On Saturday at 5 p.m. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the USC Trojans will face the UCLA Bruins in football for the 87th time since 1929.

The unique nature of this crosstown rivalry–with its colorful tradition and high level of play among some of the greatest players in college football history—distinguishes the game from other college rivalries.

The game will continue the tradition of both teams wearing their home uniforms, a practice briefly interrupted when UCLA moved from the Coliseum to the Rose Bowl.

But one additional fact makes this year’s latest contest extra special.

Saturday’s game falls on the 50th anniversary, to the day, of what many consider to be the biggest, best, most dramatic and most important football game played in the rivalry.

That game, played on Nov. 18, 1967, would determine the city and conference (AAWU at the time, now the Pac-12) champion, the Rose Bowl representative and, ultimately, the national champion.  Oh, and also the Heisman Trophy winner.

UCLA and USC were ranked No. 1 and No. 4 in the country, respectively, heading into that third Saturday of November meaning that, if the winner also went on to win the Rose Bowl, it could make a strong case to be crowned national champion.

The stars of each team, UCLA quarterback All-America quarterback Gary Beban and USC’s scintillating junior college transfer tailback, O.J. Simpson, were the clear-cut favorites to capture that year’s Heisman. The winning team that day would likely go a long way to help determine which of the two stars would be awarded the trophy.

As it turned out, the game more than lived up to its hype, and soon became known as college football’s “Game of the Century.”

 

The lead-up

UCLA had beaten USC in 1965 in a stunning, late comeback victory engineered by then- sophomore Beban, then went on to upset Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. They followed a year later with another unlikely victory over USC, with unheralded Norman Dow filling in heroically for the injured Beban. Still, USC, the lower-ranked team nationally, was surprisingly chosen by conference officials to represent the AAWU in the Rose Bowl Game against Purdue. Although each team had one conference loss, USC had played one more league game, thus sporting a slightly higher winning percentage.

Those circumstances were not forgotten by UCLA senior All-America linebacker, Don Manning, heading into the USC game in 1967. “Even though we beat USC our junior year,” Manning said, “and Notre Dame beat them 51-0 the next week, they went to the Rose Bowl. We wanted to go to the Rose Bowl. We were trying hard.”

USC quarterback Steve Sogge said coach John McKay prepared them for that game like he did every game. “The games were the easy part,” he said. “The practices were the hard part. He was such a disciplinarian. I think he wanted to see if you were going to crack in practice. If you were, he wasn’t going to play you in the games.”

The current radio voice of the Trojans, Pete Arbogast, attended the ‘67 game as a 12-year-old living in Los Angeles. He remembers going to the Coliseum, which served as the home field for both USC and UCLA at the that time (the Bruins moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982,) with a neighbor and his childhood friend, future NFL head coach Andy Reid.

“On the drive there, it seemed like everybody was going to the game,” Arbogast said. “We could see cars full of people dressed in either blue or red.”

He remembers that day not only for the buzz in the air, but for the crisp fall weather in downtown LA. “When you get into November, there’s this certain smell that comes up from the grass and the trees,” Arbogast said. “It was one of those fall days where it smelled like football.”

Though Beban had already played in many televised games during his UCLA career,  this one stood out when he came onto the field for warm-ups.

“It was hard to get across the track because of all the hard wires and black cables that television had put out,” Beban said. “In those days, there was only one [TV] game on a weekend. Plus, the stadium was full. That usually didn’t happen. The stadium was full, and that was for pregame warm-ups.”

The atmosphere stood out to a USC sophomore student named Sherrie Spray as well. “You would have a lot of back and forth,” Spray said. “There was a yell that SC had that they knocked off before I got out of college and it was just a one-word yell of ‘kill.’ Personally, I think they should bring it back.”

One thing both fan bases had in common, even back then, was mutual disdain. “They are just so obnoxious, they just don’t understand SC,” Spray said.

Norm Levin, a UCLA senior at the time, was an aspiring photographer who attended the game as a member of the band.  For him the feeling was mutual. “We referred to USC as ketchup and mustard,” Levin said, referring to the USC school colors.

 

The players

It wasn’t just the stakes that made this game one-of-a-kind–it was also the almost unmatched collection of talent on the field. “Until recently, I think they had more first-round-draft choices on that ‘67 team than any school in the history of the game,” Beban said. “I’m pretty sure they had five or six first-rounders and O.J. wasn’t even eligible.”

With offensive tackles Ron Yary and Mike Taylor, defensive end Tim Rossovich, running back Mike Hull, and speedy wide receiver Earl McCullouch, USC would indeed have five players picked in the first round of the next year’s NFL draft. Yary was destined to be the No.1 overall choice. That group did not even include Simpson, a junior who was picked first overall the following year, when he also won the Heisman Trophy after finishing second to Beban in 1967.

Though the Trojans were known as an offensive juggernaut, thanks mostly to Simpson and McCullouch, they also had a reputation for being well balanced. “We were kind of noted at that time for our defense,” Sogge said. “O.J. had been heralded a little bit but we had a great defense. That defense was what kept us in a lot of games.”

Manning understood the enormous task of stopping — or at least slowing down — Simpson and McCullouch. “They had half of the world record holding 400-meter relay team in their backfield on offense,” Manning said. “That’s a challenge.”

Simpson and McCullouch, along with Fred Kuller and Lennox Miller, had set the world record in the 440-yard relay in June 1967.

Beban, nicknamed “The Great One,” Manning, and their senior teammates were on the verge of an incredible accomplishment heading into the USC game.

“That group of seniors had never lost a game on California soil,” Manning said. “We had hosted Washington, Oregon State, Missouri, Cal, Tennessee, you name it, everybody. We had never lost a game. We thought California was our turf.”

 

The game

UCLA started the scoring nine minutes into the first quarter when running back Greg Jones took a handoff from Beban and then followed his quarterback, who threw a powerful block, 12-yards into the end-zone. “Yeah it felt pretty good,” Beban said. “Jones and I had gone back a long way [both were from Northern California]. He was a hard player so I felt good that I could help him get in the end-zone. That wasn’t a regular play and I was a little concerned because I had the bad ribs, but it worked out very well.”

Beban’s injured ribs, the result of a helmet hit in the previous game against Washington, took a significant toll on him as the game wore on. “It was torn cartilage, so when you twisted left or right, sometimes, it would literally take your breath away,” Beban said. “It did not hurt throwing the ball, it was more of when I was running the ball or trying to get away or twisting.”

At the end of the first quarter, with the score 7-0 UCLA, Beban rolled out to his right, stopped and threw across the field, looking for Jones. Pat Cashman, a USC cornerback, jumped the route and intercepted Beban’s pass, returning it 55 yards for a touchdown, tying the game at seven.

Though Beban dearly wishes he could take that play back, he has his suspicions about what caused the miscue. “I’m convinced that SC had been watching our practices, because if you watch how Cashman plays that play, he was going for Jones from the get-go,” Beban said.

“I’m not blaming Pat, that’s just the way the game is,” Beban said. “It was a good play, but then you watch our first touchdown in the second half, and it’s exactly the same play.  Cashman runs to exactly the same place and [wide receiver] George Farmer runs right by him for a 60-yard touchdown.”

 

Back and forth

With eight minutes remaining in the second quarter on second and eight, Simpson took a shovel pass from Sogge and broke three tackles on a 13-yard run into the end zone to give the Trojans a 14-7 lead.

Though a host of factors decided the game’s final outcome, a key defensive decision by McKay would play a major role in the Trojans winning the game.

With just under five minutes remaining in the first half, UCLA lined up for a field goal. Due to a delay-of-game penalty, the ball was moved back from the USC 20 yard-line to the 25 yard-line meaning UCLA placekicker Zenon Andrusyshyn would need to covert a 42-yard field goal.

USC then decided to use a “secret weapon”–a very large secret weapon–to challenge the field goal.

McKay inserted 6-foot-8-inch lineman Bill Hayhoe on the defensive line. Sure enough, Hayhoe blocked Andrusyshyn’s kick to keep the score 14-7.

Just over two minutes into the third quarter, the Bruins adjusted the play that Cashman had returned earlier for a touchdown.  Suspecting Cashman would again cover Jones, Beban went deep, hitting Farmer for the 53-yard catch-and-run touchdown to tie the game at fourteen.

Later in the half, Beban completed another touchdown pass to wide receiver Dave Nuttall for 21 yards. But, after Nuttall’s score, Hayhoe struck again getting his hand on another Zenon Andrusyshyn kick to tip it wide and negate the extra point, keeping UCLA ahead 20-14.

Through all the excitement of the game, Manning also remembers how physical it was. “The trainer thought my finger was dislocated but it was broken in four places,” Manning said. “He started pulling on it to relocate it. Then they put some Novocain in it and taped it back up and sent me back in.”

With less than 11 minutes remaining in the game, UCLA led, 20-14. That’s when Simpson turned the tide with one of the most memorable runs in college football history.

On third down and three, Toby Page, a junior from Orange County’s Mater Dei High School, who had replaced Sogge, audibled out of a pass play and called “23 Blast.” Page took the snap and handed off to Simpson. O.J. burst up the middle, emerged out of traffic and angled toward the USC sideline before turning back across to the center of the field, outrunning UCLA defenders for a spectacular 64-yard touchdown run. The touchdown put USC up 21-20.

Page’s audible did not surprise Sogge. “Coach McKay would give us the play that he wanted to run,” Sogge said. “Then we had the option as the quarterback to make sure that we put the team in the best position we could, to make sure we would win.”

Former USC band member Joe Wilson remembers seeing Simpson run toward him from his view near the UCLA end zone. “The crescendo of the fan noise building, building, building as he was in the clear, you could see he was going to score. It was an amazing feeling realizing at the end that that was going to happen,” Wilson said.

With time running out, Beban tried repeatedly to drive the Bruins into scoring position. On the game’s final drive, Beban and UCLA had the ball on their own 42 yard-line with 30 seconds remaining in the game.  Beban took the snap, opened up to his right and fired the ball out of bounds.

The referees called Beban for intentionally grounding, and moved the Bruins back five yards. The USC defense sacked Beban on the game’s final snap to give USC the 21-20 victory.

In the end Simpson rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns while USC only completed one pass on six attempts.

Sogge still credits McKay for providing the USC players with a winning mindset. “He did a phenomenal job of teaching us that we were going to find a way to win,” Sogge said. “No matter what that was, he taught us to believe you are going to find a way to win.”

 

A special rivalry

USC advanced to the Rose Bowl, where the Trojans defeated Indiana to win the national championship.

Though Beban’s Bruins lost, the senior had passed for two touchdowns and 301 yards, while playing in pain most of the afternoon. Beban did get a nice consolation prize when he was voted the Heisman trophy winner over Simpson, who finished second.  Beban is still UCLA’s only Heisman Trophy winner.

Arbogast was excited to taunt his junior high school classmates, who were UCLA fans, about the victory. “You are looking forward to going to school the next day,” he said. “So, you can rip on all of your Bruin friends and collect your bets. It was a great time to be alive.”

The proximity between the two schools and the intermingling between the two fan bases makes the rivalry particularly special for Arbogast and thousands of others. “We have to live with these people,” he says. “In some cases, they are in your family, in some cases they are married to you.”

Beban agrees. “They talk about a lot of great rivalries in this world, but there aren’t very many places where it’s only 12 miles apart,” he said. “There are so many interactions between family and friends and relatives and stuff like that during the year. So it’s unique in that sense.”

Though the rivalry was hostile, USC and UCLA players also felt a strong dose of mutual respect.

Beban remembered, two years earlier, an act of sportsmanship following UCLA’s improbable victory over USC. It came from USC’s All-America tailback and future athletic director, Mike Garrett, who would win the Heisman Trophy a few weeks later. Garret, though, had missed his last chance to play in a Rose Bowl.

“He had the courage and the sportsmanship to walk into our locker room after the game and wish us well in the Rose Bowl against Michigan State,” Beban said. “I thought someday if I have to do that, I hope I can. At the end of the ‘67 game I couldn’t. I still remember that today. I remember that specifically not because of the ribs, but because I just couldn’t do what Mike had done. I wish I had been able to do that.”

Steve Sogge felt the same level of respect between the players.

“It was hard for me to realize that players from UCLA were real people too,” Sogge said. “SC and UCLA were natural rivals, and so once we got to know them, we realized, these guys are really good guys just like we are.”

Manning agrees. “You didn’t really hate each other,” he said. “You wanted to beat the other guy, but there was a lot of honor and integrity among both teams. For my teammates and I who didn’t play professional football, we look back on that and really treasure it. It was special to be part of.”

 

Anthony Ciardelli is a journalism masters student at the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism. 

Photos courtesy of Norm Levin and Joe Wilson.