In our ongoing series, as we monitor Spring training camps across the country, Last Word on Sports will also be looking back at the elite players in the history of various college football programs, and creating the appropriate “Mount Rushmore” tributes. Today we look at UCLA.
To take a fair assessment of the football history of UCLA, think of any proper Pacific Coast storyline. There have been some great sets of waves, mixed in with some ankle slappers (easily ignored and not worthy of much notice). In between, there are some nice, moderate sets that don’t get a lot of national attention, but produce some nice rides. There have been periods of being totally overshadowed by crosstown rival Southern Cal, followed by UCLA dominating the rivalry for eight consecutive years, followed of course by UCLA being dominated again in the new century, until winning three of the last four years. There was the 20-game winning streak over two seasons in the late ’90s. That would be a lot to celebrate…if you can erase from your mind the crashing of that particular wave over a two minute period in Miami in December of 1998 that cost the Bruins a spot in the first ever BCS title game. There was the head coach who ran the program for 19 years, immediately followed by three coaches who were fired within six years or less.
Through the sometimes glorious waves and the sometimes choppy ocean waters, UCLA has produced some of the all-time great college players, so here is the UCLA Mount Rushmore, with the arguments to ensue thereafter.
Kenny Easley (1977-1980; Free Safety)
This was the easiest of the four spots to pick. Easley received more than 300 scholarship offers coming out of high school in Chesapeake, Virginia. He moved into the starting lineup in his second game as a true freshman at UCLA and started every game thereafter. He had nine interceptions that first year and finished his four year career with 19 interceptions and 324 tackles. He was a consensus All-American as a sophomore, junior and senior (UCLA’s second ever to achieve that), and was the first defensive player in conference history to be a four-time all-conference player. He was dominant enough that as a defensive back he finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 1980. Seattle picked him fourth overall in the 1980 draft and he was a five-time pro bowl selection before having to retire in 1987 with a kidney disease. His number is one of nine football numbers retired at UCLA, and he is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
Jerry Robinson (1975-1978; Linebacker)
Robinson was originally recruited to UCLA by head coach Dick Vermeil to play tight end. Before his first training camp was over he was converted to linebacker and would start there for four years. Robinson led the Bruins in tackles in ’76, ’77 and ’78, and the result was him being the first ever three-time consensus All-American in college football history. He recorded at least 20 tackles in a game five times during his career, including a staggering 28 against Air Force in 1976. Robinson held the UCLA record for most tackles in a career for 36 years until it was broken in 2014 by Eric Kendricks. He was a first round draft pick by the Eagles (coached at that point by Vermeil), and played 13 years in the NFL. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame and his UCLA number is retired.
Gary Beban (1965-1967; Quarterback)
Let the arguments begin. Yes, I put Beban in ahead of other Bruin quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Cade McNown and Brett Hundley. I did it for one reason, one word. Heisman. Beban is the only Heisman Trophy winner in school history. In 1967, he edged out that cross town rival who later was seen in the back of a white Bronco on Southern California freeways with the LAPD behind him. Beban was All-Conference three times, and the Bruins were 24-5-2 in his three years there. In his sophomore season, he threw two touchdown passes in the last three minutes of the game to beat SC, and he scored both of UCLA’s touchdown in an upset of #1 ranked Michigan State in the Rose Bowl game two months later. Ironically, in the year he won the Heisman, UCLA lost to USC. Playing with torn rib cartilage in the game that pitted #1 UCLA against #2 USC, Beban threw for 300 yards and 2 TDs, but the Bruins lost on a blocked PAT that would have tied the game. In addition to winning the Heisman in ’67, Beban was a consensus All American, won the Maxwell Award and was an Academic All-American. He has his number retired at UCLA, is a charter member of the UCLA Hall of Fame and is in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame.
Jonathan Ogden (1992-1995; Left Tackle)
It can be hard to put an offensive lineman on the shrine because there are virtually no statistics to back up the selection. So how does Ogden make the cut? Because he is undeniably the most dominant lineman in the 96-year history of UCLA football. His recruitment made a big splash at UCLA, because it was rare to get such a significant talent from the Washington, D.C. area. In order to secure the deal, Terry Donahue had to agree to let him compete in track and field also (where, by the way, he won the NCAA Indoor Shot Put Championship as a senior). At 6-9, 320 pounds, he started all four years at UCLA and allowed just one sack over his final two seasons. In ’95, he became one of only two Bruins ever to win the Outland Trophy Award, was consensus All-American and the UPI Lineman of the Year. He was the fourth pick overall in the 1996 draft and spent 12 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. His UCLA number is retired, and he is in both the NCAA and NFL Halls of Fame.
Those That Were Hard to Leave Off the Mountainside:
Troy Aikman: Two great years at UCLA after transferring from Oklahoma and has his number retired in 2014, but was 0-2 against SC. Ouch.
Cade McNown: Four spectacular years as the starting QB, including a 20-game winning streak over two years and 4-0 against SC. But there was that “little” on-campus parking issue that makes it possible his number won’t even be retired by UCLA.
Terry Donahue: Head coach for 19 years, the longest reign in school history. Most coaching wins in conference history. First coach in college football history to win seven consecutive bowl games. Five conference championships. All of that makes you believe he belongs, but there are long time Bruin loyalists who will contend that with the talent Donahue had, he actually underachieved.
Kenny Washington: He was half of UCLA’s dynamic offense, (with Jackie Robinson), in the late 1930’s. He ran for more than 1,900 yards in 1939 and led UCLA in rushing, passing and total offense. Probably the most deserving to be left off the shrine.