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Duel in the rain and sun
Rich Linde, 15 August 2011

Forget Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Their duel almost pales in comparison to a 46 year-old dustup that featured the gun-slinging Wyatt Earp (Jim Owens) versus the wily, poker-playing Doc Holliday (Tommy Prothro).

The six-year rivalry between Jim Owens at Washington and Tommy Prothro at UCLA is one of the most intense confrontations in the history of what is known today as the Pac-12 conference, especially considering it was not an inner-city or in-state hostility.

Owens coached at Washington from 1957 to 1974, compiling a 99-82-6 record.  Prothro coached UCLA from 1965 until 1970, going 41-18-3. Prior to the head-coaching job at UCLA, Prothro coached ten years at Oregon State and took the Beavers to the 1958 Rose Bowl. Owens was 5-3 against Prothro at Oregon State; however, his  personal duel with him didn't heat up until Prothro took over the UCLA coaching job in 1965.

While at UCLA, Protho's teams appeared in one Rose Bowl game, beating Michigan State 14-12 in 1965. Owens' teams beat Wisconsin and Minnesota in back-to-back appearances in the Rose Bowl (1960 and 1961) and lost to Illinois in the 1964 Rose Bowl.

Although Jim Owens inherited a team on probation for booster irregularities in 1957, he is the only Rose Bowl winning coach at Washington whose tenure was not marred by sanctions meted out for violations of NCAA and/or conference rules and bylaws.

Tommy Prothro is the only coach in the history of the conference to have coached two Heisman Trophy winners, each at a different conference school: Terry Baker (1963) at Oregon State and Gary Beban (1967) at UCLA.

During Prothro's stint at UCLA, Owens and Prothro met six times, splitting the encounters, three apiece.

On the football field, they presented markedly contrasting images, which mirrored their style of play.

With his strong jaw and rugged handsomeness, Owens looked like he'd just stepped off a Hollywood movie set rather than from a locker room. Dressed in a suit and tie, fedora, and thick black framed glasses, while carrying a leather briefcase, Prothro looked more like he'd just stepped out of a business meeting at IBM rather than onto a football field.

Prothro was an excellent bridge player and a keen tactician and strategist on the football field.

As an assistant coach at Texas A & M, Owens had been trained by Bear Bryant, having participated in the infamous training camp at Junction, Texas. (See "The Montlake Boys").

Prothro coached at UCLA when the team was known as the "gutty little Bruins." His teams were not as physical as their opponents and had to rely on Prothro's wiliness, strategy and chicanery to win games.  Prothro emphasized teamwork, a solid game plan, and an assortment of trick plays. His teams outsmarted and "out-gutted" their more physically-gifted opponents.

In contrast, Owens' teams played hard-nosed football, were superbly conditioned and, in many ways, resembled the teams fielded by Washington's legendary coach Gilmour Dobie, whose Purple and Gold relied on blocking, tackling and the dreaded off-tackle slant.

The Z Streak in 1965: "I'm not sure how kosher that play was."

In preparing for the 1965 game in Los Angeles, the wily Prothro devised a trick play, later known as the Z Streak, in which an end broke the offensive huddle prematurely -- seemingly with the intent of leaving the field -- trotted toward the sideline and stopped a foot short. The dynamics of the Washington defensive huddle -- with all eleven heads bowed -- meant the defensive players would likely be oblivious to the end who stood a foot short of the sideline.

With Washington leading 24-21 in the third quarter and UCLA in possession of the ball on its 40, Prothro called the infamous play. Looking at the UW defensive huddle, Bruins' end Dick Witcher waited for the eleven UW heads to drop down, then broke quickly toward the sideline. On a quick snap, Gary Beban connected with the streaking Witcher on a 60-yard touchdown play; the Bruins won 28-24.

Ralph Winters, Washington's senior safety, admitted he hadn't seen Witcher come out of the huddle. "Just as the play started, I saw him. I took off. It was no use."

After the game, Owens wondered if the play was "Kosher," and vowed to have a "competitive game" the next year.

The revenge game in 1966: 'The mills of the gods grind slowly.'

Devoting his entire season to beating Prothro, Owens' Huskies upset the then third-ranked Bruins, 16-3, in the rain and mud in Seattle. In effect, the victory knocked UCLA (9-1) out of the Rose Bowl.

After the game, a water-soaked Owens, who was thrown in the shower fully clothed, remarked, "The mills of the gods grind slowly," referring to the defeat in Los Angeles the previous year, "but they didn't grind so slowly this year."

Payback in Los Angeles in 1967: the Huskies never crossed the 50-yard line.

Behind a stout defense, the Bruins walloped the Dawgs 48-0 in Los Angeles. Up to that point in time, it marked Owens worst defeat at Washington.

Washington's feckless offense managed to get as far as its own 46-yard line, but no farther.

Payback in Seattle in 1968, "Our offense was a direct adaption of Tennessee's."

Led by quarterback Gene Willis, Washington beat UCLA, 6-0, in Seattle. Willis led the Huskies to their only touchdown, after the opening kickoff, on a 75-yard, 11-play drive. Willis said he'd learned what to do by watching movies of the football game in which the Tennessee Volunteers had dismantled the Bruins, 42-18.

"Our offense was a direct adaption of Tennessee's," Willis said.

UW defensive back Al Worley intercepted his fourteenth pass of the season, still an NCAA record.

The game was played on Astroturf, which had been installed just before the beginning of the season.

Racial unrest in 1969: "I want to collect my thoughts."

Washington's team tripped to Los Angeles minus twelve 12 black members (four who were suspended plus eight who skipped the trip because of threats against them and their families).

The Huskies lost 57-14, being intercepted eight times and losing two fumbles.

After the game, Owens said he wanted to collect his thoughts before meeting with the football team on Monday, normally a Sunday event, but not always.

Owens was clearly moved by the 200 well-wishers who greeted the team at the airport.

See "'Scoreboard, Baby' fumbles boycott."

The revenge game in 1970: "We couldn't even leave the huddle right."

Seeking revenge for its 57-14 shellacking at the hands of UCLA the previous year, Washington beat UCLA 61-20.

It was a game in which Washington went for a two-point conversion with a 54-12 lead, following with an on-side kick.

His legendary briefcase in hand, the bespectacled Prothro said he was surprised by the water-downed field, and that it hurt them. "We couldn't even leave the huddle right," he added.

"Our defenders slipped on the wet turf," he said, commenting on Sonny Sixkiller's long bombs in the first quarter on which his receivers had beaucoup yards of daylight. Sonny brought a pistol to the fray and finished with a canon, completing 18 of 35 passes for 273 yards, 3 touchdowns, against 2 picks.

On a pass interference call against the Blue, Prothro threw his hat down in disgust. After the game, when asked about the incident, he quipped, "The hat just fell out of my hand and sailed a few feet."

It was a day when linebacker Jim Katsenes intercepted Dennis Dummit in the fourth quarter and lumbered it back 86 yards for a touchdown, head-faking Dummit, the last man in the way to the goal line.

Senior Bob Burmeister, the defensive player of the game, blocked two try-for-point attempts.

Owens said the goal for the Huskies was to score more than the 57 points the Bruins ran up on them the previous year, and they did: 61 points. "Last year they caught us short-handed and poured it on, and we were looking to reciprocate," Owens said.


Owens gave up coaching after the 1974 season. He passed away on June 6, 2009, at the age of 82.

After his tenure at UCLA, Prothro coached the Los Angeles Rams (1971-72) and San Diego Chargers (1974-1978). He died at the age of 74, on May 14, 1995.       

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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