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LEAP OF FAITH

Times Staff Writer

It happened 30 years ago, but track and field Hall of Famer Willie Banks recalls the moment as if it happened yesterday.

Then a 19-year-old UCLA freshman, Banks was carried on his teammates’ shoulders after jumping two feet farther than he ever had before to win the triple jump and give the Bruins a dramatic dual-meet victory over USC before a standing-room-only crowd at Drake Stadium.

“It was probably the most exciting point of my life at the time; I was just a young silly freshman and about as big as a twig,” said Banks, whose leap of 55 feet 1 inch clinched UCLA’s 75-70 victory over the Trojans.

“I can remember everything. There’s nothing that I can forget. It’s still pretty amazing.”

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The situation was this: Banks, a freshman from Oceanside, had already won the long jump, upsetting USC’s Randy Williams, an Olympic gold medal winner and NCAA champion, with a wind-aided leap of 26-2 1/4 . But in the triple jump, Banks was in third place, behind USC’s Tom Cochee and Don Bryson, heading into his last jump.

With USC favored to win the meet’s final event, the mile relay, the Trojans were in good position. A third-place finish by Banks and a USC victory in the mile relay would give the Trojans a 74-71 win.

Ken Matsuda, an assistant under USC Coach Vern Wolfe, said the Trojans had one of their more talented teams. Led by sprinter James Gilkes, quarter-miler Ken Randle, 440-yard hurdler Tom Andrews and jumpers Cochee, Bryson and Williams, the Trojans were primed to end a three-year losing streak to UCLA.

May 4, 1975 was a sunny day, and a crowd of more than 15,000 filled Drake Stadium an hour before the first running event began. Many track fans were turned away after UCLA closed the stadium gates, forcing some to climb surrounding fences or use dormitories just to get a glimpse of the action.

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With USC alumnus O.J. Simpson sitting near the track and enjoying a running conversation with his friend, UCLA Coach Jim Bush, the Trojans took it to the Bruins early. USC’s 440-yard relay team started things off with a victory in 39.1 seconds; Gilkes won the 100- and 220-yard sprints in national-leading times of 9.3 and 20.4, and Andrews handed UCLA’s Lynnsey Guerrero his first defeat in four years of dual meet competition with a meet record-tying time of 50.2 in the hurdles.

But the Bruins hung tough, with Rory Kotinek winning the javelin and breaking Dwight Stones’ school mark in the high jump with a leap of 7-3 1/4 ; and pole vaulter Mike Tulley setting a school record of 17-10.

“They were having a good day in front of a packed house, and O.J. was just giving it to me,” said Bush, who coached UCLA to five national championships and 10 national dual-meet titles from 1964 to 1984. “He kept saying that they got us this year, they got us this year.

“It comes down to the triple jump, and they have two guys who jump lifetime bests and Willie has one jump left. Now, I never ever talked to one of my athletes right before they competed, but I did that day.”

With Cochee and Bryson holding down first and second with jumps of 54-3 and 53-9, Bush said he walked down the runway and told Banks, “ ‘Just relax and get a good jump,’ and then I turned and walked away. But as I left, I kept hearing him say, ’55 feet, 55 feet.’

“That, to me, was crazy. He had never jumped over 53. But in his mind, he was a 55-feet jumper.”

Banks remembers Bush’s visit differently.

“He told me, ‘Son, you can either win this thing or you can lose it,’ ” Banks said. “Talk about pressure. I was like, ‘Thank you, Coach, that was real helpful.’ ”

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As Banks moved to the head of the runway, four Bruin students appeared from the stands and led rooters in a U-C-L-A spell out. Then the band began to play the school fight song. But all Banks heard was Simpson yell, “You’ll never make it!”

“There were so many unusual things happening for a track meet,” Banks said. “But I was so focused. I just concentrated, and all I could see was the end of the [sand] pit. I never saw the board.”

The result: 55-1. Meet over.

“After I landed, I was just shaking all over,” Banks said. “Then I heard the crowd erupt and I knew it was a good jump. ... I went over to watch the measurement, and it kept going and going and going.”

Said Bush: “When I saw the jump, there was no doubt that he had won, I just didn’t know it was 55 feet,” he said. “I looked over to O.J. and said, ‘How do you like that?’ ”

In celebration, Banks’ UCLA teammates picked him up and walked him around.

“They paraded him around the infield, and in my 54 years in coaching I’ve never seen athletes pick up one of their comrades and put him on their shoulders like that,” Bush said. “That’s how important the jump was and how excited everyone was. The 1971 [USC-UCLA] meet probably was the greatest [in the rivalry] based on all of the world-best times. But what Willie did to give us the win was just unbelievable.”

After that historic effort, Banks remained ranked among the world’s best jumpers for the next 15 years. He set a world record in the triple jump in 1985 and represented the U.S. on three Olympic teams. Banks was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1999.

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But it’s a day 30 years ago for which Banks will always be remembered by Bruin and Trojan track and field fans.


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