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Would-Be Bruin Declares War on Westwood

College football: UCLA challenged his test results, now Arizona cornerback Chris McAlister is settling scores.

September 25, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was sitting in a classroom in Tucson on a hot August morning, being photographed and fingerprinted by the Educational Testing Service before he was given some papers that would accept only a No. 2 pencil.

Why was Chris McAlister, rising junior at Arizona, being given an examination normally taken by high school seniors?

He still wonders, and it still fuels the love-hate relationship he and his family have with UCLA, the hatred part driving him this weekend in the Rose Bowl, where he comes back as a Wildcat, ready to hit anything wearing a light blue shirt.

It's personal, not against the wearers of the blue, but against what they stand for.

"I don't have anything against the coaches," he says. "I don't have anything against the academic department or the players, I guess. It's the school.

"As long as I have to face them, there's a score to be settled. If I were to play college football the rest of my life, it would still be personal to me and the score would never be settled."

Arizona 35, UCLA 17 didn't settle it a year ago. Neither did a school-record 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. They are numbers, and you can't put a number on revenge. It's sweet, but two more years of it is sweeter. Chris McAlister is a man on a mission, and the mission is to stick it to UCLA.

And keep sticking it.

He's an Arizona cornerback, in many assessments among the nation's best. He had six interceptions in 1996 and has one in each of Arizona's three games this season. He's perhaps an even better kick returner.

That he's not a UCLA cornerback and kick returner is what will drive him Saturday. He wanted to be. The Bruin football hierarchy wanted him to be. It was a natural. He grew up with UCLA in his house and on his mind.

His father, James McAlister, is in the school's hall of fame as an All-American running back and owner of a 27-foot, half-inch long jump in 1973.

James McAlister was a 225-pound load on the football field, and once he was a regular visitor to the Rose Bowl, watching his alma mater.

"I have friends like Marques Johnson, guys I played ball with at UCLA like Eddie Ayers and George Farmer, and they've seen their sons play for UCLA," says McAlister, a special education teacher and track coach at Pasadena High. "That's what I wanted, to see my son play for UCLA."

On Saturday he will sit with the rest of the Arizona fans in the corner of the stadium, waiting for his son to do something bad to the Bruins.

What make Chris McAlister a good college cornerback are "the numbers," UCLA Coach Bob Toledo says. "He has size, speed, you can't overlook those numbers."

The quantities that stick in Toledo's mind are 6 feet 1, 195 pounds, sub-4.4-second speed in the 40-yard dash, 10.5 speed in the 100 meters.

But the numbers that kept McAlister from becoming a Bruin are 680, 810 and 1,010. They are the scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test he took while a senior at Pasadena High in 1995. The first two would not qualify him to go to UCLA, but the third would . . . were it not so high.

The 200-point improvement was wonderful, said the NCAA Clearinghouse, which told the school it had a new cornerback. But it was a time when problems were surfacing about test scores, particularly at USC, and the UCLA eligibility machine, which considers itself as operating on a higher academic plane, hit the red zone. The school queried the Educational Testing Service about the 200 points, and the ETS decided there was subterfuge at hand. McAlister had copied another test-taker close by, the ETS ruled, and he should take the test over.

Which test-taker, the ETS wouldn't say, and it also couldn't produce a seating chart for the examination.

McAlister said he wouldn't retake it . . . until August, by which time he had gone to class and played a season at Mt. San Antonio College and another at Arizona, which had no problem with the scores as long as the NCAA Clearinghouse was happy.

And by which time he had run back a kickoff 100 yards against UCLA, striking the first blow in a career centered on revenge.

"Thank you," says James McAlister, when all this is pointed out. "Now you understand. He had proved he could do college work."

The McAlisters sued the ETS in 1995, and the suit lingered until May of this year, with the ETS still after Chris to retake the math portion of the SAT. After the parties met with a judge in Los Angeles, says James McAlister, it became clear it was going to be difficult to proceed against the ETS. McAlister made the decision his son's.

"He said, 'I'll just take the test over again,' " James McAlister says. "He did it, and they did everything but strip-search him. And he passed."

The score, says Chris, was 490 on the math, 70 points better than on the challenged test. The lawsuit has been dropped. "It was just something I wanted to put behind me," Chris says. "Now I can concentrate on school and playing ball."

And beating UCLA this weekend.

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