for having to take the center snap. He would become as much the focal point of the offense as the quarterback. He would have to be a thinking runner, responsible for-knowing not only where a play was headed, but also where the alternate routes might be if the way was closed.

As a simple example, say the tailback comes out of the huddle with a play' called. Upright, he sees that the defensive tackle at the point of attack has shifted over and is on the inside shoulder of the man who is supposed to block him to the outside. The tailback knows immediately that the block can't be made. The blocker knows it, too. But the play is not doomed. They both adjust, each knowing what has to be done. The target hole shifts to the outside, and the blocker will now take his man to the inside. As the play unfolds, and linebackers start stunting, or doing something, other than what they were supposed to do, the blocking rules might change again on the fly. The tailback's options open again. The same play might break at three or four different spots. It is "run to daylight" in its most sophisticated form.

Dave Levy remembers McKay's day-to-day—and season-to-season—enthusiasm as the I formation's potential unfolded. Now an assistant athletic director at USC, Levy was one of McKay's assistant coaches. "We'd be in that film room for hours. We never went home. He'd say, 'Watch this. If we stand this guy up, and this guy moves a step here, the tailback will know right away that the hole is back here.' The more we looked, the more we saw. It was simply a matter of programming the tailbacks. Get them to see what was happening be—fore the snap, get them to realize what could happen as the play developed. Then practice it, over and over."

Robinson, himself a onetime McKay assistant, says McKay's genius in those formative times was in his patience. "He'd say, 'Be patient, it'll come. Don't question the offense.' We'd run a play, and whomp, eight men would tackle the tailback. Whomp, whomp, whomp! No gain. But it was like Rocky Marciano hitting you in the arm, in the elbow, anyplace. Pretty soon it starts taking a toll. Pretty soon the holes were there."

The real job, says Fertig, was to convince the tailback. Fertig, too, was a USC assistant coach after his playing days, and is himself a believer. "Coach McKay was right there with that tailback every day, telling him, 'You can't lose faith. It'll go, it'll go,' and making him run the play again. He coached hell out of those tailbacks."

Time would prove how closely the power I resembled the single wing. Not only did the tailback have to be a smart runner, but he also had to be a willing and enduring one—the legs of the offense. In his down stance ahead of the tailback, the fullback was in no position to do much else but block. "The only way the tailback can return the favor," says McKay, "is to have 8.5 speed and hop around the fullback fast." As time went by, the fullback's running opportunities would vary (Sam Cunningham and Mosi Tatupu and lately Lynn Cain, for example, got more chances) but it was a role made to order for sufferers in silence. Line blocking in the I called for sustaining individual blocks as long as possible, and being alert to pick up the backside pursuit. Downfield blocking was less a factor. Eventually, McKay began bringing in larger offensive linemen for this reason.

McKay did not take a vacation that third summer, the summer of '62. The power I was not really off the launch pad, and he was not sure how much he could entrust to the tailback. That fall he alternated the two best runners he had: Willie Brown (now one of his assistants at Tampa Bay) and Ken Del Conte (now a filmmaker). At 5'11", 172 pounds, Brown was built more along the lines of a flanker—he was, in fact, switched there the following year. Although the leading rusher for the '62 season, he carried only 88 times. The position at that point, says. McKay, simply was not defined.

"We shifted, we used motion, we did many of the things the Cowboys are doing right now—just feeling our way. I'd heard so many things about the I. Everything I heard proved false. Coaches said, 'You can't run outside.' We ran outside. They said, 'you can't run to the short side of the field.' We ran to the short side. They said, 'You can't make this block or that block.' They were wrong."

USC upset Duke in the opening game, 14-7. Fertig remembers everybody saying, "Hey, this thing's going to work." In spades it worked. The Trojans won 11 straight games and the national championship, and beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. McKay gave the lion's share of the credit to the defense, justifiably, as it held opponents to 55 points during the regular season. But he was finding his offense too good to be true.

"We lucked into some big gains just because the defenses didn't adjust when we shifted. They just stood there. I'd see the films and I'd say, 'Oh, man, a gift.' It was ridiculous how easy we scored on some plays.

"Then when we were getting ready to play in the Rose Bowl, we needed somebody to run Wisconsin's plays. Garrett was a freshman. In those days freshmen couldn't play on the varsity. He'd been hurt most of the year, too, and we weren't so sure he was going to come around. Somebody brought him over, and he ran against our No. 1 defense. He embarrassed everybody. We couldn't tackle him." When that day was over, says McKay, the offensive coaches were winking at one another.

Garrett is the prototype USC Tailback. He brought to the new offense the quality a great actor brings to a great part—Olivier playing Othello, Bogart playing Charlie Allnutt. He was USC's leading rusher for the next three years, and capped his career with the Heisman in 1965. "With Garrett," says McKay, "we could expand. We could do things. The power I really begins with him."

Dave Levy remembers Garrett. "He'd come out to watch practice almost every day. Somebody said, 'There's that kid from Roosevelt High hanging around again.' Charlie Hall [an assistant coach] took him to lunch. He said Garrett told him Willie Brown was great, that he'd watched and wanted to play like Brown. He told Charlie he didn't want to go anywhere but USC."

Garrett was totally, almost painfully, resolute. His parents were separated; he was one of six children. His father died young, and that tore at Garrett. Even today it upsets him that "I felt my father had passed this way and no one had made an effort to know him, and I was very tired hearing about movie stars and other celebrities who had died. A lot of great human beings die and never get any attention. It made me very angry."

Levy says he never saw a worker like Garrett. "He was the first tailback to run 40 yards downfield on every practice play. At first, everybody thought it was funny; then it got so all the tailbacks did it. Garrett would bawl out the ones who didn't. Now it's tradition. The first time Charlie White ran a play in practice, he pulled up after six or eight yards, and John Robinson called him over and stood with him as Ricky Bell ran the next play. Bell ran 50 yards downfield. 'That's the way a USC Tailback runs,' Robinson told him. White hasn't run one shorter since."

With Garrett, McKay began testing the tailback's endurance. "It was simple enough," he says. "If you don't run, you block. A back would rather run the ball. The tailback is in a position to do your team the most good. He's your best back. It's like having a choice of batting your best hitter every time instead of every three or four innings. I decided to bat him every time."

Against Washington his sophomore year, Garrett carried 21 times. He said afterward that he was "awfully tired" and that maybe 11 or 12 carries was more his speed. "I don't want too many carries," he said.

But the weeks went by, and McKay kept forcing the ball on him "and watching me close to make sure I was all right. On Mondays I was so stiff and sore I could barely crawl to the bathroom, but I kept carrying"—612 times those three years, for an NCAA-record 3,221 yards (later broken by Bell and Anthony Davis, among many others). His senior year, Garrett averaged 26.7 carries. When asked how he could take all that pounding, Garrett said, "That's my job."

It was a mutual discovery. As McKay suspected, the more Garrett carried, the better he got. As Garrett discovered, playing tailback in the power I is an eye-opening experience. Garrett called it "option running" and speaks of it now as if it had been a spiritual awakening. "I would get into a groove, in a sort of rhythm, almost like a trance. I'd get bumped and bruised and cut, but I wouldn't feel the bumps until Monday. I transcended the beating."

The beneficiaries of Garrett's sacrifice now make similar testimonials. White says it has taught him that football is "intelligence," and that when the game begins he "becomes another person." Says Anthony Davis, "When it's happening, it's unbelievable. You see a hole opening, and the daylight, and it's like paradise. You're in a daze. You're in a wonderland."

In a game against Minnesota his senior year, Simpson carried on 11 of the last 12 plays and turned a 20-13 Minnesota lead into a 29-20 USC win. Said McKay, "Simpson gets faster in the fourth quarter, and I get smarter."

That was never quite the case, says Simpson. Actually he did not get stronger, he got weaker—"but then I'd just stop worrying about where the play was supposed to go and I'd run more instinctively. The holes I'd been thinking about in practice would suddenly be there."

There has been no real formula, says McKay, no quotas to maintain. Anthony Davis was the tailback on what is generally considered McKay's (and USC's) best team—the 1972 national champions. "It was a team without a weakness," says Fertig. "Great passing from Mike Rae and Pat Haden, great receiving from Lynn Swann—Coach McKay used him like a chess piece, creating all kinds of formations—and Sam Cunningham at fullback. Davis didn't have to carry as much, and he didn't. He averaged 21 and 22 carries a game his last two seasons. And never carried more than 39 times in a game."

Simpson, on the other hand, never had that kind of supporting cast. The quarterbacks in 1967 and '68 were neither great passers nor threatening runners. The fullbacks didn't run for much more than cover, and one was famous for making spectacularly ineffectual blocks in which he dived nose-first into the ground in front of an opponent. Rival coaches told McKay that his tailback was "a marked man." "So what else is new?" said McKay, and gave the ball to Simpson 35 times a game his senior year, after which Simpson won the Heisman.

"God gave O. J. Simpson more ability than any back I've ever seen," says McKay. "I think Garrett got a little miffed at me for saying that, but it was true. Simpson was bigger, he was faster, he was the perfect physical specimen for the position of tailback. If he hadn't won the Heisman, it would have been a terrible injustice. He never asked to be taken out of a game. He never complained. None of them did."

McKay says USC had plays for O.J. they never used again. But, incredibly, the original vital organs of the offense are still pumping away, making it work today—28 pitch ("student body right," the power-I version of the old single-wing power sweep) and 22 blast, in which the tailback is sent into the strong-side interior line. Just as Garrett and Simpson ran them to victories in the '60s, White ran them to beat Alabama in September. They are timeless because they are constantly under refinement—the tailback, for example, now starts from as deep as 7½ yards from center, an unthinkable distance 15 years ago—and because the two plays can be readily adapted to the talents of the young men who run them. Somehow, somewhere, sooner or later they're gonna get you.

"We played Minnesota one year, and Murray Warmath said he couldn't believe we could attack from so many angles," says McKay. "Ara Parseghian said he knew he was seeing the same play, he just didn't believe we could block it so many ways.