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BATTLE FOR THE ROSE BOWL : UCLA vs. USC : THE QUARTERBACKS : Sooner or Later, Aikman of UCLA Was Destined for True Greatness as a Passer

November 19, 1987|TRACY DODDS | Times Staff Writer

Troy Aikman is a slow-walkin', slow-talkin' big ol' boy who likes just a pinch between his cheek and gum, and a stretch of open country road for his Chevy Blazer.

He went to high school in Henryetta, Okla., a town so small, he says, it didn't even have a McDonald's.

But he didn't think that was so bad. He liked the simple life. As far as he's concerned, living in a city where you might as well sit in your house between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. because you can't squeeze your Blazer into the traffic is just plain crazy.

Yeah, Oklahoma suited him just fine. But Oklahoma football didn't suit him, at all.

Aikman, the quarterback who will be leading UCLA against USC this Saturday, the very day that he turns 21 years old, is 6 feet 3 1/2 inches tall, weighs 217 pounds and has a powerful arm. He also has a knack for reading defenses, seeing the whole picture in a blink and deciding where he wants to throw a pass.

Aikman does it so well that he's averaging 218.3 yards a game passing, completing 68.2% of his throws, and in 10 games has given up only three interceptions--two on deflections. That adds up to make him the nation's top-rated quarterback in passing efficiency.

He is, and always has been, a classic pro-style quarterback.

He wasn't meant to go scurrying around the corner, pitching the football sideways or backward in a wishbone offense.

He fits beautifully into the UCLA offense.

So, the question is not why he transferred to UCLA a little more than a year ago. The question, which confounds everyone, is why he ever went to the University of Oklahoma in the first place.

"I'd been in Oklahoma since I was 12," said Aikman, who was born in West Covina and spent his early years in Cerritos. "In the state of Oklahoma, OU football is everything. Everybody wants to go to OU.

"When I was coming out of high school, Oklahoma was running the I, and Coach (Barry) Switzer told me that they were going to stay in the I. And I believed him."

But a funny thing happened on his way to the pocket.

The ink was barely dry on his letter of intent when Switzer said that, with Marcus Dupree gone, the Sooners would be back in the wishbone again.

Aikman planned to red-shirt his freshman year but was pressed into action in a losing effort against Kansas when the two quarterbacks ahead of him were injured. The next year, as a sophomore, he led the Sooners to three victories before he broke his leg in the fourth game, against Miami.

Jamelle Holieway, the flashy freshman from L.A.--strange how these things work out--took over and, with his affinity for the option, showed no sign of giving the spot back to Aikman.

Switzer was expecting the knock on his door when Aikman came to say he wanted out. In fact, Switzer told him he was making the right decision but didn't think it was his place to suggest it.

Any time he's been asked to compare Aikman to Holieway, Switzer has said that Aikman has loads of talent and will one day be a pro quarterback, but that Holieway does what OU needs.

No sense in letting Aikman waste away on the bench. Switzer picked up the phone and started helping him find another spot.

At UCLA, Coach Terry Donahue took the call.

Just the other day, Donahue was saying, "Barry Switzer told me Aikman was good, and I trusted his judgment, but he didn't tell me he was this good."

Aikman says much the same thing.

"I thought I could come in and be a good quarterback at UCLA," he said. "But I didn't expect to hit 67, 68% of my passes.

"I couldn't have hoped for any better. It was a big decision for me to leave Oklahoma and start over. You never know if things will work out. So I'd say it's gone a lot better than what I'd planned on."

He has admitted, in recent weeks, that it was a tough adjustment coming back to California. He'd been gone so long that he didn't have friends to come back to.

He does have some relatives in West Covina, and his father, an oil and gas technologist, moved back to Riverside when jobs got scarce in Oklahoma.

Still, it wasn't an exciting time. It was mostly business.

Aikman was here to play football, and he had a year or so to get himself ready to challenge for the starting spot.

Aikman arrived in Westwood shortly after UCLA's 38-3 loss to Oklahoma in the 1986 opener. It was part of Donahue's agreement with Switzer that Aikman wouldn't report until after that game.

Aikman, forced to sit out a year because of the transfer, at least was able to work with the Bruins all fall and all spring.

He worked intensely with former Bruin quarterback Rick Neuheisel, then a volunteer assistant coach. Neuheisel was impressed with him from the moment he laid eyes on him and now concludes, "He's just a gifted, gifted player."

Neuheisel taught him the system well, and although Aikman said he still wasn't perfectly comfortable with it at the start of this season, he was able to win the spot over Brendan McCracken.

The Bruins' new offensive coordinator, Steve Axman, calls him "an unbelievable talent."

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