Compton Gridders Relive Triumph in ’48 Little Rose Bowl
Arriving at the reunion, the old Compton College players did not seem that far removed from the past. Everybody recognized everybody else, even though the 40 years since they formed a great football team have turned their hair gray and expanded their waistlines.
The largest of them, Sim Iness, entered a banquet room at the Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach, where much reliving of Compton’s 1948 Little Rose Bowl championship was going on, and was spotted by his former coach.
“Sim, oh my God, yes, I recognize you,” said Tay Brown, who was drinking bourbon on the rocks. “You’re a handsome big dude now; damn, you put on some weight.”
That should have come as no surprise, since Iness, a 6-foot-5, 247-pound tackle on the ’48 team, is remembered for eating six pork chops for breakfast.
“It’s good to see you; I think about you a lot,” Iness told Brown, a legend to him and the others.
With a voice roughened by years of yelling and cigarettes, Brown greeted the men he long ago turned into winners. Known for emphasizing fundamentals and devising formations to fit his players, the Compton native had a 140-31-9 coaching record from 1937 through 1956.
Five hip operations have slowed Brown, who at 77 has white hair and lives in Hollywood, but not enough to keep him from playing golf. “I’m happy,” he said, “but kind of crippled.”
His ’45, ’46, ’47 and ’48 teams won the junior college national championship. The ’48 Tartars were 12-0 and won the Little Rose Bowl game, 48-14, over Duluth before 50,000 fans in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. In later years, the game became known as the Junior Rose Bowl and was played each December until the mid-'60s.
“It was quite a thrill playing in that game,” said Iness, a longtime coach in Porterville and a tower of impeccability in gray slacks, blue blazer and striped tie. “We heard they were going to whip us. God, I forgot the score; it was so lopsided.”
Junior college football was the rage then--up to 300 men, many in their early 20s and fresh from World War II, would try out for Compton’s team each season. As today, a player would play for two years and then go on to a 4-year school.
The Tartars played home games before overflow crowds of 15,000 at Ramsauer Field at Compton High School, which was combined with the college then. They were so popular that trains were chartered to allow fans and alumni to accompany the players to out-of-state games.
Hugh McElhenny Run
The ’48 team played at the University of Mexico in a game in which Hugh McElhenny, now a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, returned a kickoff 105 yards for a touchdown. The run was so arduous in the high altitude that his face was blue when he returned to the bench.
McElhenny was one of three Tartar backs in ’48 who could run the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds. One of them, Bill Fell, ran it in full uniform in 10.2 seconds, a record then.
Fell, who lives in Sun City, and McElhenny, of Bellevue, Wash., were unable to attend the reunion. Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League, who was the Tartars’ student publicist in those days, could not come either. But about 50 members of the Compton teams of the late ‘40s, all either close to or past 60, did attend.
There was Dick Bramer, who won a game with a field goal in ’49. Brown remembered the kick but could not immediately recall Bramer’s name.
Bob Moore, a second-string halfback on the ’48 team but later a starting tailback at UCLA, recalled his years at Compton: “It was a close-knit unit of people. I had more fun at Compton because you knew everybody.”
Dick Meacham, father of Bobby Meacham of the Texas Rangers, arrived with his wife. Meacham was a halfback on the ’48 Tartars. “I remember you getting hurt before a big game,” Brown told him. “You broke your collarbone.”
Bill Gallagher of El Monte, who still had the he-man look of a former tackle, was talking about his respect for Brown. “This guy taught me to play football,” Gallagher said of the coach, who had been a tackle himself at Compton High School and then at USC, where, despite weighing only 175 pounds, he was an All-American.
Gallagher had played fullback in high school but was moved to the line when he got to Compton College. He said that one day Brown lined up the players to show them how to block. “He got me in a stance and before I knew what hit me, I was on my back,” Gallagher said. “He tried to knock my head off. The son of a gun hit harder than anybody.”
It was an appraisal that Brown, standing nearby at the bar, did not argue with.
One group of former players was looking over one of the game programs from that era that had been brought by William Thomas, Compton College’s current sports information director.
As nostalgic as the reunion-goers themselves, the programs had brightly colored covers showing rosy-complexioned cheerleaders and leather-helmeted men in kicking poses. Inside were advertisements for malt shops and the varsity formal in the student union; center spreads featuring Chesterfield cigarettes, Coca-Cola and the starting lineups, and pages of photos of Tartars with double-breasted jackets and slick hair (Wildroot Cream Oil?) that bore comb tracks.
“Did he die or get killed?” someone asked, noticing quarterback Stewart Hopper’s name on the ’48 roster. Hopper died a couple of years ago of cancer, as did Ken Carpenter, the beloved line coach.
Iness looked up from the program and over at Rod Garner, the Tartars’ center in ’48.
“Doesn’t Rod look like he’s 32 years old?” Iness said. “He looks like he does in the program.”
And it was true.
One program was from the Bakersfield game in ’48. Bakersfield’s roster contained a famous name.
“Frank Gifford couldn’t get to the line, let alone through it, that night,” said Andy Logan, recalling a 28-0 Compton victory.
Logan, who divided time with Hopper at quarterback in ’48, had brought the old gang together, as he has periodically since 1968. Still broad-shouldered and gung ho at 61, he wore a maroon-and-gray Compton College football emblem on his coat.
Logan won medals in three wars and taught in Long Beach public schools for 25 years. He is a pilot and a sky diver. But nothing, he said, can compare with the bond that was formed in 1948 and had, in the reunion’s warmth, been once again reaffirmed.
“Look at these guys,” he said as he drank a beer and watched his still-vital and still-cherished teammates, who, now that the cocktail hour was winding down, were getting louder. “You’d think they could go out and put on the football suits again.”