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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

It's a Century of Excellence for a Former USC Letterman

August 06, 2000|DIANE PUCIN

Jim Pursell loves college football, and he especially loves USC football. Pursell is eager to show off the photos taken of him and Trojan Coach Paul Hackett, and when Pursell puts on his USC baseball cap, the look is jaunty and Pursell is proud.

As for the Trojans' chances this season, Pursell will reserve judgment. He'd prefer to see the team in action first, though he is not above offering his services against UCLA should the team need him.

Then Pursell laughs. The idea of him playing football again brings on a gale of giggles. After all, Pursell, "Coach" to many of the 150 people who plan to attend a very special birthday party in two weeks, will turn 100 on Aug. 20.

As far as anyone can determine, Pursell is USC's oldest living football letterman. If there is an older letterman out there, he is hiding. Pursell doesn't hide.

He is not quite at his playing weight of 160 pounds. Pursell was a guard but the heaviest man on the Trojan team in 1923 weighed 208 pounds. Norman Anderson was the heavyweight, a tackle, of course.

"I look on TV now," Pursell says, "and the men playing my position all weigh over 300 pounds. Even the ones in college. Can you imagine?"

Don't get Pursell wrong. He is not one of those people who only tells stories about the "good old days."

There is much Pursell could tell. Pursell played in the first Rose Bowl game. USC defeated Penn State, 14-3, on Jan. 2, 1923, and Pursell would like a repeat when the Trojans open the 2000 season Aug. 27 against the Nittany Lions at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in the Kickoff Classic.

Pursell also played in the first game at the Coliseum. The Trojans beat Pomona, 22-6. Pursell's coach, "Gloomy" Gus Henderson, started the second team that day, so Pursell played the entire first half.

"I was never a starter," Pursell says. "I was a walk-on at first, but Coach Henderson liked my work ethic. Good thing too, because that got me invited to the training table, which probably saved my life. I couldn't afford to eat much. I weighed about 130 pounds when I went out for the team my freshman year."

After college Pursell became a high school track coach and physical education teacher. He was never about making lots of money or earning lots of fame.

Pursell was a coach, pure and simple. First at Jefferson High, then at Beverly Hills High and finally, until retirement in 1959, at University High in West L.A.

When he was offered the job as track coach at Jefferson, Pursell knew nothing about coaching the sport.

"I went to my friend at USC," Pursell says, "Coach Dean Cromwell. Coach Cromwell was a great track coach at USC. He invited me to his office. I arrived at 7 p.m., stayed until 11. He invited me back the next day and the next. I brought a pencil and some paper and took copious notes. That's how I learned to coach track. I still have those notes."

Pursell coached stars such as Mel Patton, who won two Olympic gold medals in 1948. But it's not the stars Pursell most remembers. It's all the other kids.

One pupil, Bill Lockhart, University High Class of '47, wrote that "Coach Jim was tough as nails but fair--a mountain of integrity. I became a better athlete and a better man because of him. I still remember him hitting me on the butt one time while I was standing in front of a horizontal bar which I had to vault at a height above my head and saying, 'You can do it, Lockhart,' and I did it.

"I have used Jim's credo, 'You can do it, Lockhart,' successfully all through my life whenever I was faced with a difficult task."

There is the essence of what coaching should be. To have those coached remember 53 years later the lessons taught.

Pursell's father was a homesteader. Pursell and his eight brothers and sisters grew up near Tulare in California's Central Valley. Life was hot and hard but never unhappy.

In 1966 Pursell and his wife, Gwen, moved to Leisure World. Pursell took up golf, and as recently as a year ago, he was still recording birdies. Gwen died in 1989. Their marriage had lasted 62 1/2 years, and Pursell misses Gwen every day. But he is never idle.

Pursell still drives, though only until the day of his 100th birthday. His eyes aren't quite perfect anymore but, Pursell says, "It's going to be very hard to put away those keys. Very hard." Pursell moves with the grace of an athlete, quickly and smoothly. And often. Pursell jumps up a dozen times during the course of an hour, fetching old photos of a copy of a 1923 USC football program, which cost 25 cents.

His son, James Pursell Jr., is a retired California Highway Patrol officer. His grandson, James Pursell III, played basketball at Whittier College, then professionally in Australia where "he married an Aussie gal," Pursell says. And now there is a James Pursell IV, a towheaded boy from Australia and California. All the Jameses will be at Clubhouse No. 1 on Aug. 19 for the big birthday bash along with about 150 others.

Pursell is looking forward to the party. He is looking forward to another USC football season. Pursell thinks it should be a good one. "I love this time of year," Pursell says. "I love it so much I think I'll stick around for one next year. Why not?"

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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