by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

College football is never far from controversy, and we are setting ourselves up for another dose within two weeks when the Final Four will be announced. This season, however, promises to offer as much or more debate than we have experienced in many years because of the odd dynamics of 2020. Almost annually, controversy surrounds the selection provess, and rest assured there could be more aggrieved sorts than usual when the championship field is unveiled later this month.

All of this however, is a unique component to college football which has been repeating in one form or another for decades. Postseason controversy is nothing new, but for the most part, those debates soon fizzle and quickly are forgotten.

But as we move along into the later stages of our 65th season of TGS publishing, we can assure you there’s one argument from long ago that still hasn’t settled. Following is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “McKay vs. Prothro: When the USC-UCLA Rivalry Raged,” that recalls one such year that created a controversy that still stirs more than a half-century later....

who needed convincing that college football still ruled the Los Angeles sports scene in the mid 60s should have taken the next flight to LAX and sampled some of the local coverage. Even in the days long before ESPN or sports talk radio, college football had the capacity to captivate the masses. Especially in Los Angeles.

Even when the games weren’t being played. As in December, 1964.

If only ESPN and other sports networks had been around then to capture the fireworks!

At the center of the commotion, as usual, was USC, though this wasn’t the normal sort of attention being paid to the Trojans. This was hot and heavy controversy, the result of SC being bypassed for the Rose Bowl bid by the AAWU (Athletic Association of Western Universities, precursor to the Pac-8, 10, and 12). Oregon State, and not the Trojans, would get the bid.

More than five decades later, anyone associated with SC at the time still remains incredulous about those developments.

The controversy was triggered following the conclusion of the regular season, indeed only a couple of hours after SC completed its campaign with a stirring 20-17 comeback win at the Los Angeles Coliseum over top-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame, denying the Fighting Irish a national championship. The Trojans and Beavers had already finished conference action after the preceding traditional rivalry weekend, and both stood 3-1 in league play, though had not faced one another (following the breakup of the old PCC in 1959, it would take almost a decade before the conference would have a truly balanced schedule). Overall, OSU had an 8-2 record; SC 6-3. The Trojans, however, had one game to play vs. the top-ranked Fighting Irish at the L.A. Coliseum. Conference formalities dictated that a vote would send the “most representative team” to Pasadena every New Year’s Day, though that was usually just a rubber-stamp for regular-season results. In the case of a tie atop the standings, a vote of conference members would determine the representative.

The Trojan family would thus experience the true meaning of “bittersweet” that November 28. Expecting to celebrate the electrifying comeback from 0-17 down to topple the number one Irish, the team had repaired to a nearby restaurant, expecting to be named as the conference Rose Bowl rep. After all, hadn’t SC just dumped number one? But the celebration turned into a wake when news arrived that Oregon State received the bid instead. “When we started over here (to dinner),” QB Craig Fertig said that night to the Pasadena Independent, “we thought it would be a Rose Bowl celebration. But look.

“This is the worst of all,” added Fertig while teammates ate their streaks in, as the Independent described it, “monkish” silence. “I can’t understand how they voted.” Neither could his Athletic Director, Jess Hill. “The rankest injustice ever perpetuated in intercollegiate athletics,” fumed Hill to the Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. Even L.A. mayor Sam Yorty, who attended the game, weighed in on the verdict favoring the Beavers. “Southern Cal beat the nation’s number one team today,” said Yorty. “It is incredulous that they won’t represent the West Coast in the Rose Bowl.”

The AAWU could have decided right after the November 21 rivalry games to name its Rose Bowl rep, but the vote was delayed a week, ostensibly to allow USC to complete its regular season. (Unanimous support was needed to conduct the annual vote, though the Trojans and at least two other AAWU entries, reportedly UCLA and Cal, requested on Monday, Nov. 23 that the tally be delayed until after SC-Notre Dame). The conundrum was that most believed the Trojans to be the superior team, as the Beavers had been involved in various close calls, and versus a lesser schedule. Including a narrow 7-6 escape in the “Civil War” game vs. Oregon during rivalry week. Still, based on overall record, the Beavers would have the edge no matter what happened in the Trojans’ finale vs. Notre Dame. Many believed the league was expecting an easier time to vote in Oregon State after an anticipated SC loss to the Domers; awarding the bid to the Beavers before the Trojans faced the Irish risked the league looking bad in case SC pulled the upset.

As it turned out, the AAWU looked worse because SC scored the rousing upset vs. Notre Dame...and the league still denying the Rose Bowl bid to the Trojans. Though unwilling to make an official announcement on how the vote played out, sources would report that it was split, 4-4, along geographic lines–the four Northwest schools (OSU, Oregon, Washington, and Washington State) voting for the Beavs, while the four California reps (SC, UCLA, Cal, and Stanford) all opting for the Trojans. “Faculty reps” would cast the votes for each school, with obvious input from their respective athletic directors and school presidents. Should the vote end in a standoff, the next tiebreaker was the school furthest from its last Rose Bowl, which gave the edge to OSU, eight years removed from its most-recent Pasadena trip after the 1956 season; the Trojans had been to Pasadena just two years earlier, completing their perfect 11-0, national title campaign of ‘62 with a stirring 42-37 win over Wisconsin.

Once the decision was announced...presto! Controversy that would last through December and into the run-up to the 1965 season!  (And, for those with long memories, into 2020!)

Among the most-aggrieved at the AAWU’s decision was NBC, scheduled to telecast the Rose Bowl along with the Sugar and, for the first time, the Orange Bowl that night in an unprecedented New Year’s TV tripleheader. The latter matchup in Miami was already generating a national buzz with the tasty clash of Darrell Royal’s fifth-ranked Texas against Bear Bryant’s now top-ranked Alabama, featuring touted senior QB Joe Namath (whose status for the game, due to knee problems, was up in the air). Aside from the Longhorns-Crimson Tide showcase, expected boffo ratings for a possible USC vs. 4th-ranked Michigan matchup in Pasadena were also enough to get NBC execs drooling.

Casey Shawhan, public relations chief for NBC, summed up the network’s feelings. “We sure were disappointed (at Oregon State’s selection),” said Shawhan in Sid Ziff’s Los Angeles Times column, “because we expected an all-time high rating if USC played Michigan. Everyone in the country would have been watching.”

Reaction to the Trojan snub was big news throughout the college football world, especially up and down the Pacific Coast. Those in Northwest weren’t as bothered that the Beavers got the nod; the Seattle Times was one media outlet quick to lend its backing to the decision. “A week of inanity ended in belated justice to the Oregon State Beavers,” they could read while sipping their coffee by the Space Needle that week. Predictably, Portland’s The Oregonian also saw nothing wrong with the conference verdict (“There can be no doubt that Oregon State earned the call,”). The Sacramento Union, however, had a different take. “The USC Trojans knocked Notre Dame out of a national championship, thereby validating their own claims to the Rose Bowl, and all they will get is the back of the hand from the Pacific Eight Conference. It was a stupid, bumbling decision and USC is rightfully indignant.”

Lest one might think every media outlet in California was chuffed by the SC snub, Oakland Tribune columnist Ray Haywood seemed to get a kick out of the Trojans, and L.A. in general, throwing such a fit. “It isn’t often you find virtue being rewarded at the expense of the larger and wealthier,” wrote Haywood. “...Southern California is the population center the mad-hatters who reside therein will vote for anything which favors their area, anything from state water plans, and free bourbon for senior citizens to Rose Bowl teams. This balloting was conducted logically, although perhaps there was a touch of sentiment for Oregon State. There certainly should have been.

“Frankly, the residents of Fantasia-by-the-Sea should be delighted that Oregon State will play. It seems likely they will be able to sit back and enjoy the thing they do best, say “See! We told you so!

“In that respect, perhaps USC should have the bid. The Trojans deserve to have their heads beaten a little, for humility’s sake, you know.”

No tongue-in-cheek commentary like Haywood’s in the L.A. area, however. Indignation at the decision, as hinted by Sacramento Union, seemed a mild characterization. Fury was more like it.

“FANS DEMAND AAWU BREAKUP, PLAYOFF” blared an alarming page one sports section headline in the L.A. Times from November 30, two days after SC upset the Fighting Irish...and subsequent Rose Bowl snub. “BOWL VOTE A LESSON IN HYPOCRISY” shouted a Pasadena Independent sports section page one headline for the column of the colorful Joe Hendrickson, who proceeded to rip into the AAWU. “The Rose Bowl vote was a popularity contest among ‘cousins.’ It was not a selection with the team to beat Michigan in Pasadena on Jan. 1,” Hendrickson wrote. “The poll represented jealousy of Southern California football success, hypocrisy of some conference athletic directors and a case of provincialism.”

About the only Trojan-affiliated voice who expressed calm (at least outwardly) immediately after the snub was head coach John McKay. “I hope Oregon State does a real fine job,” McKay, perhaps between clenched teeth, said after the decision. “It is a well-coached team and I hope it justifies the conference decision that they are better than we are.” The following day, McKay even philosophized a bit. “Maybe we all learned a lesson,” said the coach in the L.A Times. “That you can’t ease up. We should have beaten Washington (SC lost, 14-13, after leading 13-0 into the 4th quarter, in its only AAWU defeat that in the end would cost Troy the Rose Bowl bid...and also a game this writer attended as a grade-schooler!). Let’s win all 10 games and maybe they won’t even have to vote.”

It did little to help the furor subside in December for Oregon State to encamp in Southern California as it prepared for the Rose Bowl.  Which created a bit of an awkward situation for Beaver HC Tommy Prothro as he was preparing his Oregon State team, and peppered with questions about potential interest in the job at UCLA...where, ironically, his Beavers were practicing for their New Year’s date in Pasadena. Not to mention where Prothro coached as an assistant for Red Sanders before taking the Corvallis job a decade earlier.

Prothro, however, wasn’t about to contribute to any further speculation. “I have the same stand as I had before,” Prothro was quoted in the Long Beach Independent when asked about the opening in Westwood. “I have not been officially contacted. I have been informally contacted but I imagine most every coach in the business has been informally contacted at one time or another.”

So much for the non-denial denials. On Sunday, January 11, 1965, J. Thompson Prothro was announced as the next UCLA football coach. But that will be a story for another day.

The Rose Bowl result did little to convince Trojan backers that they weren’t right all along. Though jumping to an early 7-0 lead, Oregon State would be outclassed by Michigan. Final score: Wolverines 34, Beavers 7. Unable to resist a last dig at USC’s snub, the L.A. Times’ sports section page one headline after the Rose Bowl suggested the wounds in Southern California remained deep. “MICHIGAN, 34; AAWU REPRESENTATIVE, 7" shouted the headline.

The furor in the press would eventually subside, but it would fuel USC through spring practice and in the run-up to the 1965 season. With senior HB Mike Garrett on a short list of Heisman favorites, and several returnees, the Trojans were a consensus choice of the media "skywriters" to win the conference title, and ranked a strong 7th in the national AP Preseason Poll.  Meanwhile, the Beavers would be proceeding without their leader Prothro, as Dee Andros would be summoned from Idaho to take the job in Corvallis.  Stories from 1965 and the rest of the decade have marked these pages before and will again.  But the Rose Bowl controversy from the 1964 season remained an evergreen topic for a long while to come.

When all of the Rose Bowl controversies eventually subsided, and the glow of the SC win over Notre Dame continued to shine, leave it to McKay to sum things up the best, and for us to recall his quote in the immediate aftermath of the 20-17 upset over the Fighting Irish. “Who says USC doesn’t play exciting games?,” McKay laughed. “We have to. It says so in my contract.”  

Fifty-six years later, however, oldtime Trojans are still finding it hard to laugh.

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