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A '70s connection

Victor Wright's favorite teams are again in the Rose Bowl, but the coach he remembers most won't be around

December 30, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

It had been a regular sort of evening until the man in the bright yellow blazer showed up.

The varsity football players from John Muir High in Pasadena had gathered for their annual season-ending banquet at a country club beside the Rose Bowl. Dinner was served. Speeches were made and trophies handed out.

Exactly the way high school football banquets are supposed to go.

Then came the man in yellow. It took a while for people to notice him, short and stocky, wearing a smile instead of his better-known scowl.

He stood quietly in the doorway, waiting, a shopping bag in hand.

With only a few days left before New Year's, so close to the 1979 Rose Bowl game, he had other things to do. But everyone knew why, and for whom, he had come.

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Michigan will play USC in the 93rd Rose Bowl game Monday, which is fitting because this story is all about the Rose Bowl. At the end, in the middle, all the way back to the beginning.

Start with the 1968 game, USC versus Indiana. The top-ranked Trojans, led by tailback O.J. Simpson, won 14-3 and took the national championship.

Not so far from the stadium, in a quiet Altadena neighborhood, a boy named Victor Wright watched on television. Until that day, he said, "I wasn't sure what life was about, what I wanted to do."

The game worked magic on him. He saw the players in their sharp uniforms, heard the crowd, could imagine sprinting across a green field marked by careful white lines.

Wright was too young to join a Pop Warner league, so he hung around his older brother's team.

"I would stand on the side and go through the drills and calisthenics, run laps with them," he said. "I couldn't wait till I could play."

He was a USC fan but, watching games on television each weekend, grew to like another team. This one was from the Midwest, dressed in maize and blue with winged helmets, a frequent visitor to Pasadena on New Year's Day.

The Michigan Wolverines became his other favorite team.

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As Wright was becoming a fan, Bo Schembechler was becoming a legend.

Taking over as the Michigan coach in 1969, he guided the Wolverines to an upset victory over rival Ohio State and an invitation to play in the Rose Bowl. It was the start of a historic career, 21 seasons without a losing record and no fewer than 10 trips to Pasadena.

His teams won with hard-nosed football, adopting the snarling persona of their leader. Stalking the sideline in a blue cap adorned with a yellow "M," Schembechler embodied the stereotype of the demanding, temperamental coach.

Players, officials, sportswriters -- no one escaped his wrath. But away from the game, those close to him saw another aspect to his personality.

He could be funny and caring; willing to go out of his way to help people in need, even those he had never met.

Youngsters were a particular favorite. Out on recruiting trips, Schembechler would pull over to watch a youth team in the park, singling out a player, saying: "He's gonna be a good one."

Many of these stories have come to light since Schembechler, 77, died of heart failure Nov. 17.

"Bo was a common man," said Jamie Morris, a star tailback at Michigan in the 1980s who later worked beside him. "He related to the common man, and he never lost touch."

Watching on television from California in the early 1970s, Wright couldn't have known any of this. Yet he sensed something about Schembechler and remembers thinking: I could play for a coach like that.

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Old photographs show a kid with a bushy Afro and an even bigger smile. Asked about Wright, acquaintances mention his sense of optimism and happy nature.

Back in 1976, he was also strong and fast and determined -- all the ingredients to be a schoolboy athlete.

"Victor could play tailback, fullback, anywhere on the field," said Bill Paul, who coached him in junior high. "He ran track too."

On a rainy September afternoon in 1976, the 15-year-old was playing for Muir's sophomore team against nearby St. Francis High. Three decades later, he can recall details of the game.

Muir was losing badly, facing third down and long. The quarterback threw a pass that was intercepted, which sent Wright scrambling to tackle the defender who had snatched the ball.

At 5 feet 7 and 175 pounds, Wright squared himself to hit the ballcarrier but arrived at the same moment as a teammate and was nudged off-kilter.

"When I felt the impact," he said, "it was on my left side."

His body tingled, falling, curling into a fetal position. Electric shocks streaked up his arms and legs, hairs standing on end.

"I had these bell tones in my ears," he said. "My vision went out, and all I saw were different-colored stars."

Eventually, he could make out shadows of teammates standing over him. Wright wondered why he was still on the ground, why he could not simply roll over and stand up.

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