In 1962, things were quite different in the land of Troy. Apart from gas being $0.31 a gallon and West Side Story being the top movie of the year, USC football was, to put it mildly, nonexistent.
“No one expected us to be good,” star running back Willie Brown said. “No one had heard of USC before.”
After that year, however, every sports fan in the country knew what USC was. Members of that 1962 team gathered Monday at the Annenberg Auditorium for the 50th reunion of the illustrious squad, one that won the school its fifth national championship.
The Trojans, who have claimed 11 national titles in their illustrious football history — among the most in the country — are perennial contenders. That wasn’t always the case, though. Before head coach John McKay arrived, USC hadn’t won a title since 1939, and the team had seen its fair share of struggles.
Before the days of ESPN and 24-hour coverage of all things college football, USC had become an afterthought, a non-factor in the grand scheme of things. Heading into McKay’s third year at the helm, the team had gone a combined 8-11-1 in 1960 and 1961. Expectations were dismal.
“We had lost the first couple of years with McKay,” fullback Ken Del Conte said. “Going into my senior year, we were excited, but no one thought we could go out and do what we were able to accomplish.”
Though the now-legendary McKay struggled to win in his first two seasons, he was able to excel in recruiting, an area in which he was very successful during his USC tenure, and it paid off in his third season.
“I had the opportunity to go to any school I wanted to,” Brown said. “I came to USC mainly because of two reasons: I was a mama’s boy, and John McKay.”
Brown also credited legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux as a reason for choosing USC. In addition to playing on the football team, Brown started on USC’s baseball team in 1963, which also won a national championship.
Unlike 2012’s version of the Trojans, little attention was given to USC early in the season until it upset highly ranked Iowa in Iowa City. That same week, UCLA pulled off another upset over the No. 1 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. This, combined with the Trojans’ surprising start, was the first indication things might go their way.
“Coming home on the bus, we heard that UCLA had beaten the No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State,” Del Conte said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, we’re 2-0. Why can’t we win all the rest and win this thing?’ And that’s what happened.”
Though the team was blessed with talented players, namely Brown and wide receiver Hal Bedsole, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, it was McKay’s innovative offense that is credited with the drastic turnaround.
“We won the championship in 1962 not because we practiced hard,” Brown said. “We won the national championship because John McKay installed the I-formation.”
With the I-formation came the famed “Student Body Left” toss play that became iconic in college football. The play is aptly named because of the large amount of blockers that pull to one side of the field.
In addition to his coaching prowess, McKay was known for being an excellent motivator. And fear was his most effective mean for motivation.
“John McKay was a dictator.,” Brown said. “People were scared to hell out of him … When he walked down the street you crossed to the other side. We all were afraid of him. But with that came a great deal of respect.”
That respect became the foundation of what was the beginning of a football dynasty at USC. The Trojans finished the season 11-0, including a thrilling 42-37 Rose Bowl victory over No. 2 Wisconsin to win the Associated Press national championship, the school’s fifth at the time and first of four that USC would win during McKay’s 15-year stint as coach.
Though few parallels can be drawn between this year’s version of the Trojans and the 1962 team, players from both teams hope that this season ends in a similar fashion: a national title.