Quarterback Brett Hundley aims to emulate UCLA predecessors

Quarterback Brett Hundley aims to emulate UCLA predecessors
UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley throws a pass during a team practice session Wednesday. Hundley isn't shy when it comes to his Heisman Trophy aspirations and where he sees his place in UCLA football history. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Standing in the football area of UCLA's Hall of Fame, Brett Hundley ponders how he might remodel it.

The display for Gary Beban, UCLA's only Heisman Trophy winner, would have to be downsized.


"Move it over, but keep him here," Hundley said, motioning to the case that contained the trophy, newspaper stories and a large photo of Beban from the 1967 season.

There would be no need to reduce the Troy Aikman monument. The NFL's first overall pick in 1989 and winner of three Super Bowls could remain as is, with a minor alteration.

"Shift it to the right," Hundley said. "You'll want mine next to it."

He chuckles, mocking himself. Then Hundley places hands on hips and announces, "That'll do it."

UCLA's junior quarterback is being playful. At more serious times, he can recite Coach Jim Mora's mantra — "worry about the process, not the goal" — by chapter and verse. But Hundley also has a swagger, which has carried him through two seasons walking in the cleat prints of Beban and Aikman.

Hundley doesn't laugh when asked whether he had already written a Heisman Trophy acceptance speech. Instead, he flashes a smile that could land him a toothpaste endorsement and admits he did.

"Why not believe you can do something?" Hundley said. "If you believe, why not write the speech today instead of waiting until it happens?"

One game, one focus, carries Hundley. But he has a vision of his future as well.

When he decided to return for this, his junior season — he said it would be his last at UCLA — he knew it put him on a path that Beban and Aikman followed during their final seasons.

"You can't look past what you know is already there," Hundley said. "The expectations are there."

The Heisman Trophy winner

UCLA has a prominent quarterback history. Bob Waterfield engineered the first victory over USC and a first trip to the Rose Bowl. Cade McNown won four UCLA-USC games, something no other quarterback in the rivalry has accomplished. Primo Villanueva guided UCLA to its only national championship in 1954.

But two names stand out: Aikman and Beban.

They are the Point-A-to-Point-B line Hundley navigates.


"I made a point when I got here to research all the quarterbacks," Hundley said. "Troy Aikman was great. ... Let me get that right: he was amazing. He understood the game so well. And Gary Beban? His name is everywhere at this school. You're talking about two great men."

Both began their final seasons at UCLA as Heisman Trophy candidates. Beban won it; Aikman finished third. Both are in the College Football Hall of Fame.

They also sought national titles, though neither could bring one home.

"There was a lot of hype in 1967. Nowhere near what there is today, but it was there," Beban said.

One of the adjustments he made was, "I decided not to read the L.A. Times for a year."

He should have also skipped the UCLA media guide, where Coach Tommy Prothro gushed, "It is inconceivable that anyone could be of more value to a football team than Gary Beban is to ours."

Beban finished fourth in the Heisman voting the year before, but he tried to put aside thoughts about winning.

"We had 18 seniors who had been together throughout," he said. "We wanted to be national champions."

The goals were interlocked. Beban led the team and the team won. UCLA was 7-0-1 and reached No. 1 the week of the USC game.

Purdue running back Leroy Keyes was the other Heisman favorite when the season began. Then, Beban said, "O.J. Simpson came out of nowhere. Leroy got hurt and it was just O.J. and me. The rest is history."

The 1967 UCLA-USC game remains among the most famous in college football. Playing with bruised ribs, Beban threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. Simpson ran for 177 yards and two touchdowns, the second on a 64-yard run that gave USC a 21-20 victory.

UCLA missed three field-goal tries and had an extra-point try blocked, but what Beban remembers is, "I had 10 minutes to win the game" after Simpson scored.

The Trojans got the national title. Beban got the Heisman.

"I'm in the old era," Beban said. "Back then, the Heisman was more for career recognition rather than a one-year thing."

The Super Bowl champion

Aikman transferred to UCLA from Oklahoma, and by the time he was a junior there were some projections that he might be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. He returned for his senior season anyway.

"I knew I was going in as a Heisman candidate," Aikman said. "I really just hoped I'd come out of the season a Heisman candidate."

Aikman's presence fueled high hopes and the Bruins started the 1988 season ranked third in the nation. However, the quarterback knew better. The lineup had some holes.

"We had a number of guys drafted," Aikman said. "There were high expectations, but I knew we were not as good a football team. Not that we weren't talented, but we weren't as talented as we had been."

It wasn't obvious early. UCLA defeated No. 2 Nebraska in the season's second week, and the spotlight focused on Aikman. Times columnist Mike Downey wrote of him, "There hasn't been an arm like this since the one scientists built for Lee Majors."

UCLA printed brochures to push Aikman's Heisman campaign. But his worries about the team came home to roost. The Bruins climbed to the top of the Associated Press poll, but two weeks later Washington State came to town and pulled off a 34-30 upset.

The same day, Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders rolled up 320 yards rushing against Kansas State, and he ran away with the Heisman, too.

Aikman finished a distant third. He lost a shootout to USC quarterback Rodney Peete, who finished second in the voting, and the Trojans earned a spot in the Rose Bowl.

No trophy. No title.

"We were No. 1 in the country for two weeks," Aikman said.

And a few months later, Aikman went No. 1 overall in the NFL draft to the Dallas Cowboys, whom he led to three Super Bowl titles.


They are in Brett Hundley's corner

Beban says he feels a connection with Hundley. Both helped shake UCLA football out of the doldrums.

The Bruins were 32-36-3 in the seven years before Beban showed up in 1965. He took them to the Rose Bowl that season and beat Michigan State, UCLA's first Rose Bowl victory.

UCLA was 81-80 in 13 seasons before Hundley took over in 2012.

"We both brought UCLA out of the dark ages," Beban said.

Last year, Beban, an old-school guy, contacted Hundley in an old-school way: he wrote him a letter.

"I just wanted to reach out and let him know he had the support of the old guys," Beban said. "We have been in the same place he has been."

Aikman contacted Hundley, too, using a more modern device: an email on Twitter.

"He kept it real simple," Hundley said, " 'You've been doing a great job.' From Troy Aikman, that's all you need to hear."


Aikman has watched Hundley's development with an analytical eye.

"I like him a lot," Aikman said. "I do think he made the right decision coming back this season, not because of any allegiances I have to the university."

Still, the UCLA alum in Aikman slips out when the Heisman Trophy comes up in conversation.

"I'm fired up about it and excited, and I know the university is as well," Aikman said. "It has been a while since we had a player of his caliber or had the attention on the program."

Beban expects that Hundley will handle the extra scrutiny and keep his focus where it needs to be.

"I think Brett's focus is the same as mine was back then," Beban said. "He needs to do things to help the team win. Anything he gets after the season will be a bonus."

That's Hundley's plan.

"The one thing I want is the ring," Hundley said. "That's why I came back. … As long as our team can be remembered for something we did that was great, something that hasn't been done in a while at UCLA — win the conference, win the Rose Bowl — then the season will be success."

As for the Heisman, Hundley said it "would be nice and will be nice."

He has thought about where he would put it at home, too.

"I don't have everything set up yet," Hundley said, grinning. "But I got it in my head."

Follow Chris Foster on Twitter @cfosterlatimes

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.