There was a time when nothing could reduce the iconography of one phenomenal run.
In front of 90,000 screaming fans, O.J. Simpson, star halfback for the University of Southern California (USC) Trojans, took the handoff from backup quarterback Toby Page and charged forward. Breaking through the first line of defense, he hurdled a UCLA defender lying on the turf. Then he slithered from the desperate arms of two men in powder blue jerseys. Cutting left, he broke for the sideline and joined a convoy of blockers. Now he was in the open field. He cut right and, finding daylight, sprinted toward the end zone, painted in diamond patterns of cardinal and gold. Nothing could stop him. As he crossed the goal line, the announcer exclaimed, “Sixty-four thrilling, captivating, collegiate football yards!”
Though Simpson hailed from the Bay Area, as much as anywhere, Southern Cal’s success in the 1960s can be traced back to the West Virginia coal mines. John McKay, who coached the Trojans from 1960-75, once worked as an electrician’s assistant in a mine before joining the U.S. Army Air Force. After serving in World War II, McKay played for Purdue and then transferred to Oregon, where he and quarterback Norm Van Brocklin led the Ducks to a berth in the Cotton Bowl.
After his playing career was over, McKay became an assistant at Oregon under Jim Aiken and later Len Casanova. In 1959, he was hired at Southern Cal by head coach Don Clark, joining future Raiders owner and head coach, Al Davis, on the Trojans’ staff. McKay replaced Clark after the ’59 season and marched the Trojans to unprecedented heights.
McKay’s success was not immediate, however. The team slogged through his first two seasons, posting 4-6 and 4-5-1 records. A turning point occurred in ’62, McKay’s third season, when the team went 11-0 and captured the school’s first national championship in 23 seasons (1939). The Trojans were led by quarterback Pete Beathard, end Hal Bedsole, and linebacker Damon Bame.
From 1963-67, USC dipped to relative mediocrity, posting four consecutive seven-win campaigns. But the program reached a nadir on Nov. 26, 1966, when visiting Notre Dame hammered McKay’s Trojans 51-0. To his players in the locker room after the game, McKay quipped, “take a shower, if you need one.”
But McKay’s ability to persevere, shaped from the hardscrabble environment of his youth and his service in the Army, would not allow retreat. Instead, he mined California for the best talent available to reverse his team’s fortunes. As it turned out, he found gold at the City College of San Francisco.
Orenthal James “O.J.” Simpson had been a star halfback at Galileo High (where the “Yankee Clipper,” Joe DiMaggio, is also an alumnus), but because he was not heavily recruited and his grades were subpar, Simpson spent the first two years of his college career at a local juco. Mike Giddings, a former assistant at Southern Cal who became the head coach at Utah in 1966, knew about Simpson and nearly lured him to play for the Utes, but in the end, Simpson arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of ’67 and was quickly installed as the Trojans’ starting tailback.
That year, USC’s schedule was brutal. After opening up with Washington State, the Trojans faced off against No. 5 Texas, which swaggered into L.A. Coliseum behind head coach Darrell Royal. But the Longhorns were quickly introduced to No. 32 in cardinal, as Simpson got 30 carries and ran for 158 yards in a 17-13 victory. After the game, Royal said of the junior tailback, “”I hope we don’t see anybody with more capabilities, and I don’t think we will.”
The next week was Troy vs. Sparta, as USC traveled to East Lansing, Mich., where the Trojans dispatched Duffy Daugherty’s Spartans, 21-17. After throttling Stanford the next week at home, Southern Cal crossed the country for a mid-October meeting with rival Notre Dame. This was the rematch of the 51-point clubbing the Trojans took only a year earlier by the Ara Parseghian-led Irish. To add further difficulty, the Trojans hadn’t won in South Bend since 1939.
McKay’s team would not be denied. Forcing seven turnovers and overcoming a 7-0 halftime deficit, the Trojans downed the Irish, 24-7. Simpson ran for three second-half touchdowns and 160 yards, and the defensive play of Adrian Young, who had four interceptions on the afternoon, helped seal the win for the Trojans.
USC then returned west, where it faced a string of Pacific Eight Conference opponents: Washington, Oregon, Cal, and Oregon State. The first three games were easy victories for the Trojans, but when the team traveled to Corvallis, Ore., in November to face McKay’s old team, the Beavers had set a trap.
OSU, led by head coach Dee Andros, had already defeated No. 2 Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind., and tied No. 2 UCLA at the L.A. Coliseum prior to the matchup with USC. And by holding the vaunted Trojans offense scoreless in a 3-0 victory, Oregon State rightly earned the title “Giant Killers.”
There was no rest for the weary as the next week, USC faced crosstown rival UCLA in the Battle for the Victory Bell. The Bruins were led by quarterback Gary Beban, who, like Simpson, was a fellow San Franciscan. “Yes, it is too Hollywood for belief,” wrote Dan Jenkins for Sports Illustrated. “That UCLA’s glamorous quarterback, Gary Beban, and USC’s splendid halfback, O.J. Simpson, could emerge in the same city, in the same conference, as two of the best players of 1967, is improbable enough. That they could also wind up quite possibly battling for the national championship, the Pacific Eight championship, the Rose Bowl bid and the Heisman Trophy, all on one unbearable Saturday afternoon, is strictly from the studio lots.”
The game turned out to be one of the greatest contests in the history of the rivalry, propelling Beban and Simpson to Los Angeles sports immortality.
Trailing 20-14 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Simpson rumbled 64 yards for the winning touchdown. After the game, he was hoisted on the shoulders of fans and carried off the field.
“Even though we lost,” Beban reflected, “not many people can say they played in a game of that magnitude.”
Simpson once said: “I never felt more elated or joy after any athletic event than I did after that game.”
In the final Associated Press poll released on Nov. 27, USC received 36 first-place votes to edge out No. 2 Tennessee, and because USC also was named No. 1 in the Coaches’ (UPI) poll, the Trojans became consensus national champions for the 1967 season.
For the 15th time in school history, Southern Cal was invited to the Rose Bowl, where it defeated No. 4 Indiana, 14-3, to cap off the remarkable season.
Four Trojans—Simpson, Young, Ron Yary, and Tim Rossovich, were named consensus All-Americans and Simpson placed second in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Beban.
For years, 1967 USC-UCLA game was lauded as the “Game of the Century” and Trojans far and wide toasted the win as it was frequently recollected. But the game—and Simpson’s iconic run—have been somewhat diminished by what happened on the night of June 12, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found murdered in Brentwood, Calif. Simpson was indicted, tried, and acquitted, but the court of public opinion (and later a civil court) held him responsible for the horrific double homicide.
Until then, Simpson had been a beloved figure at Southern Cal, and frequently welcomed back to campus. In 1992, on the 25th anniversary of the ’67 national championship, Simpson was invited to address the team. Now Simpson is no longer welcome at USC athletic functions.
The cost for Simpson’s unfortunate descent is the tarnishing of a remarkable season, the camaraderie of team, and the thrill of victory. Perhaps his teammates—the ones who suffer most—will have to deal with mixed emotions in perpetuity.
“The play’s singular joy has been wiped away with time,” wrote Joey Kaufman for The Orange County Register. “It no longer evokes simple euphoria at USC, instead teeming with an array of emotions, leaving those in its wake to confront their own feelings of the past.” H&A
All photos courtesy USC Athletics.