Given the opportunity to reminisce about the USC game during his 1967 Heisman Trophy season or the tilt with the Trojans two years prior, former UCLA quarterback Gary Beban is clear about his favorite outcome.
"I much prefer the results of the '65 encounter," Beban said via email.
Who would blame Beban for his preference?
The 1965 rivalry game ended in a 20-16 UCLA victory, secured in no small part because of Beban's come-from-behind heroics. The Bruins then would go on to a 14-12 upset of No. 1 Michigan State in the Rose Bowl. It was a picture-perfect story that reads like a Hollywood script.
The 1967 showdown of No. 1 UCLA and fourth-ranked USC, however, presented a more complicated drama of personal triumph colliding with team-wide disappointment, of competition featuring physical and emotional pain. It was an instant classic with indelible memories -- some of which no doubt feel to Beban like an itch he can't scratch.
For Beban, merely getting through the game represented achievement. The quarterback had torn cartilage in his rib cage as the result of a nasty hit the previous week against Washington.
"Somebody hit me way after the play," Beban, 65, recalled by phone from his home in Chicago. "I was actually getting up off the ground when the guy hit me."
Against USC, the first quarter was barely in the books before Trojans defensive back Pat Cashman drilled Beban in his injured ribs, forcing him temporarily to the sideline. Beban required a few more breathers throughout the game, but the thought of sitting out the remainder of the game never crossed his mind.
If anything, he increased his typical workload, passing for two touchdowns and 301 yards.
"Ironically, I'd never thrown the ball that much in a game or gained that many yards," Beban said with a laugh.
The hit from Cashman smarted, but the ultimate blows were delivered by the UCLA kicking game (Zenon Andrusyshyn missed a field goal and an extra point and had two more field goal attempts blocked) and Beban's primary competition for the Heisman, O.J. Simpson.
All-American linebacker Don Manning had been given the task of shadowing Simpson for the Bruins and -- one touchdown run aside -- had successfully bottled up the legend. But Manning would suffer a fourth-quarter injury, which Beban worried would leave his Bruins "vulnerable."
I get the tagline. But it really means those 31, 32 games are not going to be forgotten because somebody on that team won a Heisman.
”Gary Beban, on how the trophy is more representative of the UCLA squads
he quarterbacked from 1965 to 1967
than of his individual play
Simpson's now-iconic go-ahead TD run of 64 yards proved Beban to be an unfortunate Nostradamus.
Despite having more than 10 minutes to work with, Beban couldn't lead his team to another score. USC took the game 21-20, and UCLA went from a No. 1 ranking to a season that was over for all practical purposes.
With USC then atop the conference standings, the Trojans would represent the Pac-8 in the Rose Bowl. And in those days, conference teams by rule competed in either the "Granddaddy of Them All" or no bowl whatsoever.
UCLA concluded the 1967 season with a meaningless game against Syracuse -- a blowout loss during which coach Tommy Prothro eventually pulled Beban and the listless senior players. (Beban labeled himself and his classmates "flat as pancakes.")
For Beban, the 1967 loss to USC stings to this day. The Bruins' seniors entered the season with a stated goal of maintaining an undefeated streak "on California soil" and winning a national title. Both goals ended against the Trojans, who went on to defeat Indiana in the Rose Bowl en route to a national title.
Beban was left to find solace in edging out Simpson for the 1967 Heisman Trophy. But the bronze did little to fill the void left by the USC loss.
"It was a moment," Beban said of receiving the Heisman. "The loss to SC was a three-year commitment. It was our first loss on California soil, which is quite amazing in itself. And it was the loss of the national championship. So no, the trophy [provided] no offset whatsoever."
But armed with the gift of perspective, Beban later realized the trophy didn't just validate his achievements, but rather UCLA's during his three years under center.
"That trophy recognizes that we were good and we were special and we're remembered,'' Beban said. "That really became the value proposition of the brown man for me.
"And I happened to be the individual on this team that gets to carry it," he said of the Heisman statuette. "I get the tagline. But it really means those 31, 32 games are not going to be forgotten because somebody on that team won a Heisman."
Knowing his time at UCLA has been properly quantified, it becomes easier to appreciate being on the losing end of a game that has withstood the test of time.
"I'm not sure you can play in a game much bigger than that," Beban said of the 1967 USC-UCLA contest. "And upon reflection, I think we all on both sides were very fortunate to ever get a chance to play in a game like that."
Even so, would he trade his status as the only Heisman winner in UCLA history for a win in that legendary tilt against SC?
"Absolutely," Beban said without hesitation. "For two points? Absolutely."