If USC had to get off the bus one stop short of Paradise, who better to ring their buzzer than Ralph Miller? Teams like USC may wax and wane, but Ralph, like AstroTurf, will never die.
Oregon State's Miller turned 66 Saturday and chose to celebrate by pulling the ladder out from under USC on the doorstep to Emerald City and a Pac-10 title they could call their very own. It was the Beavers 60, Hope 58. So goodby, yellow brick road.
The Beavers did it by casting ill karma on their previous executioner, tiny Larry Friend, the USC gnat who had beaten OSU in Corvallis a few dates back with a Roto-Rooter, dig-it-out and toss-it-in 17-footer.
Saturday, Friend needed to make a 15-footer with five seconds left to give USC the win--and these 15-footers were from the free-throw line. He missed them both, no mortal sin, figuring in the year he's had.
But flush with the thrill of a Friend-ly pardon, the Beavers used the overtime to drain 10 out of 11 free throws and win.
"We did it for Ralph's birthday," said freshman Eric Knox, who hails from Inglewood but went Ralph's way when nobody else would take him. "You could say we did it for the Gipper."
Knox made OSU's last six straight free throws, all with less than a minute left, and all in one-and-one situations. Anybody want him now?
"So he wasn't a blue-chipper," Miller said of Knox. "The media make blue-chippers. I always liked him."
Of Friend, Miller said in his whiskey-sour wisdom: "A guy shouldn't be able to get by with that twice in a year."
So the boys on the top floor forgot about Ralph, which is nothing new. But just as soon as you leave Ralph out of your plans, he comes up from behind and steals your lunch money. Suddenly, OSU isn't talking NIT, it's 12-6 and talking NCAA.
Do you believe in Beavers?
So now, for the eighth time in his ancient career, the nation may see the craggy stone front of Ralph Miller, grinding his way through the NCAA, mean and hoarse and lovable.
"So far, all we've heard is rumor," Miller said. But his best senior, A.C. Green, figures it differently. "We've got to be invited now."
Across the hall, the dreamer of the USC dream, Stan Morrison, 21 years Ralph's younger, spoke as though conceding an election.
"I'd like to wish a happy birthday to Ralph Miller," Morrison said. "We gave him a gift."
No, Morrison wasn't talking back to his elders. Morrison said it as though to honor. Think these Pac-10 championships are easily picked off the vine? Miller has four times held them in both his hands. Morrison this morning will hold one for the first time--and with only one hand, the other belonging to the University of Washington.
To win Saturday, Miller pulled some odd potions out of his tattered bag of medicines. After a poor showing Thursday night in a loss to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, Miller did not get mad. Odder still, he practically gave his players Friday off--a 30-minute practice--and then conducted an acutely abbreviated shoot-around session Saturday morning.
"We were a tired bunch," he said.
Then he came to the game and promptly changed his game plan, pressing in the second half instead of the first. "That's the first time we've changed a game plan in a long time. Since 1948," he said.
Worked 37 years ago. Will probably work in another 37 years.
Meantime, Ralph will take a moment and sip this one like 26-year-old scotch.
"You go on the road and beat somebody that was trying to win a Pac-10 title, it gives you something to look back on in the off-season," he said. "It makes you feel better about yourself."