The USC 440-Relay Team That Secured a Place in History : 20 Years Ago Today, Trojans Burned Track
O.J. Simpson is renowned for his Heisman Trophy-winning season at USC, his record-breaking career in pro football and, of course, for hurdling suitcases in television commercials. But Simpson recalls that he never had more fun than he did as a member of USC’s track team in 1967.
It was a memorable year for Simpson and three other Trojans, Earl McCullouch, Fred Kuller and Lennox Miller.
Today is the 20th anniversary of their record-shattering feat, a world-record time of 38.6 seconds in the 440-yard relay in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. track and field meet at Provo, Utah.
They broke the record by a full second and secured a place for themselves in track and field history, since yardage marks are a thing of the past in this age of metric measurements.
Even by metric standards, though, their time of 20 years ago holds up, not as a world record but as exceptional just the same. By making two conversions, from 440 yards to 400 meters and then from hand time to fully automatic timing, the 38.6 computes to 38.51, according to track statistician Tom Feuer.
How fast is 38.51? It would be the second-fastest time in collegiate history. Only Texas Christian has ever run a faster 400, a time of 38.46 at the 1986 NCAA meet in Indianapolis.
“They haven’t improved much on what we did,” McCullouch said. “We might have been right there at this particular time.”
Anatomy of a team:
McCullouch, the lead-off man, was also a world-class hurdler. In July of 1967, equaled a hand-timed world record of 13.2 seconds in the 110-meter high hurdles at the Pan-American Games in Minneapolis.
“And it was done on a dirt track, not a synthetic surface,” McCullouch said.
In conversion, McCullouch was also credited with a fully automatic time of 13.43 for his race in Minneapolis, which still stands as a USC record.
Like Simpson, McCullouch was an accomplished football player, who had a distinguished career as a wide receiver at USC and later with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League.
Kuller, who ran the second leg, was simply very fast. His 9.3-second time in the 100-yard dash has been exceeded by only two other Trojans, Miller and Willie Deckard.
Simpson was the third man in the relay order. His accomplishments have been well documented. He was, however, a legitimate 9.4 sprinter, which just enhanced his skills as a tailback.
The Jamaican-born Miller was a superb sprinter. He was the silver medalist in the 100 meters in the 1968 Olympic Games at Mexico City, and the bronze medalist in the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
His school record of 10.04 seconds in the 100 meters, set in 1968, lasted for 12 years until it was broken by James Sanford with a time of 10.02.
Only national sprint relay teams could assemble a faster group.
It took some time, however, for the Trojan relay team to come together as a unit. Simpson had to regain his sprinting legs after spring football practice, and the team had to improve its baton passing.
Ken Matsuda, USC’s assistant coach at the time, recalls that the team initially used a right-left-right-left handoff system, then later experimented by passing with only the left hand.
While experimenting, USC lost to UCLA in the 1967 dual meet, the Bruins tying the world record of 39.6 set by Southern University in 1966.
Jim Bush, UCLA’s coach, had more than an inkling, though, that his team was not really in USC’s class.
“I knew if they got their passes down, it wouldn’t be a contest because they were a far superior team,” Bush said. “I made such an issue of their passing--and so did the newspapers--that they started passing the way we did (right-left-right-left), and we copied that style from Stanford.
“They were keeping the baton in the same hand, which meant you had to cross over on passes and you had to slow down, or you would rip a guy’s leg apart.
“I told our team that the way they were passing, all we had to do was stay ahead of them and, if the last man gets a decent pass, we’ll win.
“I knew they were better than us, but I also knew that we could beat them.”
Miller, now a dentist in Pasadena, had another recollection of the loss to UCLA.
“I was coming off an injury and had a two-week layoff,” he said. “Harold Busby, their anchorman, had a yard lead on me when I got the baton. I figured I could make it up, but I didn’t.
“We hated to lose in anything to UCLA.”
The loss, however, probably served as an incentive to USC. The Trojans also tied the world record of 39.6 on June 2 at the Coliseum-Compton Invitational. Texas Southern had also tied the record that season, so four teams were credited with 39.6 clockings.
The Trojans broke the logjam June 10 at the San Diego Invitational with a time of 39 seconds.
Then they went to the NCAA meet in Provo.
“I had never seen snow,” Simpson recalled. “When I think about that day, I remember some of us going into the mountains to see snow.
“I also remember that Earl was complaining about some other races he had to run and how cold it was.”
The Trojan foursome was concerned, too, about their individual events in the meet. McCullouch won the high hurdles, Miller was second in the 100 and 200, and Kuller was fourth in the 100, a race in which Simpson was sixth.
Including the relay win, they accounted for 41 of USC’s 86 points as the Trojans won their 24th NCAA championship.
“For sheer excitement, there was nothing like the relay,” said Vern Wolfe, USC’s coach then. “That really kicked things off for the meet. It ignited us.”
It was Matsuda’s responsibility to gather the relay team and make sure that they stretched properly.
“I couldn’t find them (at first) and when I did, I started yelling,” he said. “They said, ' Don’t worry, Coach,’ and they were very relaxed. They were very sure of themselves, and they backed it up.”
McCullouch had a blazing start, setting the tone for the race with his lead-off leg.
“It’s probably one of the fastest legs I’ve ever run,” he said. “I felt like I was really moving. I was in an outside lane and everything clicked.”
Said Simpson: “Earl was known for his start and I could see how great he was as I waited on the other end of the track. He made up the whole stagger on his leg and we were way out in front when I got the baton from Fred.
“I actually ran up on Lennox, but I waited for an instant to give him the stick. We didn’t waste any time, though. It was a safe pass in the middle of the zone.”
Said Miller: “Most of the job was done before I got the baton. Earl made up the stagger, Fred ran a heck of a leg and O. J. wiped out everyone who was left. No one was even close to me when I got the baton.”
It’s estimated that USC beat second-place Tennessee by 15 yards.
Wolfe recalled that he looked at his stopwatch in disbelief.
“I thought I had blown it,” he said. “How does it rate among my thrills as a coach? It’s in the top three and I don’t remember the other two.”
Said Matsuda: “They had a great relay race in Baton Rouge (at the NCAA meet) recently, but our guys would have won that race. What they did is more awesome as time goes by.”
The Bruins weren’t a factor in the race. Don Domansky and Tom Jones muffed the pass on the second to third legs. It was a habitual occurrence.
“I think we managed to drop the baton in five or six consecutive national championship meets,” Bush said. “We set a record that I hope no one breaks because I don’t want anyone else to be that embarrassed.”
Then, Bush added facetiously: “I coached it that way in the 1967 meet because I knew we would lose, and I wanted to have an excuse. Anyway, (USC) had three men who were faster than our best man.”