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CSUN at 40

Teamwork and a Trip to the Junior Rose Bowl

Though the 1967 Matadors were defeated, 34-14, by a team that included future NFL players, the loss did not diminish a season worth remembering.

September 21, 1998|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They played their home games at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Talk of building an on-campus stadium was years away.

So was the change in name to Cal State Northridge.

But in 1967, San Fernando Valley State College, as the institution was then known, had a football team that remains arguably the best in the school's 40-year history.

The Matadors that season were 6-4, ranked seventh in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and played against West Texas State in the Junior Rose Bowl before a crowd of more than 30,000 in Pasadena.

The Matadors were thrashed, 34-14, by a team that included future NFL running backs Mercury Morris and Duane Thomas. But the loss did not tarnish a splendid season.

"It was a wonderful year for us," said Sam Winningham, the Matadors' coach from 1960-68.

Winningham, 71, a Northridge resident, served as the school's athletic department chairman until his retirement in 1988 and has remained involved with the athletic program.

"They were special kids," Winningham said of the 1967 football team. "We didn't have much of a scholarship program. But they wanted to play for us. The players used to joke about it: 'I've got a full ride to San Fernando Valley State. They cover my registration fee of $125.' "

As Cal State Northridge struggles to forge a football identity in a metropolis steeped in the college football tradition, the '67 Matadors--about two dozen of whom still reside in Southern California--grow even fonder of recalling their finest hour.

"Yes, I am very proud of the fact that I played there," said Al Racius of Thousand Oaks, a defensive back on the '67 and '68 teams. "And proud of some of the games we played and people we played against. The quality of football really was very good."

The quarterback was Dave Lemmerman, one of the first players from the school to play in the NFL. There were talented receivers, including Dick Billingsley, now in his ninth season as football coach at Oak Park High in Ventura County.

Billingsley, who transferred from Glendale College before the 1966 season, caught 120 passes in two seasons and once held 13 school receiving records. He was inducted into the CSUN athletic hall of fame in 1993.

More important, Billingsley met and eventually married Sally Krueger, a cheerleader and homecoming queen in 1968.

"We were a close-knit team," Billingsley said. "A lot of us were roommates together, six of us in one house."

Dick Flaherty, former football coach at Saugus High and a longtime official of high school athletic events, was one of Billingsley's roommates.

A linebacker, Flaherty was assigned to shadow Morris in the Junior Rose Bowl. Flaherty proudly points out that the future Miami Dolphin did not catch a pass.

"But he ran for about 195 yards," he said with a laugh.

"My fondest memory is just the whole experience because of all the great guys," Flaherty said. "I mean it. We were a team. We were fortunate enough to have a bunch of athletes and a good coaching staff. But I think we surprised even the coaches."

The 1967 college football season in Los Angeles is remembered for UCLA quarterback Gary Beban winning the Heisman Trophy and for O.J. Simpson's breakaway run in the Coliseum that turned the tide for USC in perhaps the greatest USC-UCLA game.

Obscured by glitter that season was the showdown at Birmingham between Valley State and Don Coryell-coached San Diego State for the California College Conference championship.

Before an overflow crowd, the Matadors trailed, 23-21, in the final two minutes but drove inside the San Diego State 20-yard line. A Lemmerman pass was then tipped, intercepted and returned for a touchdown.

The Matadors lost, 30-21, but gained 446 yards against a team that had outscored them, 163-6, in four previous meetings.

"It hurt to lose to San Diego State," Flaherty said.

In the regular-season finale, the Matadors defeated Cal State L.A., 42-6, to earn a berth in the Junior Rose Bowl.

"I remember thinking, 'How odd it is that we're playing in the Rose Bowl,' " said Racius, now vice president of a national vending company. "All the attention--because of the press--we weren't used to that at San Fernando Valley State."

Although reunions of the '67 team have become more infrequent over the years, the turnout remains high, with usually about 30 former players attending.

"As a coach, you take pride in seeing how well they all turned out," Winningham said.

Members of the '67 team lament that their season did not serve as a springboard for the program. The following season, the school went 5-4 and the Matadors posted only one winning record in the next seven years.

Budget cuts in 1968 hurt the program. So did the counterculture revolution of the late '60s.

While the Vietnam War ignited student activism on campuses across the nation, members of the Matador football team were viewed as "square," or tools of the establishment.

Recruiting and morale suffered. The program took a nose dive from which it has never fully recovered.

"You would have thought, after that season, the program would have taken off," Winningham said. "But we never really got that done."

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