Skip to main content
Original Issue

UCLA Now Stands For UnCork Lots Of Aerials

Until this year UCLA was an acronym for Uncommonly Conservative Land Assaults. Then Tom Ramsey came out flinging

In Southern California, where sex appeal counts double, UCLA's offense in recent seasons has had all the allure of Phyllis Diller in a housedress. And to make matters worse, crosstown-rival Southern Cal has continued to come on like Morgan Fairchild in a bikini. While USC's attack has set hearts throbbing and Heismans and Hertz commercials pouring in, UCLA's offense could only be described as plain Jane, and that has served to make the Bruins No. 2 in L.A., not to mention an also-ran in the War of the Roses. Only once since 1966 has UCLA been the Pac-10's representative in Pasadena on New Year's Day, while the Trojans have been there 10 times in that span.

But this season the Bruin offense, behind the right arm of senior Quarterback Tom Ramsey, has become a real turn-on—so much so that UCLA could permanently alter its image as a dowdy stay-at-home. "Naturally I'd take an Earl Campbell-type back who could pound into the line 30 times a game, if he came along," says Bruin Coach Terry Donahue, "but barring that, I'd like to continue along the same lines we're moving. I'd like to think our offense has made a permanent move in this direction."

That direction is upward, literally and figuratively. In Donahue's first six years as coach (1976-81), UCLA averaged 16.8 passes and 119.7 yards a game through the air. After last Saturday's 34-6 win over Colorado at Boulder, which ran the Bruins' record to 4-0, those per-game stats for '82 stood at 33 attempts and 308.8 yards, third best in the nation. By completing 16 of 24 passes for 280 yards against the Buffaloes, Ramsey became tops in the country in pass efficiency. All of which has helped mightily in getting the Bruins a No. 12 ranking in this week's SI Top 20.

Donahue disputes the idea that UCLA sprouted wings overnight. He argues that his teams have always been "pass efficient"—and, true, the Bruins ranked third in the Pac-10 in that department last year. But that was a result of Ramsey's throwing only 19 passes per game for 149.4 yards. If "efficient" was the right word for the UCLA passing attack in 1981, "sensational" is the correct one this season.

Whether the new direction will produce Donahue's first Pac-10 title is still a matter of conjecture; the Bruins face such formidable roadblocks on the way to Pasadena as Washington and Southern Cal, ranked No. 2 and No. 15, respectively by SI this week. But there's never been a more appropriate season for UCLA to make it to the Rose Bowl game, because now the bowl is the Bruins' home field, after 52 years at the Los Angeles Coliseum, a site shared with USC.

A new home, a new offense and now an unblemished record—which includes a 41-10 rout of Long Beach State in the Rose Bowl opener on Sept. 11 and three straight victories on the road, over Wisconsin (51-26), Michigan (31-27) and Colorado—bespeak a new breed of Bruins, but Donahue can be excused for tempering his optimism. Sizzling starts are nothing new for him at UCLA. Ominously, neither are floundering finishes. In Donahue's first year the Bruins racked up nine wins and a tie before USC beat them 24-14 in the regular-season finale. Result: The Trojans went to the Rose Bowl and defeated Michigan 14-6, and UCLA went to the Liberty Bowl where it was humiliated 36-6 by Alabama. In 1980 the Bruins won their first six games before losing on consecutive weekends to Arizona and Oregon. Though UCLA rebounded to beat USC 20-17 that season, it was the Trojans who went to the Rose Bowl.

Unnoticed while the aerial offense has gotten publicity is the fact that the Bruin defense has been more solid, if less spectacular, than it was last year. Then UCLA played a slashing, go-to-the-gap defense that too often made the Bruins vulnerable to the run. Against Michigan in the Bluebonnet Bowl, UCLA gave up 320 yards rushing in a 33-14 defeat. But when Defensive Coordinator Jed Hughes left to join Bud Grant's Viking staff, the new co-coordinators, Tom Hayes and Bob Field, installed a read-and-react mode for the line. "I like it," says Irv Eatman, an honorable mention All-America tackle last season. "I think it's given us more flexibility, a better way of adjusting to different schemes."

"I don't like it as much," says Noseguard Karl Morgan. "Now I have to stay in there and take guys on. I felt my speed gave me the edge the old way." But no one is complaining about the way Morgan has been playing. Though Eatman has gotten more ink—because of his name, his outgoing personality and his performance on national television two years ago when he sacked Ohio State Quarterback Art Schlichter four times—Donahue considers Morgan the heart of his defense.

Still, the offense is at the heart of the Bruins' rejuvenation, which was particularly evident in the Michigan win. In that game UCLA overcame an early 21-0 deficit as Ramsey passed for 311 yards.

"He was sensational," Bo Schembechler said of Ramsey. "It was the best game by a quarterback against us in a longtime."

The victory at Michigan has left a lot of Angelenos thinking that UCLA's shift to the Rose Bowl was a portentous one. Since 1929 the Bruins had played their home games in the Coliseum, just a stroll across Exposition Boulevard from the Southern Cal campus. But when Al Davis and the NFL Raiders barged in as Coliseum co-tenants, UCLA officials decided they didn't much like the neighborhood and moved out. "Sometimes I felt that we were dealing with Mr. Davis and not the Coliseum Commission," says UCLA Athletic Director Robert Fischer. "There's no doubt that with the Raiders and USC also in the Coliseum, we would've been No. 3."

Though the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is actually about 10 miles farther from the UCLA campus than the Coliseum (24 vs. 14 miles), Donahue has played up the "home team" angle. "It's the beginning of a new era with our own stadium," he says. "So I thought it was the ideal time to take on a new identity for ourselves."

That may be true, but what made the Bruins' transformation to a passing team possible was that Donahue finally had the people he needed to make it work. Foremost among those players is Ramsey, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior. UCLA Offensive Coordinator Homer Smith describes Ramsey's importance to the Bruins' attack this way: "The coaches here haven't had nearly as much effect on the offense as Tom Ramsey's parents."

Jim and Denny Ramsey of Newport Beach, Calif. are to be congratulated, but they could've improved their timing. The Ramseys brought Tom into the world at almost the same time Jack and Janet Elway were producing another quarterback. His name is John and he plays for Stanford.

Ramsey has been playing in Elway's shadow since their sophomore years in high school when Ramsey started for Kennedy and Elway started for Granada Hills, Kennedy's archrival. Donahue recruited both Elway and Ramsey, but Elway ended up in Palo Alto, where his career has inspired one long string of superlatives. Even Donahue can't help but gush: "He's an animal. He's in a class by himself. I think he's the best college quarterback to come along since Joe Namath."

No one is confusing Ramsey with Namath, but he has quietly carved a niche of his own at UCLA. Barring injury, by the end of this season he will have every UCLA passing record, surpassing the totals of, among others, Gary Beban, who was the Bruins' only Heisman Trophy winner, in 1967. Ramsey can throw long, short and on the run. He's an excellent reader of defenses—his 50-yard touchdown pass to Flanker Dokie Williams late in the second quarter against Colorado came on an audible—and an outstanding leader.

Understandably, over the years Ramsey has grown weary of hearing about Elway. Yes, they've met numerous times. No, they haven't talked quarter-backing that much. No, Ramsey doesn't think Elway has overshadowed him. What's the big difference between him and Elway? "The big difference is that they [Stanford] throw the ball 60 times a game," says Ramsey. Well, maybe that's coming your way, too, Tom.

UCLA Tight End Paul Bergmann, Ramsey's closest friend, can speak to the Elway-Ramsey issue if anyone can because he was Elway's favorite target at Granada Hills. But after meeting Ramsey in an all-star game, and deciding he didn't want to go to Stanford, Bergmann chose to follow Ramsey to UCLA. "I think Tom is about as complete a quarterback as you could want," says Bergmann. "He can drop back and throw it, he can scramble, he has field presence, he has everything. No, he can't throw it 75 yards off his back foot like John can, but that's just John. Nobody else can do that. But I do think Tom's every bit as accurate as John."

In addition to Bergmann, Ramsey has a well-matched set of wide receivers. Senior Cormac Carney, who leads the Bruins this season with 18 catches for 259 yards, has a reputation as a Fred Biletnikoff type: He has no particular strength but catches the ball whenever and wherever it's thrown to him. With eight more receptions—he now has 80 for his career—he'll supplant Kurt Altenberg as UCLA's alltime leading receiver. Carney feels his reputation for being slow, if steady, is a bum rap; his best 40-yard time is 4.7, and he hopes defenses may loosen up on him after they see the films of the 40-yard bomb he caught from Ramsey on a straight fly pattern early in the second half against Colorado. And with a 3.5 grade average in psychology and a possibility of becoming a Rhodes scholar, Carney is also the man to hit when a semi-erudite quote is called for, as in: "One thing Tom Ramsey has done is maximize his physical potential."

No one has made the most of things quite as well as the other wideout, Flanker Jojo Townsell, a 5'8", 180-pound senior who has caught 17 passes for 310 yards. With 76 career receptions, he also should surpass Altenberg's record. If Carney is Mr. Steady, Townsell is Mr. Spectacular. In the season opener against Long Beach State he caught TD passes of 23, 48, 32 and 18 yards from Ramsey in the first half. And in the comeback against Michigan he played a key role with seven catches for 108 yards.

Bergmann is Mr. In-Between. He has caught 12 balls for 203 yards, a 16.9 per-catch average. Bergmann, who as a senior has been around long enough to appreciate UCLA's transformation this year, says he doesn't mind blocking, but this pass-catching business is more fun.

And so it has been. Donahue is getting slapped on the back by entertained alumni and fans, and Los Angeles area newspaper writers have rechristened UCLA everything from UCLAir to UnCork Lots of Aerials. It's a refreshing change that has already yielded a first for Donahue. At the close of a light Bruin practice two days before the Colorado game, Ramsey called over his teammates and, as they looked on, presented the Michigan game ball to Donahue, the only one he's received since he took the UCLA head job. See what happens, Terry, when you let the kids put it up?


Lacking an effective runner, Donahue (right) has had Ramsey throwing an eye-opening 28.7 times a game.


Rhodes candidate Carney has a 3.5 grade point and a 4.7 time in the 40.


Safety Don Rogers (7) got in on the pass catching with an interception against Colorado.


UCLA's powerful defensive tackle, Eatman (75), has played up to his intimidating name.