USC football throwback: The trick that won the Trojans the 1939 Rose Bowl

1992: General view of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport
1992: General view of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport /

USC football won the 1939 Rose Bowl thanks to some bold coaching staff trickery, a fourth-string quarterback and a second-string end.

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When your boss is Howard Jones, the legendary USC football coach, you have to be pretty bold to pull a fast one on him.

You may have to be certifiably insane to do so in the final minutes of a Rose Bowl game with an undefeated streak on the line.

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It turns out, USC freshman assistant coach Joe Wilensky was just crazy enough.

Fortunately for Wilensky, Jones and the Trojans, the trick, which involved a fourth-string quarterback and a second-string end, worked out for everyone.

First, Jones got his groove back

In his first nine seasons as the USC head coach, Howard Jones had won three national titles, five conference championships and never dipped below eight wins.

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Then, the magic seemed to fade from Jones’s touch. He went 4-6-1 in 1934, a campaign which started a four-year slump for the future College Football Hall of Famer during which he never won more than five games.

When his Trojans opened the 1938 season with a 7-19 loss to Alabama at the Coliseum, Paul Zimmerman of the Associated Press noted how “the wolves wanted [him] fired.”

So USC’s trip to the 1939 Rose Bowl wasn’t routine by any stretch of the imagination.

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Along the way, the Trojans clawed their way back into the Top 25 with five straight wins, then knocked off No. 3 Cal with a 13-7 upset at the Coliseum, only to experience a letdown upset of their own the next week against 1-4-1 Washington.

Another bounce back against UCLA secured a share of the conference title for the first time in five years while the win over Cal proved the tiebreaker which would send them to the Rose Bowl.

There was some controversy in that pick, as Cal was the defending conference champion and had lost just once in 21 games while USC had two losses to their name that season.

To add insult to injury for the Bears, Art Cohn of the Oakland Tribune predicted “a third defeat very likely coming from Notre Dame Saturday at Los Angeles…That will scorch Californians for many years to come.”

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Instead, Jones and the Trojans let the nation know they still meant serious business when they hosted the No. 1 Irish and denied their rivals a national title with a 13-0 win.

“Unbeaten, untied, and unscored on”

Duke was chosen as USC’s opponent for the Granddaddy of Them All.

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The Blue Devils had gone through their nine-game regular season unscathed. Their schedule was suspect enough for them to be consigned to No. 3 in the polls going into bowl season, but they proved their worth in a regular-season finale victory over No. 4 Pitt.

The Trojans had already handed Cal and Notre Dame their first losses of the season. They would have to spoil an unblemished season one more time to finish their campaign on a high.

But Duke wasn’t just undefeated. They were “unbeaten, untied and unscored on” in the words of sports writers from around the country.

Walter Wade’s team had not conceded a touchdown, nor a field goal all season.

They were led by future College Football Hall of Famers Dan Hill, at center and linebacker, and Eric Tipton, a halfback and devastatingly effective punter.

Trickeration on the phone lines

As you would expect in a game involving a team which hadn’t given up a score all season, the Trojans and Blue Devils played to a 0-0 draw through three quarters. Then Duke made their way into field goal range and kicked through the three points which would put them on top in the fourth quarter.

The USC offense had little joy running against Duke’s stout defensive front and with the clock ticking under two minutes, desperation set in.

For Joe Wilensky at least.

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Wilensky was an assistant for the freshman team. His job on game days was to man the telephone line which connected USC’s assistants spotting the game from up above to the coaches on the sideline.

He had seen the team practice all season and knew that fourth-string quarterback Doyle Nave, who had only played 28 minutes all season because he wasn’t a strong enough runner, punter or defender, had a hell of an arm.

A hell of an arm was exactly what USC needed to unlock the Duke defense.

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There is some dispute about the veracity of this part of the tale, which was first revealed by sportswriter Maxwell Stiles in his 1945 book “The Rose Bowl” and later detailed by Mal Florence in the Los Angeles Times in 1988.

In Stiles’ telling: “Wilensky faked a phone conversation, slams the receiver and yells that the word is to send in Nave…The late Coach Howard Jones made the substitution, to Duke’s everlasting sorrow.”

Fellow freshman assistant Nick Pappas, who passed on the message to put in Nave, later recalled noticing how the assistant coaches who Wilensky had been “speaking with” were already down on the sideline.

“I looked at Wilensky and said ‘Joe, you faked that phone call.’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I told him, ‘Don’t tell anyone.'”

Another telling of the story is more straight forward, with the Trojan assistants up above realizing that passing prowess would be more effective against Duke and calling down to inform the coaches on the sideline to put Nave in.

Whichever story you believe, the outcome was the same.

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 46
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 46 /

The Nave and the Antelope

Nave attempted four passes in his cameo appearance, which was nearly scratched before it began.

It’s not just that Nave’s involvement in the game was always unlikely given his place in the pecking order.

He had slipped in the shower and hit his head on the concrete floor of the Rose Bowl locker rooms before the game began, according to the AP. He needed stitches and had a bandage on his forehead when the coaches called his number.

All four of Nave’s pass attempts went in the direction of backup end Al Krueger.

Krueger would go on to all-conference acclaim in 1940, but in January of 1939 he was a sophomore whose claim to fame had been an exceptional performance against Notre Dame.

He was considered one of USC’s best receiving options thanks to his ability to separate from defenders as well as his strong hands.

Those strong hands were attributed to his years of milking cows while growing up in Antelope Valley. That’s also where the nickname “Antelope Al” originated.

Nave, who took over for future All-American quarterback Grenny Lansdale at the 40-yard line, found “Antelope Al” for a 14-yard gain on his first play.

The second throw to Krueger gained another 10 yards, putting the Trojans inside the 20-yard line with a new set of downs.

Throw number three was less successful. The short pass was completed, but it lost two yards.

There were 40 seconds left on the clock when Nave dropped back for the fourth time.

Before the play, he told Krueger to just get to the endzone. He’d find him.

“I had faded back to about the 31- or 32-yard line and, as soon as he made his move, I threw that damn thing as hard as I could right into the corner,” Nave told the LA Times in 1988. “And he was there.”

Krueger, who had broken free from the Duke All-American Eric Tipton, hauled in the touchdown pass, the first Duke had given up all season, pulling his team ahead with seconds remaining in the game.

“On that touchdown play there was only one thing on my mind. That was that I’d better get down there in a hurry and not drop the ball,” Krueger was quoted by the United Press after the game. “I knew it would be there when I arrived. It always is when Doyle throws ’em.”

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 41
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 41 /

The miracle healing of Dr. Norman Topping

Then-USC chancellor Dr. Norman Topping, who would go on to become the university president, was in the hospital that day, quarantined with a case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, he explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1975.

His temperature was 105 degrees and he was delirious.

“I was dying,” he said. “They’d given up on me.”

He had one last request on what was supposed to be his death bed: a radio to listen to the Trojans play in the Rose Bowl.

At first the hospital staff refused, but eventually they relented.

To say that Nave and Krueger worked a miracle isn’t exactly hyperbole, the way Topping tells it.

“When Nave and Krueger went to work, something remarkable happened,” said Topping. “I got so excited my fever broke. It did what medicine couldn’t.”

When you consider that Nave may have healed the future president of his university, it was the least USC could do to award him a letter for that season, even though his 30 minutes of action were well below the threshold for one.

The miracle also got Nave and Krueger inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1995.

The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 43
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California) · 3 Jan 1939, Tue · Page 43 /

Never lost a Rose Bowl

“We’ve never lost a Rose Bowl game and, by God, we never will,” came the words of Howard Jones before the Trojans took the field against the Blue Devils, according to Krueger.

Jones was right about that.

With that 7-3 victory over Duke on January 2, 1939, he had kept his own undefeated streak in the Rose Bowl alive. It was his fourth win in four appearances.

In 1940, Jones and USC would make it five by repeating their feat of besting an “unbeaten, untied and unscored upon” Tennessee Volunteers squad. Krueger scored a touchdown on that day as well. That time, the victory resulted in a national title for the Trojans and their legendary head man, who thoroughly proved his doubters wrong.

It was to be the final Rose Bowl triumph for Jones, who died of a heart attack in the summer of 1941.