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A ROSE BOWL FOR AGES : USC Won National Title, but '63 Game Belongs to Guy Named VanderKelen

December 28, 1987|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

He played quarterback in the National Football League, works in radio and is a successful marketing executive for a family restaurant chain in Minneapolis.

But while Ron VanderKelen has been content to go on with his life, most people he meets insist on taking him back 25 years, to a New Year's Day and a Rose Bowl revered as much for its loser as its winner.

On that day, USC won its first national championship in 30 years and completed an undefeated 11-0 season under Coach John McKay in his first of eight Rose Bowl appearances. The Trojans, in the first Rose Bowl meeting ever between the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams in the nation, beat Wisconsin, 42-37.

In so doing, however, they also managed to make a hero of VanderKelen, the Badger quarterback who had never taken a snap from center until his senior season but nearly pulled off the greatest comeback in Rose Bowl history with a 23-point fourth quarter.

How often is he reminded of that game?

"It comes up almost all the time, and has for the last 24 years," VanderKelen said with a chuckle. "To me, the game must have had a tremendous impact, that people still do remember."

Memories are made of this: VanderKelen completed 33 of 48 passes for 401 yards, Rose Bowl records for completions, attempts and yardage that still stand. And, after USC had opened a 42-14 lead six seconds into the fourth quarter, he directed Wisconsin to three touchdowns (the Badgers also had a safety). The Badgers would have had a fourth touchdown if USC's Willie Brown hadn't intercepted a pass in the end zone.

"Most anybody--unless they were from USC--would have said that if we had the football and there were 45 seconds to go, Wisconsin probably would score," VanderKelen said.

"When the gun went off and the game was over, most of us just stood there in shock. We felt like it can't be over yet, we've got a chance to win."

That sentiment obviously was shared by many observers.

"I had a temper tantrum after the game," said Brown, who went on to coach with McKay at both USC and Tampa Bay in the NFL and now owns seven fast-food restaurant franchises in the Los Angeles area.

"I know we had a big lead, but we stopped them. We got in the locker room, and we're happy and excited, we had won the national championship.

"But then a lot of sportswriters and press came in, talking about the wonderful Wisconsin team. I said, 'Wait a minute, what the hell, I thought we won the damn game. They didn't.' "

What Wisconsin won, however, was instant admiration. VanderKelen, who hadn't even been drafted by an NFL team--the draft was held early to counter the influence of the fledgling American Football League--was surrounded by pro scouts as he came off the field.

Wisconsin Coach Milt Bruhn, who is now retired and living in Madison, recalled how he went over to rescue VanderKelen from the scouts, but then couldn't get back into the Wisconsin locker room.

"The scribes were all waiting for me for 10 or 15 minutes," Bruhn said. "We had passes, but I'd torn mine off. Finally, a team doctor spotted me and got me in."

McKay took note of VanderKelen's instant celebrity.

"What a fine coach I am," he said. "Wisconsin's Milt Bruhn had VanderKelen for four years, and all he got was a college education. I had him only four quarters, and got him $60,000."

For three quarters, USC had dominated. Trojan quarterback Pete Beathard threw only a dozen passes in the game, but four of them went for touchdowns, a record that was matched 21 years later by UCLA's Rick Neuheisel against Illinois.

Beathard's first touchdown throw came on a surprise tackle-eligible play to Pat Butcher. He then hooked up with wide receiver Hal Bedsole for touchdown plays of 57 and 23 yards in the third quarter, and his 13-yard pass to Fred Hill six seconds into the final quarter gave the Trojans a seemingly secure 28-point cushion.

Bedsole's touchdowns weren't all that aggravated the Badgers. Twice, he was called for personal fouls, and was involved in a scuffle at the Wisconsin bench in which Bruhn was said to have struck the USC end.

"I was blamed for it until I saw Bedsole at an All-American dinner in New York and told him it wasn't me, it was one of my assistants," Bruhn said. "He apologized to me.

"But he had a tendency to run into the bench area after a play."

Beathard, who now is in real estate development in Las Vegas, thinks the Trojans may have gotten too comfortable.

"You know, I don't think we were aware of what was happening," Beathard said. "We had a nice lead going into the fourth quarter, and we became a little complacent.

"Our situation that year was that we dominated. We were never in a situation where we had to worry about somebody throwing the ball every down."

The Trojans, however, were about to have an anxiety attack. Bruhn said Wisconsin's secondary coach, Fred Jacoby, who is now commissioner of the Southwest Conference, came into the dressing room at halftime and told Bruhn that the Trojans were vulnerable to the play-action pass.

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