- Greg Katz, Columnist, WeAreSC.com
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LOS ANGELES -- They are a special cardinal and gold fraternity that few can claim membership, yet their contributions have helped the USC football program to seven national championships in the modern era.
Other than probably Kalil, they’re mostly obscure former USC Trojans football players who played the selfless position of center on national championship football teams. Such is the life of one of football’s least appreciated positions.
With the Trojans in search of a starting center heading into 2014 spring practice, candidates like redshirt freshman Khaliel Rodgers and true freshman Toa Lobendahn might draw inspirations from those past snappers that became vital cogs in national championships runs.
In the early 1960s, Larry Sagouspe (6-foot, 224 pounds) was a Chaffey College transfer and a former offensive guard out of Chino High. There were a number of high profile offers coming Sagouspe’s way out of Chaffey College, but thanks to a connection, No. 55 found his way to Troy and eventual team success.
In his junior season, the little known Sagouspe evolved into a linchpin on coach John McKay’s first national championship team in 1962. You know the one that featured offensive firepower like Hall of Fame receiver Hal Bedsole, quarterbacks Pete Beathard and Bill Nelsen, receiver Willie Brown, and offensive tackle Marv Marinovich. Sagouspe was one of those invisible role players, yet he became a major contributor to McKay’s title run.
Another no-name center who shortly followed Sagouspe was Dick Allmon, the pride and joy of La Jolla (Calif.) High. In 1967, Allmon (6-1, 230) wasn’t a household name on McKay’s second national championship club, which included the offensive likes of All-American tailback O.J. Simpson, receiver Earl “The Pearl” McCullouch, and All-American tackle Ron Yary. In fact during Allmon’s final two seasons, all his teams did were go a combined 19-2-1 with two Rose Bowl appearances.
Allmon, however, will always be remembered for contributing to the most famous play in USC Trojans history -- 23 blast. When Simpson, then a junior, went on his historic, fourth-quarter 64-yard touchdown against UCLA, it was Allmon that laid a key block on Bruins All-America linebacker Don Manning, who was knocked backward, allowing Simpson to dash into the blue and gold secondary.
Many consider the 1972 USC Trojans as arguably the greatest college football team of all-time. The names on McKay’s third national title are legendary. There was fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, tailback Anthony “AD” Davis, tight end Charles “The Tree” Young, and All-America sophomore linebacker Richard “Batman” Wood.
Center Dave Brown does not fit in that legendary group. Yet talk to members of that championship team, and they all have the utmost respect for Brown, who hailed from Eagle Rock (Calif.) High in suburban Los Angeles.
Like his national championship center predecessor’s, Brown was not a physical specimen (6-0, 229), but there was an intenseness and intelligence that translated into major leadership material.
Before the 1972 Trojans went on their historic 12-0 run, the season before they were a modest 6-4-1. Brown organized a Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, and it seemed to galvanize his teammates for their extraordinary run for McKay’s third national title. Brown’s leadership skills were eventually recognized by being named the Trojans 1972 Most Inspirational Player.
Two seasons later in 1974, the Trojans captured yet another national title. The center on that McKay team was buried underneath star-power names like tailback Anthony Davis, receiver Lynn Swann, linebacker Richard Wood, and the quarterback and receiving tandem of Pat Haden and J.K. McKay.
The center? A guy named Bob McCaffrey, once a celebrated prep lineman out of Bakersfield (Calif.) Garces High.
Despite others receiving more acclaim along the offensive line, McCaffrey (6-2, 240) was named the 1974 USC Lineman of the Year by the coaching staff. And by the way, McCaffrey was the center for the Trojans unforgettable 1974 comeback 55-24 victory over Notre Dame in the Coliseum, helping lead touchdown charges in the Trojans’ famous sweep play.
Then there were the 1978 national champions under John Robinson. Another star-studded team filled with talent like of All-American tailback Charles White, All-America quarterback Paul McDonald and stud offensive linemen like guards Pat Howell and Brad Budde and tackle Anthony Munoz. Being the center on that 12-1 club was like being the doorman at The Ritz.
Does the name Chris Foote ring a Mudd Tower bell?
The importance of Foote (6-4, 250) was never more evident as when he was out of the Arizona State game because of an ankle injury. The Trojans proceeded to fumble the snap on six occasions and lost the ball four times, which lead to 13 Arizona State points that turned into the difference in a 20-7 loss.
Foote’s eventual return propelled the Trojans back into the national championship hunt.
The 2003 Trojans won the national championship under Pete Carroll and had a slew of future pros, including quarterback Matt Leinart, wide receiver Mike Williams, defensive tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson and linebacker Lofa Tatupu.
But perhaps you’ve forgotten that center Norm Katnik (6-4, 280) was in the middle of an offensive line that also featured All-American tackle Jacob Rogers. As for Katnik, he was a finalist for the Rimington Award and was a third-year starter. Although he is somewhat a forgotten man on that championship unit, his contributions continued right through the Trojans’ victory over Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl.
An outstanding student, Katnik was the epitome of brains and brawn.
The Trojans had a new center in 2004, but that didn’t stop them from winning the BCS national championship, clobbering Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, 55-19. With basically the same cast of national championship characters from the previous season, the only one real change was at center. Enter a sophomore named Ryan Kalil, who later become not only an All-American but went on to become the highest paid center in the NFL.
Talk about a rags to riches story, the unheralded Kalil recalled the 2004 season by telling the Los Angeles Times, “That was my first year starting. I was just trying to make sure I didn't screw that up."
Kalil went from not trying to screw it up to arguably the greatest center in the history of USC football.
There have been other centers that were valued members of successful Trojans teams like Paul Johnson (1965), who blocked for the Trojans first Heisman Trophy winner, tailback Mike Garrett. You can also add to list of standout centers All-American Tony Slaton (1983) and Khaled Holmes (2012). While all not starters on national championship teams, they all were successful foot soldiers of their offensive lines.
If the Trojans are going to rise again in the national or Pac-12 title picture, they’ll need to have a center of attention and that new search begins in days.