As UCLA’s Bruins get ready to play in the post season for the 31st time, I thought I’d give Bruin Nation and the UCLA community some good memories and list my choices for the best ten players to ever put on football pads in Westwood.
I based my choices not only on how they performed while they wore blue and gold, but also took their post-Bruin careers – namely the NFL – into consideration with the exception of one man.
As I composed this list, I found myself wishing that these guys still had college eligibility, as the Bruins sure could have used these people the past few years.
OK, no more dawdling: here’s my top ten list, in descending order, with videos for some of them:
10. GASTON GREEN, running back, 1984-1987
It’s impossible to leave this guy off this list, as he is UCLA’s all-time rushing leader with a grand total of 3,731 yards on the ground and was a big factor in the Bruins’ glory days of that period, winning a bowl game every year, including a Rose Bowl and a Fiesta Bowl over the big, bad Miami Hurricanes during his days in Westwood.
He was an All-American in ’87, and the 20 games he played where he rushed for at least 100 yards is a UCLA record that still stands. Plus he had a decent NFL career that lasted six years, mostly with the Los Angeles Rams.
9. BOB WATERFIELD, quarterback, 1941-1942, 1944
This was the original Golden Boy, UCLA’s star during the World War II years who led the Bruins to their first conference title and, more importantly, their first Rose Bowl in 1943 after beating USC for the first time and winning the PCC championship in the 1942 season.
He was the first Bruin to pass for 300 yards in a game, against Idaho in ’42, but it was in the NFL where he became a star as he not only led the NFL in TD passes for the Rams in 1945 and ’46, and led the league in passing again in 1951, he also had 20 career interceptions.
His election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1965, the first Bruin to accomplish that feat, was a mere formality.
And his Golden Boy status was solidified when he married legendary Hollywood box-office bombshell Jane Russell, as their marriage was comparable to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie today.
8. JONATHAN OGDEN, offensive tackle, 1992-1995
Without a doubt, this was the greatest offensive lineman in UCLA history, one of only two Bruins to ever win the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best on the offensive front.
He capped off his career in blue and gold by not allowing a sack in his senior season, and allowing only one sack during his last two years in Westwood combined, winning consensus All-American honors in 1995 and going on to a career with the Baltimore Ravens, who selected him in the first round (the fourth pick overall) after winning UPI Lineman of the Year.
Ogden was a ten-time All-Pro with the Ravens and won a Super Bowl ring with them in 2001, but his crowning achievement along with that was his #79 jersey being retired by the Bruins, one of only eight so honored.
7. KENNY WASHINGTON, halfback, 1937-1939
If I omitted this man from this list, I would have committed a cardinal sin (no pun intended) as this was UCLA’s first ever All-American in football who was one of the guys who put the Bruins on the map.
Not only did he lead the nation in total offense in 1939, helping UCLA to its first undefeated season, and set a school career rushing record – 1,914 – that stood for 34 years, Washington, along with teammate Woody Strode, broke the NFL’s color line with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, a year before another certain African American did the same thing in baseball.
He also led the Bruins in passing for three years running in addition to his rushing prowess – how great was that?
Plus he made the College Football Hall of Fame and had his #13 jersey retired.
6. GARY BEBAN, quarterback, 1965-1967
UCLA’s only Heisman Trophy winner, capturing that award in 1967, I would be really dumb to not have Beban on this list as he led the team in total offense during all three of his years behind center, led the Bruins to their first ever post-season victory over top-ranked Michigan State in the Rose Bowl in 1966, was a consensus All-American in ’67, and like Washington is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and has his #16 jersey retired.
Admittedly, his numbers at quarterback weren’t too hot compared with the numbers that the top signal-callers put up today – he never threw for ten touchdowns in a season – but it’s obvious, from all the accolades Beban got, that his intangibles were off the charts; he didn’t overwhelm you with a rocket arm, he just won.
Here’s a video of him talking about his UCLA days…
5. JERRY ROBINSON, linebacker, 1976-1978
No UCLA Bruin made more tackles than this man during a career (468) or a single season (161); he is one of only two players in Westwood to win consensus All-America three times, which is not only the first time a Bruin achieved that honor, it’s the first time that any Pac-10 player was picked as a unanimous All-American and the first time anyone achieved that feat since SMU’s Doak Walker from 1947-49.
If that’s not a significant feat, then I don’t know the meaning of significant.
This standout has the top three spots in tackling opponents at UCLA as well as the single season mark, and went on to a 13-year career with the NFL’s Eagles and Raiders, reaching the Super Bowl with Philadelphia in 1981 after being selected in the first round by them in ’79.
Oh, and his #84 jersey was retired by the Bruins, a complete formality there.
4. CADE McNOWN, quarterback, 1995-1998
This is another painfully obvious choice for this list as this left-hander is UCLA’s all-time leader in:
- Passing yardage with 10,708, which set the Pac-10 record and still ranks third,
- Total offense with 11,285 yards, which is still the Pac-10 mark,
- Touchdown passes with 68, and…
- Single game passing yardage with a whopping 513 against Miami in 1998, finishing third in the Heisman Trophy race that year.
McNown led the Bruins to a school record 20 consecutive wins in 1997 and ’98 and – most pleasing to Bruin Nation – is the only signal caller to beat USC four straight years.
If his pro career – he was picked by the Chicago Bears in the first round in ’99 – was anything like his UCLA career, this redhead would have perfect.
3. KENNY EASLEY, free safety, 1977-1980
If I was to pick one single defensive player as the greatest in Bruin football history, Kenny Easley would be the clear choice.
Along with Jerry Robinson, Easley is the other three-time consensus All-American in UCLA and Pac-10 history, intercepting 19 passes during his four years as a starter in the Bruins’ defensive backfield, more than anyone who ever put on pads in Westwood.
He’s also the only four-time defensive all Pac-10 performer in history, who was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Seahawks (#4 overall) and enjoyed seven seasons with them, making five Pro Bowls, being selected as an NFL All-Pro four times, and was chosen as the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1984.
And what is yet another total formality, his #5 jersey was retired.
2. TROY AIKMAN, quarterback, 1987-1988
Many Bruin fans, I reckon, would pick Cade McNown as the best signal caller in UCLA history due to the huge numbers he put up, but I have to respectfully disagree.
If this transfer from Oklahoma played four years instead of just two for the Bruins, his numbers would have matched McNown’s if not passed them.
Aikman’s .648 completion percentage is still the highest in school history, as his 32 completions against USC in 1988.
He threw for 39 scores in his two years in Westwood on his way to consensus All-American honors and a third place Heisman Trophy finish in ’88, and led the Bruins to a 20-4 record during that time, his only blemish being losing to USC and getting denied the chance to play in the Rose Bowl in ’87 and ’88.
The fact that he was picked first overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and led them to three Super Bowl titles in a four-year span during his 12 year career wearing that big blue star on that gray helmet clinches his #2 spot and my choice of him as UCLA’s greatest quarterback here.
Plus he resides in two football halls of fame, being elected to the college version in 2008 and the pro version in 2006.
That’s why I rate him above McNown.
This choice for the best football player that the UCLA Bruins ever had may be met with a little disagreement with some people, but it’s for more than what he did on the gridiron that lead me to picking this great man:
1. JACKIE ROBINSON, halfback, 1939-1940
This is the greatest UCLA Bruin of all time, and not just because of what he did in football, although that was his best sport in Westwood as he led the nation in punt return average for both of his seasons, still ranking in the NCAA’s top five in that category, as well as leading the Bruins in pretty much everything offensive – rushing, passing, scoring, and total yardage – in 1940.
This four-sport letterman – the first and only one in UCLA history, is number one on this list for this reason:
April 15, 1947, the greatest day in the history of sports as that was the day that he stepped onto a baseball field in Brooklyn, New York and changed American history, essentially starting the Civil Rights Movement by breaking the six-decades old color line in what was the focal point of sports in American society – Major League Baseball.
Yes, I know that his breaking the baseball color line with the Dodgers and his being in the baseball Hall of Fame has nothing to do with Bruin football, but as this was the greatest all-around man in the history of American sports for what he did and the incredible racist abuse he took in the process of integrating the national pastime, my heart was telling me to pick this transfer from Pasadena City College.
It’s something that transcends everything else.
I understand that I may get a bit of flack by this choice, but there you are.
So there you have it – my top ten list of the greatest UCLA Bruin football players. I hope everyone in Bruin Nation found it informational if not agreeable.
And I certainly hope that it brought back some good recollections.