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Steve Springer

Class of '67 Is Still CSUN's Dream Team

November 22, 1987|STEVE SPRINGER

They made it all the way to the Rose Bowl before their season finally ended with a defeat administered by a national powerhouse.

Their biggest regular-season game drew the largest home crowd in school history.

The Vietnam War was raging half a world away and the campus was alive. A year later, demonstrating students would take over an administration building. But in 1967, the football team took over the students.

Are we talking about UCLA?

USC?

Would you believe Cal State Northridge?

Or rather, San Fernando Valley State College.

That's right, Valley State, as the school was known two decades ago, actually made it to the Rose Bowl in 1967, playing West Texas State University in the Junior Rose Bowl, a game staged for the elite among small colleges.

Never mind that the Matadors lost to West Texas, 35-13. It was still the season they first burst into the spotlight. It had never been that bright before. Or since.

The school was 9 years old in 1967, the football program in its sixth season. The team never before had enjoyed a winning record. In its previous two seasons, it had won just three games.

But in 1967, the team, known among themselves as The Dirty 30 because that's all there were when they first started, put together a 6-4 season.

Then a member of the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., Valley State wound up second in the conference after losing a battle for the top spot to San Diego State, 30-21, in a memorable game played at Birmingham High in Van Nuys before a crowd in excess of 10,000. It remains the largest home crowd ever to watch the Matadors.

You want school spirit? Valley State students formed a corridor from the 50-yard line to one end zone through which the Matadors ran onto the field to start the game.

The school band came out and played for the team at practice.

As the team's success built during the season, a self-proclaimed team mascot who called himself Heavy Herm led weekly raids on rival campuses to smear statues with red and white paint and, on one occasion, teetered around the football field during a game dressed as an infant, sipping whiskey out of a baby's bottle.

For a school where all but a few hundred students lived off campus, many of them commuting from their parents' homes, it was an unprecedented wild time.

But it was a different era for small-college football in Southern California. San Diego State, the top-ranked small college team in the nation in 1967, went on to win the Camellia Bowl. The Aztecs often would draw 50,000 at home. Their roster included future pro football stars like defensive lineman Fred Dryer and receiver Haven Moses.

The West Texas State squad that buried the Matadors had a pretty fair backfield with a couple of ballcarriers named Mercury Morris and Duane Thomas.

All these memories came floating back to the surface this weekend at CSUN, where that 1967 Matador squad held a reunion.

"We felt like we were turning the program around in those days," said Sam Winningham, then the head football coach, now chairman of the school's department of physical education. "We started in 1962 with no scholarships. By '67, we had about five. It was a struggle."

But it was fun. Former players spent as much time at the reunion talking about the good times off the field as those on it.

There were the Thursday Night Fights, an activity of which the players failed to inform Winningham. Can't imagine why. He certainly would have approved of his squad emptying the furniture out of the bedroom of one player's apartment, spreading mattresses across the floor, then putting on boxing gloves and football helmets to engage in a series of boxing matches.

Those good times finally came to an end when a hole was punched in a wall--by a player's head.

There were plenty of characters on that team. There was defensive back Bill Fisher, who later had tryouts with the Houston Oilers and the Denver Broncos, making it to the last cut with the Oilers. Fisher, now a teacher at Camarillo High, was a surfer in the 1960s. A fanatical surfer.

"He'd wake up in the middle of the night and go surfing," recalled Gene Noji, a halfback-placekicker and Fisher's roommate in '67. "But he always made it back to school in time for class and practice. Mostly just for practice."

Then there was linebacker Ed Lombardi.

"You talk about a psycho," Noji said. "You've heard of a player having his game face on. Ed had his on the Sunday before the game."

Noji, 41, has been football coach at Woodbridge High in Irvine for the past eight years.

In terms of success on the field, the head of the class of '67 was quarterback Bruce Lemmerman, the only member of that team to play in the NFL. He spent three years with the Atlanta Falcons before joining the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League in 1971. He spent nine years there, becoming part of a team that ruled the league for a decade. Starting in 1973, the Eskimos played in the Grey Cup, the Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl, nine times in 10 years, winning six times.

Lemmerman retired in 1980, at 33, and became an offensive coordinator, moving from Edmonton to the L. A. Express to the Houston Oilers to his current position with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"That year of 1967 was a special time for all of us," said Lemmerman, 42, by phone from Winnipeg, where he was preparing for an upcoming game. "We had no superstars and West Texas State was a hell of a lot better than we were, but it was still a highlight for all of us to be in a situation like that at that point in our lives.

"We felt we had some ability and we managed to have a bit of fun along the way."

Thursday night on campus hasn't been the same since.

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