History vs Human Memory

ucla-39-usc-textZooming in on one of the most critical moments in history that the UCLA BRUINS vs USC TROJANS football rivalry has ever known, it is interesting to note there is a noticeable discrepancy in terms of how the contemporary newspapers back in 1939 all reported the Bruins’ critical four-play sequence inside the Trojans 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter and how, years later, UCLA end WOODY STRODE remembered the very same event in his autobiography, “Goal Dust : The Warm Candid Memories Of A Pioneer Black Athlete And Actor”.

To the left is the second half of the post-game report from the San Bernardino County Sun (December 10, 1939) … In his article, Associated Press correspondent Robert Myers writes that UCLA sophomore fullback LEO CANTOR carried the pigskin on first down for a gain of one yard to the USC 2-yard line. Bruins senior left halfback KENNY WASHINGTON was “stopped cold” for no gain on second down. And then, on third down, the 200-pound Cantor had his number called again but was thrown for a two-yard loss back to the Trojans 4-yard line.

In his post-game summary (which is displayed at the conclusion of this report), United Press correspondent Ronald W. Wagoner credits Cantor with a one-yard run down to the USC 2-yard line also and, significantly, corroborates that Washington ran the ball for no gain on second down before the UCLA fullback lost two yards on third down.

Strode, who recovered a fumble by USC star quarterback GRENVILLE LANSDELL in the Bruins’ end zone for a touchback in the first quarter and later caught a 6-yard pass from Washington to take the ball to the Trojans 15-yard line on that famous drive in the fourth quarter, had his memoir published by Madison Books in June of 1990.

Not to intentionally embarrass the standout Bruins left end who was chosen both First Team All-Pacific Coast Conference as well as Honorable Mention All-America by the Associated Press in 1939, but Strode’s own recollection of UCLA’s four-play sequence appears to be somewhat off slightly. According to Strode, it was Kenny Washington who lugged the pigskin for no gain on first down before Leo Cantor carried the ball on two consecutive plays. The reason why this particular detail is of great interest will be discussed in a moment.

Strode makes several errors in his account of UCLA’s famous passing play on fourth down from the USC 4-yard line (video footage of this play can be seen in the “1939, UCLA vs USC” post here at this blog) :

# 1. Washington was not moving to his left and did not throw the ball back across the field — the Bruins left halfback (# 13) dropped straight back but was flushed to his right after Trojans left end BILL FISK (# 50) leapfrogged over the attempted block of the UCLA fullback Cantor (# 2)

# 2. The intended Bruins receiver who ran his route to the corner flag at the back of the end zone, right end DON MACPHERSON (# 38), never “had his fingertips on the ball”, as the video clearly reveals.

# 3. Also, it was not USC linebacker BOB HOFFMAN (# 45) but rather alert Trojans defensive halfback BOBBY ROBERTSON (# 28) who was in perfect position to swat down Washington’s pass into the end zone.

# 4. There was far more than “a little over thirty seconds” remaining in the game before the pivotal fourth down passing play — there was actually just under three minutes still left to go in the scoreless contest when USC took over on downs at their own 4-yard line and the Bruins, in fact, did get the ball back for one last possession.

The reason why it is important to note that Strode says Cantor carried the ball consecutively on second and third downs is because the UCLA left end also states that the Bruins called timeout after the sophomore fullback had been stopped at the Trojans 2-yard line (by Hoffman) on his first attempt. Strode also acknowledges that, prior to Washington’s ill-fated pass on fourth down, UCLA head coach BABE HORRELL “could have called timeout and told us to kick”. The direct implication here is that the Bruins, indeed, still had unused timeouts and the reason why this particular detail is of great significance.

This because the playing rules governing the collegiate football game are something rather different today than what was found during the Single Wing Era of the late 1930s. Substitute players coming off the bench and into the game were not allowed to speak to anyone else in the huddle for one play. Thus, it was entirely possible for a head coach on the bench to pass critical information to his signal-caller on the field, but not in an immediate manner.

One thing is certain after Cantor had been knocked back to the USC 4-yard line on third down — it would have been against the rules for the Bruins head coach to instruct his players to line-up for a field goal attempt by sending a substitute off the bench and into the game. By that point, the only way Horrell could have exerted any influence over the perplexing question of what to do on fourth down would have been to call a timeout (which head coaches could do). As has been well-documented, the UCLA players ultimately settled the issue by having a vote in the huddle.

The fact that Strode asserts the Bruins called timeout after Cantor carried the ball to the Trojans 2-yard line on second down is most intriguing — given the last-moment democracy that was to follow on fourth down, it is hard not to wonder what UCLA were actually discussing on the sidelines during the timeout that had just been called in the wake of second down (or first down, the question remains the same)… however, it is all but assured that those particular details will never be known.

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Ronald W. Wagoner, United Press
The Miami News – December 10, 1939
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NOTE — this blog post basically continues a discussion that was begun at the following fine blog which also deals with the early history of UCLA Bruins football :

http://thesouthernbranch.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/a-few-random-comments-on-the-monumental-1939-clash-between-ucla-and-usc/

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