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Scott Ostler

Donahue, Smith Are Two Loose Guys

November 18, 1987|Scott Ostler

Each college football coach does this thing during the week before every game, where he meets with the press to see how many important bits of information, interesting opinions and sparkling insights he can withhold.

Most of these meetings could be simplified by asking the coach to answer the following question:

"Coach, do you have serious reservations about your own team's mental and physical preparedness, and is your opponent extremely physical and well coached, and do you have profound respect for--but not fear of--those guys, and a tremendous admiration for that school's football program and tradition, so help you God?"

Still, you never know when something big will come out of one of these get-togethers, and this being Big Game week in the Los Angeles-Westwood corridor, I hit the road Monday and Tuesday, looking for action.

Monday was lunch at UCLA with Terry Donahue, although Terry didn't actually eat with us media people. Maybe he doesn't like chicken tostadas, although they were delicious. Spicy, but not too spicy.

What you look for from Donahue each week is the big build-up. The other team is always Godzilla in cleats.

A creative coach can do a lot with this technique. Going into a USC-UCLA basketball game in 1977, a lousy Trojan team had just snapped a five-game losing streak with a narrow win over another lousy team. Bruin Coach Gene Bartow said gravely, "The Trojans are playing with momentum now."

Donahue has the innate ability to improve a weak opponent, so what would he do with this week's very good opponent?

Answer: Punt.

Instead of telling wild campfire stories about the Trojans, Donahue went in a different direction. He expressed concern over his team's injury situation--there are a few starters on the sidelines, which is pretty unusual for football--and he revealed that the Trojans will go into the game with a tremendous psychological advantage, being underdogs and all.

Terry played it cool and casual. His obvious strategy was to present a calm, loosey-goosey exterior. He wore a casual Bruin-blue sweater and he joked around with the assembled reporters.

As usual, he talked down his own team. When someone suggested that the Bruins had dominated most of their Pac-10 Conference opponents this season, Terry quietly begged to differ.

"I would not agree that we've dominated the conference," he said. "I've never felt like those games were dominated."

Just because UCLA has won its seven conference games by an average of 27 points, including a 49-0 squeaker over Stanford, is no reason to get all giddy and conclude that the Bruins have actually dominated anybody.

"We're a good team," Donahue allowed. "We have good players, we've played well, we have not looked too far ahead or too far behind, we've concentrated on the task at hand."

Summing up the big picture for the Big Game, Donahue ventured: "I would anticipate it will be a real donnybrook."

Donnybrook? I was hoping for a titanic tussle.

There was still hope that Larry Smith would bust Big Game week wide open with some startling prediction or pronouncement. He got his shot at lunch Tuesday. Lasagne was served, with no baloney.

"All the marbles are on the line," Smith announced, appearing at the event in a casual, USC-cardinal sweater.

Smith politely scoffed when told of Donahue's theory that USC will have the psychological advantage. Smith said he wanted his players to come into the game "loose, and I don't mean loosey goosey."

What, then? Firmly loose?

Like Donahue, Smith admitted that during Big Game weeks, coaches tend to muzzle their players for fear they'll say something rash and fire up the opposition. "In a lot of cases, we all just clam up," Smith said.

This week, with all the clamming up, you could make enough chowder for all 90,000 Coliseum fans.

Is this the best UCLA team Smith has seen in his eight years in the Pac-10?

"I think it is," he said. "I really do. I see a lot of speed in every aspect. You try to find an imbalance in the other team, and UCLA has no imbalance."

Someone noted that Smith, who is about to face his first major major test as a USC coach, seemed very calm.

"I love competition," he said. "I feel more relaxed in a situation like this."

He looked relaxed. If Smith and Donahue were having a psychological relax-off, it ended in a tie. TV's Mr. Rodgers, in his sweater, would have taken third place here.

I found the luncheons profoundly relaxing. I'm pretty sure I'll go into Saturday's donnybrook loose, but not loosey goosey.

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