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Column: They may have been gutty, but UCLA’s 1966 Rose Bowl team was also gritty

UCLA Coach Tommy Prothro is hoisted onto the shoulders of his players after defeating Michigan State, 14-12, in the Rose Bowl.

UCLA Coach Tommy Prothro is hoisted onto the shoulders of his players after defeating Michigan State, 14-12, in the Rose Bowl.

(Joe Kennedy / Los Angeles Times)

Some of the details are fuzzy now, nearly five decades after UCLA faced top-ranked and undefeated Michigan State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1966, but those Bruins agree on this much:

The Spartans were huge. Gigantic. Expected to gobble the Bruins and their 200-pound linemen like party appetizers.

“Some people have said their TV tilted a bit when they announced them on TV,” quarterback Gary Beban said jokingly, “but they were big.”

How big? “I remember running past Bubba Smith and he was about 7-foot tall and I was looking into his belt buckle,” said Wade Pearson, a UCLA linebacker. “I thought, ‘That’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen.’

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“We were tiny. We were the gutty little Bruins. The originals. But I always thought of us as the brutal little Bruins because our defense would swarm ballcarriers and we would have five or six helmets on that ballcarrier almost every single play.”

Alas, “Brutal Little Bruins” never caught on but “Gutty Little Bruins” endured, and for that you can thank — or blame — that team and its 14-12 upset of Michigan State. The current Bruins have embodied some of that determination this season in overcoming injuries and consecutive thrashings by Arizona State and Stanford to stand at 8-3 when they face USC on Saturday.

A win by the Bruins would put them in the Pac-12 Conference title game against Stanford; they’d have to beat the Cardinal on Dec. 5 to reach the Rose Bowl.

“I think the current team is very talented and the coaching staff is impressive,” said Andy Herrera, a halfback on the 1966 Rose Bowl team. “These two trips they had I think were anomalies for a team that’s much better than what they showed in their two losses.”

There would be symmetry to a UCLA return to the Rose Bowl 50 years after that first Bruins triumph, which was commemorated with an on-field ceremony Oct. 31. And think of how many times TV announcers could wax poetic about the “Gutty Little Bruins.”

Once would be too many for linebacker Dallas Grider, one of many players who attended the team’s 50-year reunion.

“I do not like it,” said an emphatic Grider, who recovered an onside kick that led to the Bruins’ second touchdown and joined the successful pursuit of fullback Bob Apisa on a potential game-tying two-point conversion in the final seconds of the fourth quarter. “It’s been something that people have called us all these years. It’s like we didn’t belong on the field with some of these people, and we did.

“We were not huge but we were quick and we could play. We were fundamentally sound. That’s all you can ask of a group of kids that maybe didn’t have the size but were good together. We had a good chemistry, offense and defense, and that was because of the coaching staff and the way they taught us and coached us.”

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Tommy Prothro was in his first season as the Bruins’ coach in 1965. They lost their opener, 13-3, to a Michigan State team that produced four 1967 NFL first-round draft picks — Smith, Clinton Jones, George Webster and Gene Washington. But that loss planted the seeds of the Bruins’ later success.

“Coach Prothro came in the locker room and said, ‘Gentlemen, we did not prepare you for this game, and it will never happen again.’ And it never did,” Beban said.

Ray Armstrong, who said he probably was the team’s smallest player at 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, credited Prothro for making the most of the team’s assets.

“He was able to find the potential of every individual and bring out the best of everyone,” said Armstrong, a wing back and punt return specialist. “The psychology of him motivating our team was exceptional, and the combination of all those things made us a winning football team.”

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Former Bruin Bob Stiles, left, and former Spartan Bob Apisa, shown during a get-together in 2000, became close friends 19 years after UCLA's victory over Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl.

Former Bruin Bob Stiles, left, and former Spartan Bob Apisa, shown during a get-together in 2000, became close friends 19 years after UCLA’s victory over Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl.

(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Grider said their quickness and knowledge of fundamentals made up for their lack of size. “All the lessons, the things that he taught, have stayed with me all my life,” said Grider, who coached at high school and community college in Bakersfield before retiring 10 years ago. “I coached a lot of the things that he believed in. They did a heck of a job. That coaching staff turned a bunch of small guys into pretty good football players.”

The Bruins were 14-point underdogs, and the Spartans were brash when players walked on the field before the game. “They were catcalling. ‘Hey, where are your surfboards?’ ” said Russell Banducci, a guard and tackle. “They were twice as big as we were and they were absolutely trash talking in the Rose Bowl before the game.”

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FOR THE RECORD

A previous caption for a photo in this column referred to Bob Stiles and Bob Apisa as teammates. Stiles played for UCLA and Apisa played for Michigan State.

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Beban remembered that too. “It was really the first time that we’d heard much smack, and we didn’t need to be fired up any more than we were,” he said. “It was an element of, ‘We’ve got to really play well to be respectable here. This is the No. 1 team in the country.’ But we began to realize that, as usual, the coaching staff and Tommy had a great plan in place and it was a defensive win.”

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Beban scored on a one-yard run after the Bruins recovered a fumbled punt and on another one-yard run after Grider recovered an onside kick, both in the second quarter. The Bruins shut out the Spartans until Apisa’s 38-yard run in the fourth quarter, though Michigan State’s two-point pass conversion attempt failed.

Spartans quarterback Steve Juday scored on a one-yard sneak in the final minute and pitched the ball to Apisa for a two-point attempt. Jim Colletto slowed him down before Bob Stiles rushed in for a thunderous tackle that held Apisa short of the goal line and preserved the victory. “I came back here to coach in 2006 at UCLA,” said Colletto, who was an offensive line coach under Karl Dorrell, “and the first thing I did was walk in that corner of the end zone and stand there and close my eyes and I could see the whole play, 50 years ago.”

It’s a longshot that the current team will get that far. Beban lives in Chicago and doesn’t watch UCLA often but likes what he has seen of quarterback Josh Rosen and Jim Mora’s staff.

“It’s a unique situation with a true freshman as your quarterback, and I had my doubts as the season started, probably like a lot of folks, but he’s really playing well and the team seems to have rallied around him,” Beban said. “If it wasn’t for the injuries, I think it would be an even stronger season. But Coach Mora and his staff have done a good job. They’re competitive, and the important part right now is that we stay competitive game to game.”

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And yes, he still says “we.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Twitter: @helenenothelen

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