Horrell Must Take Heat For Bruins’ Historic Tie With Trojans

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UCLA Bruins head coach EDWIN C. “Babe” HORRELL (center) is flanked by two legendary head coaches who truly revolutionized collegiate football at a public function in 1940. GLENN “Pop” WARNER (left), who gleaned three national championship titles for the University of Pittsburgh (1915-16, 1918) and another while at Stanford University (1926), was the innovative architect of the Single Wing formation and other tactics such as the spiraled punt as well as the “screen” pass. AMOS ALONZO STAGG, who bagged two national championship titles on behalf of the University of Chicago (1905, 1913), is credited with being the very first head coach to ever use the “Man-In-Motion” tactic and also introduced other basic elements such as the backwards lateral.
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So, given the inconsistent results from the Bruins’ placekickers over the past two seasons as well as the most recent slump which had seen the team miss its last five extra point attempts on the trot, it is not really so surprising that the UCLA players, themselves, would be rather evenly divided over whether or not a field goal from short range should be attempted against the cross-town rival USC Trojans late in the fourth quarter of the de facto Pacific Coast Conference championship game in early December of 1939.

What is amazing, however, is the fact that first-year UCLA head coach BABE HORRELL chose to be so conspicuously uninvolved in the whole process of making a decision that had such enormous ramifications attached to it. On the line late in the fourth quarter of this scoreless battle with # 3 ranked USC, of course, was the invitation to the 1940 Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena, a lucrative event which reportedly could pay the Westwood school as much as $ 120,000 — a tidy sum which, taking into account inflation, would be worth roughly two million dollars today. That a matter of this importance would be left up to the eleven Bruins players on the field, themselves, must forever remain astonishing.

“I considered sending a man in to call for a kick before we made that first down (on the Trojans 3-yard line). But when my boys made that first down, I changed my mind. After all, these kids were doing pretty well without my help. Anything (Bruins quarterback NED) MATTHEWS did from then on was good enough for me,” Horrell was later quoted as saying by author Ken Rappoport in his book, “The Trojans : A Story Of Southern California Football”.

Edwin C. “Babe” Horrell had still only been on the job as the very first full-time ‘football only’ head coach in the history of the UCLA Bruins’ athletic program for less than one full year back in December of 1939. The consensus All-America center for the University of California Golden Bears in 1924 had been serving as the UCLA line coach for nine seasons when, seven days prior to the Bruins’ final Pacific Coast Conference game of the 1938 NCAA campaign, he was named as the man who would be succeeding long-time head coach BILL SPAULDING, who was ‘retiring’ to accept a position as the Westwood school’s athletic director. Officially speaking, Horrell formally assumed the reigns of the UCLA football program the day after the Bruins had soundly defeated the University of Hawaii 32-7 at the Poi Bowl in Honolulu on January 2, 1939.

Ironically enough, there had been also been a certain amount of confusion and controversy with respect to a late fourth quarter field goal attempt during Spaulding’s final regular season contest in charge of UCLA, according to standout Bruins left end WOODY STRODE in his autobiography, “Goal Dust : The Warm Candid Memoirs Of A Pioneer Black Actor And Athlete”. Ahead of the very last play of the game against the visiting Oregon State Beavers in 1938, Spaulding sent 170-pound left halfback RAY STURDEVANT in as a substitute so that the senior who had never played even so much as one minute during his three-year varsity career at UCLA could kick a game-winning field goal. But Sturdevant did not replace the Bruins quarterback and, therefore, in accordance with the rules governing collegiate football at that point in time, was not authorized to speak in the huddle.

Perhaps the other UCLA players already out on the field should have immediately recognized the reason why Sturdevant, a career bench-warmer who was a member of what Strode called “the live bait crew” (i.e., the proverbial scout team), had been sent in as a surprise substitute for senior left halfback IZZY CANTOR, a skillful three-year letterwinner. The Bruins all knew full well from the countless hours spent at practice that Sturdevant “could kick the football like it was shot out of a cannon”, as Strode confessed, but, apparently, this was all abruptly forgotten in the heat of battle. And so Sturdevant took his place at the line of scrimmage and served as a blocker on the wing while UCLA guard JOHN FRAWLEY missed on his 27-yard field goal attempt, forcing the Bruins to settle for a most frustrating 6-6 tie with Oregon State (whom the Westwooders had decidedly outgained 377-74 in total offensive yardage that day, according to post-game reports).

A fair number of newspapers across the nation picked up on the story that the previously unused Sturdevant had been sent in as a substitute for UCLA’s last play and incorrectly interpreted this as a very noble gesture by the outgoing head coach Spaulding to reward the dedicated Bruins senior. Horrell would have known that this was not the case, however, and might have gained some valuable experience for the future with respect to “game-planning” for field goals after UCLA’s tactical fiasco against the Beavers in 1938. Horrell would have also known all about the vital impact of but a single field goal having been a part of the various Bruins squads throughout the 1930s that lost several Pacific Coast Conference encounters by the scant margin of a 3-0 scoreline :

1932 … Washington State Cougars
1933 … Stanford Indians
1934 … California Golden Bears
1937 … Washington State Cougars

Horrell certainly deserves a good deal of praise for many of the moves he made after taking over at UCLA in 1939, the recruitment of Pasadena Junior College star JACKIE ROBINSON notwithstanding. The most noticeable development was the change from Spaulding’s Single Wing offense with the Notre Dame-style backfield shift to the “revolutionary” Man-In-Motion package, which showcased the skills of both the speedy Robinson as well as multi-talented Bruins left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON. Operating out of Horrell’s new offensive formation, Washington went on to lead the entire NCAA with 1,371 yards of total offense (rushing & passing) while no other collegiate runner with at least forty carries in 1939 was even close to Robinson’s spectacular rushing average of 12.2 yards per attempt after the new UCLA right halfback had amassed 514 yards on the ground.

Horrell’s initial Bruins team also demonstrated more than a fair amount of fighting spirit and the ability to come from behind all throughout the 1939 NCAA season, as well. On six occasions, unbeaten UCLA fell behind in the early going but were able to rally while generating four wins and two draws in the process. Surely, these results must reflect positively on not only the particular strategies & tactics employed by the Bruins coaching staff, but also on their abilities to keep their young players both calm and focused under the always stressful circumstance of being behind on the scoreboard, as well.

It should also be prominently mentioned that Horrell’s inaugural UCLA squad in 1939 had to contest what was easily the most formidable varsity football schedule the Westwood school had ever seen. The Bruins kicked off the campaign by facing (and defeating) Texas Christian University, recognized as the NCAA’s defending national champions, and later did battle with the West Coast’s so-called “King of Independents”, the nationally-ranked University of Santa Clara Broncos featuring consensus First Team All-America center JOHNNY SCHIECHL along with nine other players who were ultimately coveted by the professionals at the annual National Football League Draft. This, of course, supplementing the standard fixtures from the Pacific Coast Conference, which was judged by no less a figure than the well-respected University of Illinois economics professor FRANK G. DICKINSON to be the strongest, most well-balanced league in all of college football that year.

(In fact, the noteworthy “Dickinson System”, the very first college football ranking method to achieve widespread acceptance of both the media and the public all across the country, named the USC Trojans as the NCAA national champions for the 1939 season)

Analyzing the 1939 NCAA season as a whole, it must be said that the first-year head coach Horrell and his two assistants, backfield coach JIM BLEWETT and line coach RAY RICHARDS, did a very good job with a UCLA Bruins side that, at the beginning of September, had serious question marks concerning its blocking power at the line of scrimmage, among a few other things.

Horrell’s actions (or lack thereof) towards the tail end of UCLA’s 13-play drive which ultimately ended at the USC 4-yard line can not warrant very high marks, however. Two prime responsibilities for any head football coach at any level are to plan ahead for any plausible situations that the team might find itself confronting during the course of any given game as well as to be a resolute decision-maker when circumstances require such. Yes, the question of whether the Bruins should attempt a field goal or go for it on fourth down was a rather difficult one with no clear-cut, easy answer either way.

But, in any era, allowing the players on the field to solve the dilemma at hand by undertaking a democratic vote in the huddle certainly seems to be an amateurish method for any head coach to use in order to arrive at major decisions with such enormous consequences involved — after all, exactly why were UCLA reportedly paying Horrell a first-year salary of $ 8,000 (the equivalent of roughly $ 133,200 dollars nowadays) with a raise of one thousand dollars already guaranteed for the next season if not to have a head football coach who could reach a firm conclusion in the heat of battle even when a remunerative Rose Bowl invitation is not at stake?

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