May 23, 2024

One play remained. Rivalry revelry was assured.

UCLA was bludgeoning USC at the Rose Bowl a quarter of a century ago.

Ahead by three scores, taking a knee or running up the middle would have been the humane thing to do, even against those terrible Trojans.

Cade McNown leaned into the huddle and relayed the play. As the clock ticked below 20 seconds, the Bruins quarterback stepped behind center and took the snap. He faked a pitch and took off in the other direction, no one there to protect him.

It was a naked bootleg, and a timeless kick in the rear.

“I mean, I still f— hate Cade McNown,” former USC fullback Petros Papadakis said this week with a hearty laugh.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown hands off to running back Skip Hicks

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown hands off to running back Skip Hicks during first-half action against USC on Nov. 22, 1997, at the Coliseum.

(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

No one on the Trojans’ sideline found any humor in it on that warm afternoon in November 1998. Scrunching his face in disgust, USC coach Paul Hackett yelled for someone to wallop that barbaric Bruin. Safety Rashard Cook finally complied, bringing McNown down at the end of a 23-yard run that completed UCLA’s 34-17 victory in unsavory fashion.

Another party may have been aggrieved. The college football gods seemed to zap the unbeaten Bruins with a thunderbolt of misery based on what would happen during the next 25 years.

The loss to unranked Miami in the “Hurricane Bowl” … the loss to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl game … the unraveling of the team under coach Bob Toledo … the dreadful Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel eras … the early promise under Jim Mora that faded … Chip Kelly never replicating a shred of his mighty Oregon success.

It’s been a blur of disappointment since McNown ran wild. The Bruins haven’t won another conference championship. They’ve never been back to the Rose Bowl game.

Some might call it a terrible confluence of misfortune. Others could say UCLA fell under the Curse of Cade.

“Like the Curse of the Bambino?” McNown said with a chuckle when informed of the premise.

Sports curses are as provable as an afterlife, a fun way for fans and media to explain a baffling series of events. The selling of Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1918 inflicted the Curse of the Bambino on the Boston Red Sox for nearly a century. It required former Bruin outfielder Dave Roberts’ pivotal stolen base against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series to help snap the Red Sox’s 86-year World Series championship drought.

The Curse of the Billy Goat, cast by a tavern owner on the Chicago Cubs in 1945 for the ejection of his pet goat from Wrigley Field, was followed by decades of futility before the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.

There was even a curse crossover when Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, a former Cub, bungled a routine ground ball during the 1986 World Series while wearing a Cubs batting glove under his leather glove.

The Curse of Cade, if one believes in such a thing, started an instantaneous downward spiral for the Bruins from the glory of that rivalry game a quarter of a century ago. UCLA’s DeShaun Foster had starred as a freshman that day, scoring four touchdowns to show the school across town that had recruited him to play defensive back that he was the best running back on the field.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown hands off to running back Skip Hicks during a 1997 game against rival USC.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown hands off to running back Skip Hicks during a 1997 game against rival USC.

(Los Angeles Times )

After the final play (and indignity), McNown leaped into the arms of guard Andy Meyers and flung the ball into the air, celebrating a record eighth consecutive victory over the Trojans.

It was also UCLA’s school-record 20th consecutive victory going back to the 1997 season, clinching a second consecutive Pac-10 title. The Bruins were No. 2 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, possibly needing only a victory over Miami two weeks later to play Tennessee for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl.

They didn’t get it. Or much of anything else worthwhile since.

“After Cade did that and they beat us and the fans were chanting ‘Eight more years!’ and all that,” said Papadakis, now a football analyst and radio host, “they lost to Miami and that was the end of their winning streak and then they lost to Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and then it never recovered itself.”

Watching McNown run deep into the USC secondary after fooling the Trojans, ABC analyst Gary Danielson criticized the quarterback on the broadcast.

“I wonder if he didn’t do that on his own,” Danielson said, “because I’ll tell you what … I think that was a bit of a bush play, to tell you the truth. The game was over, and Cade McNown rubbed it in. … That one will be remembered by the Trojan players in the future.”

McNown said he didn’t go rogue, the play having been called by Toledo. The quarterback intentionally didn’t clue in most of his teammates about the call.

“I didn’t just do it myself,” McNown said, “although when you do a really good quarterback keep, you’ll only tell the running back because you want the team blocking for that running back. The only reason you tell the running back is because you don’t want him to go, ‘Where’s the ball?’ or try and take it out of your hands. So you really sell the run the opposite way when you don’t even tell your linemen. So it appears as if I was making the call — I was not.”

Toledo confirmed as much this week, saying he just wanted to keep the clock moving.

“It was just one of those things,” said the long-retired coach, now 77. “I had a gut feeling, like I did on a lot of trick or special plays, and I told him, ‘Call the sweep play but keep it.’ So it looked so realistic to ‘SC that they all chased the ball and he was able to run around right end.”

McNown also disputed the notion that he was rubbing it in, saying teams played hard to the end of games back then.

“Running a smart play and keeping it on the ground, that’s not the worst thing,” McNown said. “I would say it was still in the realm of politeness.”

The broadcast having shown Toledo yukking it up with Hackett before the game, there was a different tenor between the old neighbors and colleagues — they had both worked as USC assistants under John Robinson in the late 1970s — afterward.

“He wasn’t happy about it,” Toledo said of Hackett’s reaction to the final play, “but it was one of those things.”

Happier days loomed for the Bruins. At 10-0 for the first time since 1946, they were off to play Miami in a road game that had been originally scheduled for September before Hurricane Georges blew in and UCLA blew off the idea of rescheduling it.

But facing the prospect of getting leapfrogged in the BCS standings, UCLA players ultimately voted to play the Hurricanes on Dec. 5 at the Orange Bowl.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown tries to brush off defenders during a game against rival USC in 1997.

UCLA quarterback Cade McNown tries to brush off defenders during a game against rival USC in 1997.

(Los Angeles Times)

Some might say the Bruins were cursed before kickoff. A large swath of the team had wanted to wear black wristbands in protest of Proposition 209, a state constitutional amendment that prohibited affirmative action in state programs and university admissions

Toledo told his players no and they acquiesced through a team vote, leading to speculation that the Bruins were divided when they took the field.

“I was for the kids,” Toledo said this week, “my only thing to them was I don’t think we should use this platform to do that. If you want to do that, do it on campus like a regular student and do what you have to do. I didn’t want to do that with our football team. Whether that had anything to do with what happened, who knows?”

Strange happenings abounded in the game. Observers thought the defense was too distracted by the wristband controversy given its slipshod tackling. Regardless, UCLA appeared to have put away unranked Miami after taking a 38-21 lead late in the third quarter.

The Bruins then fumbled twice, though one by receiver Brad Melsby at the Miami 26 with 3:24 left would have been overturned had instant replay been in use at the time. Replay also would have erased a touchdown by Miami’s Edgerrin James in which he stepped out of bounds.

“We would have won if they wouldn’t have called a fumble that wasn’t a fumble,” said Foser, now UCLA’s running backs coach. “You can’t have your knee down on the ground and fumble the football.”

UCLA was left with a crushing 49-45 defeat, not to mention taunts of “Roooose Bowl … Roooose Bowl” from outside their locker room.

The Bruins were headed home to play in their home stadium in the New Year’s Day bowl game staged on their home field … and it felt like a massive letdown. They certainly played like it during a 38-31 loss to Wisconsin in which the Badgers’ Ron Dayne rolled up 246 rushing yards and four touchdowns.

McNown’s time as a Bruin was over. So was UCLA’s moment of glory.

The curse caught up with its creator again shortly after he left campus, the quarterback found to have been among a group of players who fraudulently obtained handicapped parking placards. It was part of a series of player transgressions — along with four consecutive losses to USC — that led to Toledo’s dismissal in 2002.

A series of successors could do nothing to vanquish the curse. The Bruins eventually reached the Pac-12 title game twice — losing both times — while cycling through four more coaches amid a largely uninspiring run of Sun, Alamo, Holiday and Las Vegas bowls, never again resembling McNown’s teams.

“The fact of the matter is, we did something pretty special those two years,” McNown said. “You could argue we gobbled up a lot of good luck in a short period of time.”

There’s no disputing it’s been in short supply ever since. UCLA (6-4 overall, 3-4) is bound for another mid-tier bowl regardless of the outcome of its game against USC (7-4, 5-3) on Saturday at the Coliseum, with Kelly possibly coaching to save his job.

The Bruins are already searching for another McNown, who spent four seasons in the NFL before going on to work in private equity and being inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2020.

Meanwhile, time having eroded his bitterness, Papadakis said his feelings have softened toward those hated rivals who dominated the Trojans a quarter of a century ago.

Well, except for the one whose hubris may have inadvertently cursed his own team.

“Cade was unbelievably good and unbelievably arrogant and we hated him and I still don’t like him,” Papadakis said. “I recognize now that it’s all just kind of human theater that we kind of create for ourselves in these moments.”

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