Games People Play: The USC Football Team Wins the Conference Crown, 24 November 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The rivalry between the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California includes claims of academic and athletic superiority and the best-known of this is the battle each football season for the prized Victory Bell, awarded to the victor of the gridiron classic.

Of the 89 meetings between the teams, the Trojans have triumphed 47 times, while the Bruins claimed the field on 32 occasions, with the schools deadlocked on seven instances.  The first game was during the 1929 campaign and the baby Bruins could not compete with the powerful Men of Troy who won 76-0.  The next year was only marginally better for UCLA who was dealt a 52-0 defeat.

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Los Angeles Times, 25 November 1928.

It was not until 1942 that the Bruins scored a victory, but the school did win six of eight games against their rivals in the 1950s, including three seasons when UCLA was ranked in the top five national nationally.  Between 1972 and 1979, though, USC ran off an impressive 7-1 record against their rivals, though, in the 1990s, the Bruins racked up eight straight wins.  In the last five years, however, USC has taken four of the contests, including yesterday’s high-scoring 52-35 game, tied for second highest in points during the 90-year rivalry.

Today’s highlighted artifact is a program for a game that took place the year before the USC-UCLA rivalry began, though the Bruins were in the Pacific Coast Conference with the Trojans, and was for a contest between Southern Cal and the University of Idaho Vandals.  Idaho now plays in the Big Sky Conference, which is a far cry from the Pac-12 Conference in which the Trojans are competing.

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Times, 25 November 1928.

In 1928, however, USC was riding high under legendary coach Howard Jones, who’d won four national championships with three as a player and one as a coach at Yale.  After a stellar campaign the prior year, marred only by a narrow loss to Notre Dame and a tie with Stanford, the Men of Troy were a bigger powerhouse, though there was a scoreless tie with Cal in late October.

Otherwise, the Trojans were a tenacious team defensively only allowing 59 points in ten contests, which racking up 267 points on offense.  The team did have the unusual benefit of playing all of their games at home in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, excepting the tie at Berkeley.  Two weeks prior to the Idaho game, the team ran roughshod over a University of Arizona team that otherwise dominated their lesser competition with five wins and two ties, but was blasted 78-7 by the Trojans.

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Times, 25 November 1928.

Idaho, which finished 3-4-1 for the year including wins against Montana and UCLA, which both went winless in conference play, gave USC all it had and managed to keep the game, attended by 20,000 spectators, scoreless during the first half. Trojan quarterback Marshall Duffield led a drive to the Vandals three-yard line late in the first quarter, but an Idaho player knocked down a Duffield pass on fourth down to deny USC a score.  At the end of the half, the Trojans threatened again deep in Vandal territory with a fine running game, but fullback Russell “Racehorse Russell” Saunders was pushed out of bounds at Idaho’s one-yard line as time expired.

Jones more actively substituted in the second half, however, and the lineup changes quickly bore fruit, though Duffield was knocked out of the game with a shoulder injury and was replaced by backup QB Don “Dynamic Don” Williams.  The opening drive of the third quarter by the Men of Troy included a Saunders scramble for 35 yards and he and Williams plowed through Idaho’s defense until there was another goal-line stand.  This time, though, “Dynamic Don” pushed through to get USC on the board.

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Times, 25 November 1928.

Jess Hibbs, an All-American tackle, then recovered a fumble on the Idaho forty-two yard line.  Keeping to the ground game and known as the “Thundering Herd” (passing was hardly the emphasis it is now, as USC’s freshman phenom, Kedon Slovis, broke a school record with 515 yards passing yesterday), the team, led by Williams and Saunders, moved the back quickly down the field and the quarterback raced in untouched for a 14-yard score.

The Trojans’ third touchdown came after a botched punt from Idaho that left USC with excellent field position on its 46-yard line.  Williams flipped a short pass to Hibbs, who rambled for over thirty yards.  On the next play, speedy sprinter Jess Hill raced in from 27 yards out without being touched by a Vandal.

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This image and those following are from the game program from the Homestead’s collection and which includes some striking Art Deco graphics.

Later, however, Hill fumbled on the Idaho 37-yard line.  The Vandals marched down field with a 10-yard run and two long pass plays that put them in what we call the “red zone” inside the USC 10-yard line.  Idaho’s fullback Bill Kershisnik bulled his way in for a seven-yard touchdown to get the Vandals their only score.

Idaho did threaten again, getting deep into SC territory before defensive end Tony Stepanovich picked off a pass and scampered fifty yards before he was brought down on the sideline.  Hill had two long runs taking the Trojans to the 1-yard line, though he fumbled the ball into the end zone on the last ramble.  Hill then followed his right guard into the end zone for the final score of the contest.

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Saunders was considered the star player of the game, rolling up 148 yards in rushing, while Hill, who played sparsely, racked up 85 yards in addition to his two touchdowns.  Williams, too, in replacing Duffield, was a hero for the Trojans with his pair of scores.

The win meant that USC went undefeated in Pacific Coast Conference play two straight years, though there were ties with Cal in 1928 and Stanford in 1927.  Considered a co-champion with Stanford in ’27, the Trojans won the title outright the next year.  While USC was declared national champion according to the Dickinson rating system used at the time, a strange incident took place concerning the Trojans and the 1929 Rose Bowl game.

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First, the committee selecting the teams to play in the 1 January game was headed by Les Henry, a University of California alumnus, so Cal was invited to represent the West instead of USC, despite the latter’s superior record.  The Trojan squad, who went on to defeat Notre Dame, 27-14, in its final 1928 contest, made its feelings about the snub well-known.

So, Henry offered, knowing that USC would not accept an invitation after its 1929 schedule was established and trying to palliate the school, the Trojans the West spot for the 1930 Rose Bowl game, even though it was not known how the team would fare in the regular season.  USC declined and, because a Times article included a misprint that they were rejecting an invitation for the 1929 contest, that error persisted until a USC football historian spotted the miscue earlier this year.

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The 1929 Rose Rowl game was between Cal and Georgia Tech and became infamous because the Bears’ captain, Roy Riegels, picked up a fumble, got confused when a Georgia Tech player stepped in front of him and he turned and ran the wrong way towards the Cal end zone.  One of this teammates managed to stop him at the 1-yard line, but an ensuing blocked punt led to a safety and Georgia Tech squeaked out an 8-7 win.

Though USC declined the 1930 invitation, Les Henry was removed from his ability to pick the teams, so the Trojans wound up playing the University of Pittsburgh in that Rose Bowl contest and won easily, 47-14.

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One of the tackles on the 1928 USC squad and who is shown in one of the accompanying images from the USC-Idaho game program was a Nebraska native and transfer from the Colorado School of Mines named Ward Bond.  Bond happened to meet another former Trojan football player, Marion Morrison, who’d gone into film acting and recently changed his name to John Wayne.  Bond became a well-known character actor in such films as The Maltese FalconIt’s a Wonderful Life, and a slew of westerns, among many others.

As for his fellow tackle and All-American, Jess Hibbs, he, too, got into movies, after one season in pro football.  Hibbs went on to work as an assistant director and then helmed a number of films, mainly westerns and features starring World War II hero Audie Murphy, before moving to directing television shows.

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Finally, a word should be said about the striking Art Deco design of the game program, especially the front cover and the centerfold with the team rosters, starting lineups, and box score.  Also of note are some of the advertisements, of which there were four.  One was for the Overell Furniture Company (longtime owner Walter Overell was later killed, with his wife, in an explosion of their yacht at Newport Beach which was blamed on their daughter and her boyfriend, though they were exonerated in a sensational trial).  Another was for Richfield (now ARCO, or Atlantic Richfield Company) gasoline that has a pretty nifty Art Deco graphic of a football game.  

The third ad was the Community Chest, a city-wide charitable campaign that took place at the end of each year from the early 1920s onward.  That ad noted that the USC football team had lofty goals, but “it’s fine to be young and healthy, to play hard.  It’s considerably finer to also be generous” to the quarter million people helped by the Community Chest program, the fundraising goal of which was over $2.6 million.

Finally, there is one for the new subdivision of Leimert Park, described as being “almost in the shadow of Exposition Park Stadium,” that is, the Coliseum.  While the ad played up the concrete streets, 7,000 planted trees, proximity from downtown Los Angeles, and “delightful Spanish Stucco Homes ready to move into,” it also noted that the subdivision was “the best restrictive protection ever placd on a Los Angeles property!”

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It wasn’t stated in the ad what this meant, but, as with most areas of the city, Leimert Park, developed in 1927, was restricted to whites and, in developer’s Walter Leimert words “for all time.”  A little over twenty years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, though it took years for actual change to come about.

Leimert Park eventually became a largely black enclave and its over 12,000 residents today are about 80% black, 11% Latino, 5% Asian and just 1% white.  Political analyst and activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, among others, has recently called for a change to the community’s name, given its founder’s blatant racism in establishing the neighborhood just over ninety years ago.

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