Red Sanders

UCLA 1954
File photo

The last time the UCLA Bruins won the national championship…


Imagine being declared a national champion without getting a chance to play in a bowl game. In an age long before having over 40 bowl games on the postseason schedule, this oddity happened to the UCLA Bruins in 1954. After an undefeated regular season, UCLA was prevented from playing in the Rose Bowl as champions of the Pacific Coast Conference (the earlier form of what we know as the Pac-12 today) because of an old rule that did not allow a team to play in the Rose Bowl in consecutive seasons.

It didn’t matter that UCLA ran the table of a 9-0 schedule and outscored their opponents 367-40. It didn’t matter that UCLA dominated USC, who did play in the Rose Bowl, by a score of 34-0. It didn’t matter that UCLA defeated the reigning national champions from Maryland in a regular season game in October. It didn’t matter that No. 1 Ohio State was the Big Ten representative playing in the Rose Bowl, which would have given the Rose Bowl a true national championship game. The rules were the rules, and UCLA didn’t have any other bowl game to participate in at the time. As a result, UCLA claimed the national championship in a handful of polls, including the coaches poll. Ohio State, following their victory over USC in the Rose Bowl, was crowned the AP national champion.

It has been a long time since the UCLA Bruins ruled the college football world. The hiring of Chip Kelly generated some buzz for the program as Bruin fans began to envision a rise for the program similar to what Kelly experienced at Oregon as a national championship contending program. Since staking a claim to a national championship in the 1954 season, the Bruins have finished in the top 10 of the final AP standings just 12 times. The last time the UCLA program played in one of the current New Years Six bowl games was in the 1998 season’s Rose Bowl, and the last victory in a major bowl game came the previous season in the Cotton Bowl.

Perhaps there was good karma working for UCLA in 1954 as this was the season the Bruins officially unveiled their signature powder blue uniforms, a look that remains in place today. Head coach Red Sanders had his first and only undefeated season as a head coach, but the matchup the college football universe deserved to see was prohibited from happening because of archaic bowl game rules with the Rose Bowl. Thank goodness we never have to settle for such idiocy anymore.

Last National Title Season: 1954 (64 years and counting)

Who was President?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was in his second year in office at the White House. Eisenhower had a long run in the White House to go for the next handful of years, with Richard Nixon as his Vice President. Nixon, of course, would have a bit more influence in the college football world years later. As for our current Commander-In-Chief, Donald Trump was just eight years old in the Queens borough of New York City.

What was on TV?

In 1954, there were not a ton of TV options, so you were stuck with the three big networks. But for the first time, you could watch the Rose Parade in color thanks to NBC’s brand new state-of-the-art mobile color TV studio. The parade’s broadcast becomes a huge advertising opportunity for RCA, which made sure their color TV sets were in accessible areas to show off the latest and greatest in television viewing. RCA was trying to push their new big screen TV sets, bringing 15-inch color sets to the market for the first time.

This year also marked the first time you could watch the Miss America Beauty Contest on TV. A total of 27 million tuned in to watch.

Among the notable shows on the air in 1954 include “Adventures of Superman,” “American Bandstand,” “Candid Camera,” “Dragnet,” “Howdy Doody,” “I Love Lucy,” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Making their television debuts in 1954 were “Lassie” and”The Tonight Show.”

What movies were hot?

Forget about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. A Star is Born hit the big screen in 1954, starring Judy Garland and James Mason. Naturally, this was also a remake of a 1937 film, so don’t be shocked if this one is remade once again in another 50 or 60 years. This one was a big deal because it marked the return of Garland to film in four years. Over in Japan, the first Godzilla movie was introduced. It would go on to become the longest-running film series in history and is still getting new movies to this day.

A few other classics took in big numbers at the box office in 1954 as well, including the classic White Christmas and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

At the Oscars, Marlon Brando took home Best Actor for his role in On the Waterfront. Brando also won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. John Wayne was the big money maker at the time, however, followed by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

What else happened in 1954?

The Cleveland Browns won the NFL championship with a blowout of the Detroit Lions in the NFL Championship Game. The Cleveland Indians were also in the World Series, but they were swept by the New York Giants.

The Minneapolis Lakers won their third consecutive NBA championship, and fifth in six years, with a seven-game series victory over the Syracuse Nationals.

Coming into the 1954 season, the Maryland Terrapins were the defending national champions despite losing to Oklahoma the previous season. Conference champions in 1954 included Ohio State (Big Ten), Arkansas (Southwest Conference), Ole Miss (SEC), Duke (ACC) and Oklahoma (Big Seven — SEVEN!). West Virginia took the Southern Conference and Texas Tech won the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Wisconsin’s Alan Ameche took home the Heisman Trophy and Ron Beagle of Navy won the Maxwell Award.

Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe.

Legendary UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden was in his sixth season as the head coach of the Bruins and had yet to get UCLA past a fourth-place finish. A decade later, Wooden won his first national championship. He would coach UCLA to nine more during his storied career.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban was three years old. Chip Kelly was born nine years later.

The tough road back to national championship glory

UCLA is a program that has found it tough to build a national championship contender, although they have certainly had some good years. A possible shot at a national championship was washed away by the Miami Hurricanes at the end of the 1998 regular season. The No. 3 UCLA Bruins rescheduled a game at Miami for the end of the regular season and was all that stood in the way of a perfect regular season, but Miami sent the Bruins home with a 49-45 loss to eliminate the Bruins from the national championship picture. UCLA dropped from No. 2 in the BCS standings in the inaugural year of the BCS and Florida State moved into the second spot to face Tennessee in the BCS National Championship Game, which turned out to be Tennessee’s most recent national title).

Since 1998, UCLA has finished in the top 10 just once with a No. 10 finish in 2014 under Jim Mora. Mora fizzled out and was replaced by Kelly, who made his return to the college game after a rough run in the NFL. Kelly’s first season at UCLA was a tough one with a 3-9 record, but there were some signs of improvement as the season played out. Does that mean UCLA is ready to surge in the Pac-12? That may still require some work to improve the program and the roster, but things could be looking up for UCLA in the next few years.