A highly touted junior college transfer with blinding speed, a new head coach who was installing a deception-oriented offensive scheme dedicated to the “wingback-in-motion” tactic and a very strong nucleus of returning lettermen with copious varsity experience already under their belts gave the UCLA BRUINS every good reason to be very optimistic about their chances to finish on top of the Pacific Coast Conference standings and, accordingly, book their place for a first ever appearance in the annual New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Game as the kick-off to the 1939 NCAA collegiate football season approached.
UCLA personnel in the backfield and at end were well regarded by the so-called football experts in the contemporary media but there were many questions with respect to the quality and strength of the Bruins’ interior line.
The loss of dominant center JOHN RYLAND (6’2″ 190 lbs), the 1938 Third Team All-America selection of the Associated Press who was chosen by the Cleveland Rams in the 14th round (# 123 overall) of the 1939 National Football League Draft, was a significant blow to first-year bench boss BABE HORRELL’s squad. UCLA would also have to soldier on without standout right guard GEORGE PFEIFFER (6’0″ 205 lbs), the three-year letterman who served as one of the Bruins’ co-captains during his senior season, as well experienced tackles C.M. WYRICK (6’4″ 215 lbs) and BREWSTER BROADWELL (6’4 225 lbs), the two biggest players on the entire team in 1938.
The center position appeared to be in the capable hands of a returning two-year letterman when the UCLA Bruins began their pre-season fall workouts in September of 1939. But, less than two weeks prior to the season opener against incoming Texas Christian University at the end of the month, SHERM PHINNY (5’11” 180 lbs) left school in order to get married. Thus, the crucial snapper’s job fell to MARTIN MATHESON (left), the homegrown junior from Los Angeles who had lettered as a sophomore.
UCLA had every reason to be excited about the prospects of first-string right guard JACK SOMMERS, the 21-year-old junior from Norristown, Pennsylvania, who was tagged as a Third Team All-Pacific Coast selection by the Associated Press at the tail end of the 1938 NCAA season. Left guard figured to be capably manned by co-captain JOHN FRAWLEY, the returning two-year letterman from Miles City, Montana, who established himself as the Bruins’ preferred extra point specialist over the course of the ’38 campaign. Two-year letterwinner DICK KYZIVAT, the homegrown senior from Los Angeles, added quality depth to the guard position while encouraging sophomore NATE DEFRANCISCO was a 19-year-old prospect who also hailed from the City of Angels.
Versatile JACK COHEN, the fourth-year junior from Los Angeles who missed of the past two football seasons as a result of injury, could be effectively deployed by UCLA at either guard or tackle.
UCLA head coach EDWARD “Babe” HORRELL, the longtime Westwood assistant who completely revamped the Bruins’ offensive attack by installing a wingback-in-motion scheme upon taking the reigns from the retired William Spaulding (who was, of course, now the school’s athletic director), and seasoned co-captain JOHN FRAWLEY (# 12) appear in the rival Daily Trojan one day before the Bruins engage their intra-city foe USC in early December of 1939 … http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll104/id/57099/rec/154
Horrell’s Bruins could also be confident that two-year letterman MLADEN ZARUBICA, the homegrown senior from Hollywood who had been cited as a Second Team All-Pacific Coast tackle by the Associated Press in 1938, would do well to anchor the right side of UCLA’s unbalanced line. The crucial left tackle position would be filled by DEL LYMAN, the 21-year-old homegrown junior from Los Angeles who later went on to appear in the crack NFL for both the legendary Green Bay Packers as well as the Cleveland Rams. Two-year letterman ERNEST HILL had already made several starts for the Bruins in his collegiate career while redshirt sophomore CECIL DYE brought 230 pounds of blocking power to his particular station at tackle.
It was widely acknowledged that the UCLA Bruins were very well staffed at the two end positions on the line of scrimmage. Returning two-year letterman WOODY STRODE, the homegrown senior from Los Angeles who recovered a pivotal fumble for a touchdown during the Bruins’ victory over the University of Iowa in 1938, was not only a dangerous pass-receiver but rather fearsome on the defensive side of the ball, as well. DON MACPHERSON, the lanky 20-year-old from Los Angeles, established himself as a first-stringer during the second half of his sophomore season largely on the strength of his pass-catching abilities.
UCLA also had a small army of experienced veterans at the two end positions patiently waiting in the wings. Spearheading this group was returning two-year letterman JIM MITCHELL, the homegrown senior from Los Angeles who had scored the Bruins’ only touchdown during the 6-6 draw with Oregon State in the last regular season game on the 1938 NCAA schedule. Also tried and trusted were two other homegrown lettermen from Los Angeles, senior FRANK CARROLL and junior CHUCK CASCALES, while in-coming transfer RAY BARTLETT brought an impressive resume from Pasadena Junior College.
WOODY STRODE, the six-foot, four-inch product of Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles, was always a favorite target of UCLA left halfback Kenny Washington and hauled in two touchdown passes for the Bruins as a sophomore in 1937. The towering left end grabbed seven passes for 73 yards as a junior the next season and scored the Bruins’ only touchdown in the humiliating 42-7 loss to the intra-city rival USC Trojans, as well. Because of his height and accompanying long reach, the intimidating Strode was a constant menace to opposing passers, punters and placekickers all the same.
The Bruins bid farewell to several quality backfield players who had helped the UCLA’s 1938 squad compile the overall record of six wins against four losses with one tie. Right halfback HAL HIRSHON, the three-year letterwinner who will always be remembered for hauling in two long touchdown passes in the closing stages of the the thrilling 1937 intra-city clash with the USC Trojans, was certainly one performer whose versatility would be missed by the Bruins. The speedy Hirshon, who was by the fall of 1939 just concluding his first season as a professional baseball player in the Detroit Tigers organization, had at least one touchdown rushing, receiving and via an interception return for UCLA in both 1937 and again in 1938.
Quarterback (or the blocking back, if one prefers) was one position that was particularly depleted by graduation as three-year letterwinners JIM MONTGOMERY and JOHNNY BAIDA, not to mention two-year letterwinner FRANCIS WAI, were all no longer available to the Bruins. The fullback slot also absorbed its share of losses as second-stringer LESTER “Bus” SUTHERLAND, the three-year letterwinner who finished in a three-way tie for for second place on the UCLA scoring chart in 1938 having scored three touchdowns, and promising underclassman WARREN HASLAM, who, as a sophomore, had also seen a considerable amount of action, both moved on. Additionally, three-year letterwinner IZZY CANTOR, the shifty little left halfback who had tossed a clinching touchdown pass against the University of Iowa in the Bruins’ 1938 NCAA season opener, and two-year letterman MERLE HARRIS, the quarterback/right halfback who had intercepted three USC passes during the landmark 7-7 draw with the Trojans back in 1936, were yet another useful pair who had both exhausted their eligibility by now.
Despite the loss of so many experienced backfield players, most contemporary college football observers writing articles in advance of the 1939 NCAA season remarked that the UCLA Bruins were still rather well stocked at the so-called specialty positions — and justifiably so, as well.
Superstar KENNY WASHINGTON, the two-year letterwinner who earned First Team All-Pacific Coast honors from the Associated Press in 1938, was returning for his third season as UCLA’s starting left halfback and was poised to surpass the school’s existing career rushing yardage record then held by former Bruins standout Chuck Cheshire. The powerful yet fleet of foot Washington, who led UCLA with seven touchdowns scored as a junior, could be expected to handle the ball even more as a senior in the Bruins’ new offensive system and was also well-known to be a highly active, hard hitting safety on the defensive side of the ball. Indeed, it was certainly no accident that many sportswriters in the fall of 1939 considered Westwood’s “Kingfish” to be the single most talented college football player on the entire West Coast.
Although five inches shorter and some fifteen pounds lighter than the player listed ahead of him on the UCLA depth chart, second-string left halfback CHUCK FENENBOCK had previously drawn favorable comparisons to Washington for his abilities to both pass and run the football. As a sophomore in 1938, the youngster from Pittsburg in northern California registered his first varsity points after running 75 yards for a touchdown against the Washington State Cougars on the road in Pullman. A future National Football League performer in his own right, Fenenbock ran for two touchdowns in the Bruins’ season-ending triumph over the University of Hawaii in the fourth annual Poi Bowl that was played at Honolulu Stadium on January 2, 1939.
BILL OVERLIN, the homegrown junior from Los Angeles who had teamed with Fenenbock in the backfield on the 1937 UCLA freshman football squad that went undefeated and was crowned Pacific Coast Conference champions, was the Bruins’ first-string fullback at present. Overlin ran for two touchdowns and also threw a pass for another score as a sophomore but did miss the last three games of the 1938 NCAA season on account of injury and figured to be pushed for playing time in 1939 by promising sophomore LEO CANTOR, the younger brother of the recently departed UCLA left halfback Izzy. Yet another Bruin who was destined to play in the vaunted NFL, the younger Cantor was five pounds heavier than Overlin and would also prove to be a better punter, as well.
JOHN ZABY, the home run-hitting slugger of the UCLA Bruins baseball team who had also lettered in football as a sophomore in 1936, returned for his third season on the gridiron to add depth at fullback.
A trio of UCLA Bruins — right halback JACKIE ROBINSON (# 28), left halfback CHUCK FENENBOCK (# 45) and fullback BILL OVERLIN (# 5) — sharpen their skills in practice … Overlin began the 1938 NCAA campaign as UCLA’s preferred placekicker but converted only two of his five attempts at the start of the season and was replaced by lineman John Frawley … Overlin, however, was recognized as the Bruins’ leader in 1938 having averaged 33.8 yards on 36 punts.
Making up for the loss of three letter-winning quarterbacks was the return of NED MATTHEWS, still another from this 1939 UCLA Bruins side who later graduated to the professional ranks of the NFL. The homegrown junior from Los Angeles gained valuable experience during his first varsity season at the collegiate level in 1938 while starting important games against the mighty California Golden Bears, the nationally-ranked Wisconsin Badgers as well as the intra-city rival Southern California Trojans. Largely untested behind Matthews at the signal caller position were JOE VIGER, the senior letterman from Shelton, Washington, along with newcomers DON TOLAND, the transfer from Modesto Junior College, and sophomore BEN KVITKY, yet another homegrown player from Los Angeles.
Returning to beef up the Bruins’ right halfback position was two-year letterwinner DALE GILMORE, the homegrown senior from Van Nuys who would be serving as a co-captain for UCLA in 1939. There was never any doubt, however, that Gilmore was to be cast in a supporting role by the incoming head coach thanks to the arrival of the highly sought after JACKIE ROBINSON. Although a left halfback in the standard Carlisle Single Wing formaton while setting eye-opening records at Pasadena Junior College, the lightning quick Robinson was now to be UCLA’s new “wingback in motion”.
Clearly, the Bruins’ new backfield combination of Washington & Robinson was well-equipped to be the most explosive in school history.