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Friday, March 2, 2007

Catching up with Ron Fletcher, USC '54-'56 (part 3)



The Ron Fletcher Interview (part 3 of 3)

Without learning about our past, we don’t appreciate the present and have no hopes for the future. That is why we have to thank Ron Fletcher for letting Brooks interview him. We’ve gotten a glimpse into a USC that most of us had no idea about. We’ve read things and learned things of a time long gone by, but in a sense, it wasn’t that long ago, and we can relate because it is about USC and USC football, and that is our connection. We, as fans, love the University of Southern California football Trojans, and others of us love the University of Southern California for the university that it was and that it’s become. Again, we thank Ron for sharing with us what it was like to be a student-athlete at USC fifty years ago, so we can compare his experiences with the young men who commit to play at USC today, as they strap on the cardinal and gold for three, four and five years, and who leave their blood, sweat and tears on the Coliseum turf. Once that football is hiked, and the fans are cheering, and the adrenaline’s pumping, there really is no difference whether Jon Arnett is carrying the ball for the Trojans or if it’s Chauncey Washington. A Trojan football player is special, fifty years ago or now, and we celebrate being Trojans, and cheering for Trojans, and we cherish those who donned the uniform of the Trojans. A big Fight On to Ron for this interview, and thanks to Brooks also for making this happen.

The Ron Fletcher interview concludes below:

You played all three years under Jess Hill. What kind of man was he? How do the coaching staffs of then compare in general with those of today in terms of number of staff and specialization? Do think the change in coaching style and methods of modern times has made football different?

Jess Hill was a gentleman, always in a coat and tie. He did not interact much with the players and was more of an administrator. He was a great athlete having lettered in 1928 and ‘29 as a halfback for the Thundering Herd teams under Howard Jones. He led the Pacific Coast Conference as a ball carrier in 1929 with an 8.2 yard average. He was the first Trojan to long jump 25 feet in the IC-4A with a jump of 25' 7/8". In 1930, he led the college baseball league hitting .389. He had a 10 year career in major league and Triple A baseball with a .306 lifetime batting average.

He replaced Dean Cromwell as track coach at USC in 1949 and won 2 NCAA track championships in 1949 and 1950. In 1951, he was elevated to head football coach. (photo right: Jess Hill, USC football coach) He had very little experience as a football coach and thus relied on George Ceithmal to run the offense and Don Clark to run the defense. Jess Hill’s football coaching record at USC was 45-17 and 1.

During 1954 to ’56 when I played at USC, we had 2 backfield coaches George Ceithmal and Nick Pappas who coached all the backs on offense and defense. George was a Michigan grad and brought the Michigan offense to USC. The offense was called the multiple offense as we ran both the single wing and T with an unbalanced line. George was an outsider compared to all the other coaches who were USC grads. When Hill retired George went into private business. Nick was the assistant backfield coach. He was an USC grad playing for Howard Jones in 1935, ’36 & ‘37. When Hill retired, Nick took over the Trojan Club and was very important to the success of the Trojan clubs during the McKay years. He was very close to Don Clark.

We had 3 line coaches; Bill Fisk handled the ends, Don Clark the guards and Mel Hein the centers and tackles. They coached the lineman on both offense and defense. Don was also the defensive coordinator. He had played for Jeff Cravath in 1942, ’46 & ’47at USC. He played for the Forty Niners in 1948 & ‘49 and began coaching at Navy in 1950 and came back to USC in 1951. Don was the best coach on the staff. He was very competitive and loved to play racketball and basketball with the players. He was Marv Goux's mentor and he brought Marv in as the freshman coach in 1957. Don resigned to run the family business in 1959. Mel Hein was the coach of the tackles and centers. Mel went to Washington State and began his pro career with New York Giants in 1931. He retired in 1945 and is considered the all-time best center in NFL history. Mel coached at USC from 1951 to 1965. He was very low key and personable but a much better player than coach. Bill “Scrap Iron” Fisk coached the ends. He was a nice guy, always with a smile. He had a bad shoulder and that is where his nickname came from. He played for Howard Jones in 1935, ‘6 & ’7. He coached at USC from 1949 to 1956. With Hill’s retirement, he went into private business. His son Bill Jr. was an All American guard in 1964 and has been the coach of Mt.Sac Junior College.

Jesse Mortensen was the freshman coach and played for Howard Jones in 1928 & ’29. Jesse was another great athlete. One of only three men to win an NCAA track title as a participant and coach. He won the 1929 NCAA javelin title and set a world record in the decathlon in 1931. He also won All American honors in basketball in 1930. His track teams won 7 NCAA titles in 11 years. He died in February in 1962 and was replaced by Jess Hill as Track coach for that year.

As I look back this staff was not made up of football coaches dedicated to coaching football they were more dedicated to the University of Southern California and returned to help out as needed. Most of them left football coaching with Hills’ retirement. They were all influenced by Howard Jones and they taught us that Trojans played a tough and very physical game. Don Clark through Marv Goux and Nick Pappas with his role in the Trojan Club carried the Jones’ legacy forward. When Goux and Pappas left the legacy ended. But, that legacy has now has been resurrected by Pete Carroll.

The coaching staff was average at best and most of the staffs we played against were better as they were dedicated to coaching football as their life’s work. McKay rebuilt the staff to be a power through hiring very good dedicated assistants.

Many of the Herders and Trojan Fans in general never saw a Trojan game where the players played both ways. Many of today’s players did it in HS but that is different in doing it in Division 1 football. Could you comment on the demands on a football player going both ways as it relates to athleticism and endurance or general toughness? Do you think the game was better then because of it?

I don't think in watching a game where the players played both ways you would see any difference than watching a two platoon game. Since most of us were very good players in HS we were used to playing both ways so there was no change for us. The coaches substituted often enough so hardly anyone played over 30 minutes. With two platoons you play twenty two people and we basically played twenty two people also just in a different time frame. Some players who were very good on one side of the ball and not the other were at a big disadvantage. Goux was one of them. Some of the QB 's also had trouble because they were a little more specialized. Some of the QB’s who can throw can’t run so they struggled on defense.

We basically set up on defense in an eight man front with three deep. The offensive ends played defensive end the offensive tackles lined defensively up on the tackle or end and the offensive guards defensively over the guards. The Quarterback was usually the deep safety in the middle and the two halfbacks were the outside deep backs. The center and fullback were the linebackers.

As far as kickers they got little playing time although there were some who were good but would be saved for special situations. Otherwise, the Quarterback or halfbacks handled the punting and kicking duties. The biggest problem was logistically trying to track the substitutions by the coaches and officials.

I really don't see any physical difference in playing both ways but obviously you had more to learn about you assignments as you were in on offense, defense and special teams. The biggest changes have been rule changes that protect the players and have given the passing game more advantages. When we played it was much more physical and the running game much more sophisticated. Offensive lineman were at an extreme disadvantage in pass blocking as they had to keep their hands in against there chest. Also we saw a lot more variances in offense and defensive alignments and styles. The current ones are much more refined and specialized.

It is generally conceded that today’s football players are better than they were in 1956 because they are bigger and faster. Are there intangibles the experts aren't considering? Having played then and being involved as a coach and an informed fan for all these years, in short having watched the game evolve, could you comment on the difference in today’s player and those you played with?

Today’s players are bigger and stronger but they are not faster and better. They are bigger because the population has gotten bigger and stronger due to better training methods. Athletic ability, instincts, knowledge and hard work makes great players. The players in 1956 were faster, smarter about the game and had some skills that today’s players don't.

When we were growing up Track and Field was a very big sport and as a result more kids ran and participated in track. (photo left: Jon Arnett running against Notre Dame. Ron Fletcher, #70, blocks a Domer defender) Jefferson High School had 30 kids who cold run 23 seconds for 200 meters. The three fastest people on my high school team were tackles who could run between 10 to 10.4 for a 100 yards. In fact one went on to run the quarter mile in 47 seconds flat and was the California State JC champion.

We were smarter about the game because we organized and coached ourselves until we got into HS. When I began coaching in the early ‘60's and kids had started playing Pop Warner and Little League we found they knew very little about the game!! Why? Very simple, the adult coaches thought for them and told them what to do. Same as when you go to store today where the clerk relies on the register. Hand them a $10 and wait for them to figure out what the bill is if the register is down.

Our skill level was higher because we played all sports and especially in football for having grown up on touch football. The game was all about throwing, catching and making people miss. Most of the good running backs in that era could make tacklers look silly. They ran like Reggie with less speed.

Today’s game is much more specialized and hence the players are good at what they do. When we played there was a lot more variation in the offensive and defensive systems. In HS and college we played against the following Offensive Systems: Single Wing, Double Wing, Spread, "T" formation, Split "T", Pro 'T" and the Multiple Offense that combined the Single Wing and "T" formation. On top of that, the offenses were run with balanced and unbalanced lines. On defense we saw two basic sets: 8 and 7 man fronts. In 8 man fronts they played a 6 - 2 - 3 , a 4 - 4 - 3, or a 5 - 3 - 3. In the 7 man front we saw 5 - 2 - 4 or a 4 - 3 - 4.

All the great players of yesteryear would dominate today because of their overall athletic skill. Jess Hill long jumped 25 feet in 1929. C.R. Roberts and Arnett long jumped 24 1/2 half feet in 1956. How many of today’s players jump 25 feet? Bill Russell high jumped 6"10" in 1956 and ran a quarter mile in 50 seconds. Wilt threw the shot over 50 yards and ran a quarter mile under 50 seconds! Could Shaq do that?

Just my 2 cents worth !!!!!!!

When you were at USC, Julie’s was in it's heyday. Do you have any memories of Julie’s you could share with us?

Julie’s was an upscale place for us while in school and not a regular hangout. Stubbies, Trojan Barrell and the 901 were the hangouts. For steaks we went to Chris' on Vermont and Carl's for Burgers.

I do have one memorable story from Julie’s. In the spring of 1956 after Leon Clark had been drafted by the Rams in the first round, he and I went to Julie's for cocktail hour. After 3 or 4 drinks apiece we went back to the fraternity house for dinner. One of the traditions at the house was to swat you if you were out of line with a big leather paddle, it did smart. If you did not accept the punishment the brothers would throw you in the Kappa Delta pond across the street. We refused the swat and they took us across the street but don't remember if they got us in the pond. They ran back to the house and shut and locked the front door. Leon and I took off from the curb shoulder to shoulder and hit the door knocking out the door jam. We couldn't get in as the brothers were up against it after multiple attempts by us they vacated the area. When we hit the door it flew open and we flew across the foyer and hit the wall headfirst. Leon had a bad head from his sophomore year when he was driving downtown and a flagpole fell 6 stories off the Federal building and hit him in the head. His car was a Buick convertible. It would have killed anyone else. From that time on he easily got concussions. He was out!!!

We called the ambulance and he spent three days in Good Samaritan Hospital with his head packed in ice!!!

We were anything but angels and I am truly glad we were not in school today. There are many stories I could tell but that is for another time. Our fraternity was on probation three times for incidents. Just a few teasers:

-One football player filled a convertible with the top down with sand!
-One football player climbed out on ledge on the 6th floor of the Town House Hotel to get into a teammates room to short sheet him!
-For our annual fraternity Luau we bought 26 cases of Rum. Dr Sample would have a stroke.

-We had an exact replica situation of the Duke Lacrosse team case in our fraternity. Good for probation but not as damaging as Duke’s to the brothers.
-A couple of football players went our stag one better. They rented a hall, hired some girls and sold tickets on the row. It was well attended!

Julie's became much more famous during the John McKay era as that was his and his coach's hangout.

Finally, can you tell us of your role in the formation of the Thundering Herd support group?

I really had nothing to do with the actual formation of the Herd. But the inspiration to form the group came as a result of a conversation that I had with Brooks in Fallbrook in February of 2001.

At the time I was living in Ohio and was in the process of relocating to California after moving there in 1967. I had made the decision to locate in Southern Orange or Northern San Diego counties. In the late ‘90's I had begun to use the computers to follow Trojan Football as there was no information in Ohio. I stumbled on to Fight On and then the TFO board. I noticed that Brooks lived in Fallbrook and since I was interested in Fallbrook I made arrangements to visit him as I had never been to Fallbrook.

My son and I drove down to his house and he told me about Fallbrook. After that we got on the subject of USC Football and I told him about my career at USC and my war stories about my playing days. We got into a discussion about the state of Trojan Football, the lack of fan support and how I really had been upset with the team as it had not played Trojan Football since Marv Goux left. To me Trojan Football was a very aggressive style in which you dominated PHYSICALLY!!! After Marv left, every time I saw a game the lineman were always getting manhandled and knocked backward. I explained how Trojan Football had been handed down from the Howard Jones "Thundering Herd era" and carried on by Marv thru the McKay years. As for the fans, I just could not see how they could turn on the players and BOO them. Needless to say I had a very poor opinion of the fan base.

With those two thoughts Brooks took the ideas and in conjunction with SurfEagle and others on the message boards, they developed the "HERD" idea.

It has given me great pleasure to see the return of Trojan Football during the last six years. But best of all the fan base has turned around and become a big part of the success.

Doing this USCHerdblog has been a good experience as it has helped me more fully understand my Trojan career. It is the first time I have looked at the coaching situation and truthfully evaluated it. It was a staff made up of people loyal to USC rather than a group of professional football coaches dedicated to the coaching profession. I have never heard of that before.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my views and FIGHT ON.

Old # 70

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