Just more than 40 years ago, UCLA football was at the top of its game.
The Bruins enjoyed national prestige amid winning their way to a 24-5-2 record and one Rose Bowl title over the course of three seasons.
The years were 1965 to 1967, during Tommy Prothro’s first three years as UCLA’s coach and before the Pac-10 officially became a conference. After the first six games of the 1965 season, the Bruins did not fall beneath eighth place in the national rankings. The quarterback at the time, Gary Beban, played an instrumental role in creating this standard of success.
Beban, to this day, remains the only Bruin to hoist the Heisman trophy. During the homecoming game at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, the UCLA football team will sport throwback jerseys to celebrate the successes of Beban’s teams in 1960s. He won the award at the end of his senior season, in 1967, after earning consensus All-America honors while leading his team to a 7-2-1 record. No UCLA player has finished in the top three in Heisman voting since Cade McNown finished third in 1998. Ten years before him, Troy Aikman also managed to snatch third.
Beban, a three-year varsity quarterback, still ranks in UCLA’s top 10 in career passing, total offense and touchdowns scored. At age 19, he led the Bruins to the 1966 Rose Bowl game. UCLA came away with the victory against then-No.1 Michigan State by a score of 14-12 in the university’s first bowl win.
“We had the kind of seasons that are going to be remembered because we did achieve,” Beban said.
During Beban’s career, the Bruins did not lose on California soil until his second-to-last game. It came at the hands of USC, the storied cross-town rival who defeated the Bruins 21-20 in a contest featuring two Heisman contenders in Beban and running back O.J. Simpson. Beban would defeat Simpson just weeks later for college football’s most prestigious award.
“It was a wonderful time for sports excellence and achievement at UCLA, and the same thing was also going on across town,” Beban said. “It was exciting to be on campus and in Southern California.”
Today, Beban takes phone calls from his office desk in Chicago where he works on a project-specific basis for CB Richard Ellis ““ a company he has worked for since retiring from the NFL in 1970.
Though his professional career in football did not exceed three seasons, he certainly played a critical role in the reemergence of the UCLA football program.
But back then, as Beban suggests, the team’s ascent to greatness escaped the realization of many players at the time.
Westwood in the “˜60s was just like any other college town at the time ““ a burgeoning hotbed of controversy. And in the thick of Vietnam anti-war protests, the civil rights movement and a social revolution, UCLA football was on the rise.
“The dramatic advancements of the time provided a backdrop to our lives on the field,” Beban said. “Being a student-athlete and getting an education was a crazy time.”
But in the midst of the political and social grind, Beban and his teammates had two obligations: football and school.
Working within the structure of academics and football practice, Beban’s coaches made a point that their players abide by this frame in negotiating their college experience with the world’s greater struggles.
“They needed us to practice, play and follow philosophy of college,” said Beban of his coaches’ perspective. This method sharpened the focus to school and sport, an attempt to hedge the potential distraction caused by socio-political unrest.
Inevitably, though, the rampant turmoil on the world stage found ways to make its presence felt in the young players’ lives ““ not necessarily on the football field but in their everyday exchanges with each other.
“The conversation was not part of the locker room, it was part of our lives,” Beban said.
But it didn’t affect the Bruins’ climb to prominence.
Building a legacy
UCLA garnered a 10-20 record during the three seasons prior to Beban’s inaugural game at quarterback. After the Redwood City native took the reigns, the Bruins’ outlook began to look increasingly more favorable.
After dropping the 1965 season opener to Michigan State, UCLA did not lose a contest until December. The Bruin squad won the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in a rematch with the Spartans.
“We were a turnaround organization,” the former Bruin quarterback said. “We didn’t think that, we became that.”
Beban credits the aptitude of his coaching staff in recognizing they could fully utilize the talent of their players without overextending their bounds.
Talent in All-American players such as linebacker Don Manning, offensive tackle Larry Slagle and tailback Mel Farr provided the basic building blocks for constructing a dual-threat weapon on the football field.
“(The coaches) adjusted the system based on the capabilities of their players,” Beban said. “They wanted to get players to flourish to their full potential and hopefully get the chemistry flowing, too.”
The Bruins didn’t lose again until late in the following season at Washington, the only loss of their 1966 campaign.
As Beban describes the brilliance his coaches displayed in formulating strategies of victory, he makes one subtle concession: “We played way over our talent scale, we were not as good as our record.”
Be that as it may, the legacy Beban and his teammates created connotes a period of Bruin pride and winning ways for the UCLA football program.
The quarterback today
Inconsistencies have mauled the Bruins, especially at the quarterback position, over the past decade. UCLA has not produced a four-year starter at quarterback since McNown occupied the position from 1995 to 1998.
The Bruins have recently experienced growing pains behind center as they seek to develop the youth of their program in redshirt freshman Kevin Prince and true freshman Richard Brehaut.
Amid speculation of quarterbacking decisions, UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel asserts his belief in the future of the program and will thus “keep working with these guys and keep building our program.”
The only other time when UCLA started a freshman at quarterback in a season-opener came in 1989 when Bret Johnson started all 11 games that season. The Bruins finished 3-7-1, good enough for ninth place in the Pac-10.
Prince is 2-4 this season in the games he has started for UCLA. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 1,052 yards, an average of 175.3 per game, and has completed 55.1 percent of his passes.
Despite the legacy associated with the position he plays, Prince doesn’t feel pressured to match the competitive level of stand-out quarterbacks that came before him.
“I think (the expectation) gets magnified, especially when you’re coached by a guy who was a successful quarterback here,” Prince said of Neuheisel. Neuheisel quarterbacked the Bruins from 1980 to 1983, starting at the position during his senior year. He piloted the Bruins to a one-sided Rose Bowl victory in 1983 over No. 4 Illinois by a score of 45-9. Neuheisel finished his Bruin career with a 69.3 completion percentage, still the highest in a single season by any UCLA quarterback.
“I’m going to do what I can,” Prince said. “I’m not going to try to live up to Heisman expectations right now. I’m just going to go out there and play my best, and hopefully that will be enough.”
Stacking up Beban’s UCLA career to the program’s current grade draws unfair comparisons given the lack of future context available to judge the team’s success. During Beban’s years as a Bruin, UCLA managed to create a recipe that stressed the key talents of each of its players, punctuated by the flair of an award-winning quarterback.
Beban admits he can offer limited insights into the playing schemes of the today’s UCLA team, because of restrictive Midwest broadcasting schedules and time zone differences. But he unreservedly asserts the Bruins will find a way to manifest a successful campaign under the tutelage of second-year coach Neuheisel.
“Rick will put them in a system that will showcase the best of their abilities,” Beban said. “They’re in good hands.”
This weekend UCLA will commemorate the accomplishments of Beban and his teammates garnered during their careers as Bruin athletes. The throwback jerseys, baby blue with white detail on the shoulder pads and numbering, will be similar to the one Beban wore when he won the Heisman in 1967.
“Hopefully it’ll harken us back to playing like they played back then and get us back to the winning ways,” Neuheisel said of the planned throwback jerseys for Saturday’s game.