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Missing Memories : '54 Bruins Might Have Been Best Ever, but They Didn't Reach the Rose Bowl

November 14, 1994|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The best football team UCLA ever had never played in a bowl game. The only undefeated, untied team in Bruin football history, coached by the shrewd, tormented, unpredictable Red Sanders, played like no team from Westwood ever has, splattering opponents to the far reaches of the Coliseum and launching memories like confetti, still falling to this day.

In 1954, UCLA went 9-0, outscored its opponents 367-40, fielded three first-team All-Americans, sent 14 players to the pros and was voted national champion by United Press International.

There were only two problems. The Associated Press picked Ohio State No. 1 and the Pacific Coast Conference kept UCLA out of the Rose Bowl. USC, which lost, 34-0, to UCLA, went instead and got drummed by Ohio State, 20-7.

Other than that, it was a banner Bruin year. A little thing called the no-repeat rule tripped up UCLA and sent the Bruins sprawling. The Pacific Coast Conference started it in 1952, basically so the conference wouldn't have to begin each year with California getting blown out in the Rose Bowl.

The conference's no-repeat Rose Bowl rule lasted eight years. As fate would have it, the only team affected in the rule's short life was the 1954 UCLA Bruins.

"It was a strange deal," said Terry Debay, 61, the Bruins' quarterback from Canoga Park in Sanders' single-wing formation. "But that was the way it was."

Maybe it was strange, but it didn't take 40 years for the Bruins of 1954 to come to terms with missing out on the Rose Bowl, probably because they feel they didn't miss much of anything else.

It sounds almost like a cliche. They were a tight-knit bunch, all right, but they won too, all the while feeling strangely surrounded by this feeling that they were something special, something unusual, something bigger than the Coliseum.

"Oh, you'd better believe it," said tailback Primo Villanueva, 62, the "Calexico Kid" from Mexico. "Individually, we couldn't fight our way out of a paper bag, with some exceptions. But as a unit, there was a bond. . . . I've never seen anything like it before or since."

And 40 years later, the Bruins' best will hold a reunion Friday night at the Verdugo Club in Glendale. Many of them plan to be there, including Debay, a real estate broker in Newport Beach, and Bob Davenport, 61, the hard-running All-American fullback from Long Beach.

Davenport, who runs a bicycle touring business in Upland, Ind., is looking forward to seeing his old teammates as much as, say, the way he slammed into the line against Stanford at the Coliseum back in '54 when UCLA won, 72-0.

"What I think about when I see the guys is that it's probably the last time we'll see each other this side of heaven," Davenport said.

"All UCLA guys go to heaven, you know. There won't be any USC guys there, though . . . and there won't be many officials, either."

*

In Westwood in 1954, it was a time of heaven on earth. Sanders, a brilliant tactician on the practice field and the sideline, was in his coaching prime. At 49, he was in his sixth season at UCLA after six years as coach at Vanderbilt.

Sanders assembled a notable staff in 1954 at UCLA, a group that included back coach Tommy Prothro and line coach Jim Myers. The coaching staff preached discipline, fundamentals and knocking the stuffing out of everybody who crossed their path.

Jack Tobin, a reporter who covered the 1954 Bruins for the Los Angeles Mirror, was impressed all over again every day by what Sanders had put together.

"They just dominated everybody," Tobin said. "They blew people away."

They did it with a stifling defense that still holds school records for fewest yards and fewest points allowed. UCLA opponents averaged 4.4 points a game in 1954 and were outscored by an average of 36.4 points a game.

Meanwhile, Sanders' offense set a school record for points that lasted until 1973. They won by such scores as 67-0, 72-0, 61-0, 41-0 and 34-0. The only team that came close to beating UCLA was Washington, which lost, 21-20, the difference a missed extra point.

Sanders' offensive scheme was the single wing, which resembles today's shotgun formation. The ball usually was snapped to Villanueva, the tailback, who also called the signals. Debay was a blocking back as quarterback.

It was a simple yet effective strategy. When critics in the newspapers dubbed the UCLA attack the "horse and buggy" offense, they had to change the name after the blowouts. Soon, newspapers dubbed it the "hearse and buggy" offense, because it was killing the other teams.

"When I look back at it, it was almost a Woody Hayes mentality," Davenport said. "You do it right, you do it consistently. It doesn't matter how familiar defenses are with you, you could tell them where you are going because you overpower them.

"We'd stand out there for hours at practice just doing simple steps, six-inch steps, like ballet. It was a few things done so well we didn't have to think about it."

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