There was strength on both sides of the line of scrimmage Saturday. A priest sat on the Notre Dame bench, and John Wooden sat opposite the UCLA bench. No edge there.
In the 1980’s when UCLA basketball was really not so great, John Wooden was still a fixture in Pauley Pavilion for just about every home game. He sat on the North courtside, directly across from the UCLA bench. As Thomas Bonk wrote in the LA Times the evening after the 1987 Notre Dame Game,
In 1986, we were only a dozen years past the last UCLA National Championship from 1975, and UCLA was reduced to merely struggling to be competitive in the conference and hoping to be invited to the NCAA tournament. As a freshman that season, the team really was mediocre, but won at home, and I thought it was the greatest. At some point I worked up the courage to approach the great man, since I was told he was very kind to UCLA student. I got one of the handiest pieces of paper and a pen, and introduced myself. I gushed over what he had accomplished, but he was very modest. He honored my request for an autograph. It is still the only one I own.
UCLA would go on to have better luck when I was a sophomore, winning a number of great games, including that ’87 Notre Dame game. Two games from that season are named in the Bruin 100 – The Greatest Games in the History of UCLA Basketball. I would have picked neither, the Louisville game, and the Wyoming game. I was at both. The two I would have picked were the Notre Dame game, and the defeat of #1 ranked North Carolina.
All through the North Carolina game, the student section was screaming, the whole place was screaming, from beginning to end. I had never before and never again seen such energy in Pauley Pavilion. It began with the opening Frisbee chant, in which he climbed atop the newly installed courtside press tables and shouted, “IS THIS A PRESS TABLE!?! (YES THAT’S A PRESS TABLE!) WE’RE MAD AS HELL, AND WE’RE NOT GONNA TAKE IT ANYMORE!!!” At the final horn, UCLA had stunned North Carolina. This was the same Dean Smith led UNC Tarheel team that would finish #1 in the ACC, 32-4 and #1 seed in the East NCAA regionals. Dean was great, but he just was not John Wooden.
But that Notre Dame win was something else. I finally got to see the student section “Digger is a wimp” sign in action. What a hype! The Bruins fought back from 18 points down to the Fighting Irish. Reggie Miller may have scored 42 against Never Nervous Pervis Ellison and Louisville, but the clutchest of clutch shots I have ever seen score is the one he hit against Notre Dame that day. The Daily Bruin said Reggie put the shot up from Lot 8, but I think he could have made that shot from Lot 32, at the corner of Wilshire and Gayley. The crowd went bananas. The Band played Sons of Westwood and no one could hear themselves over the music and screaming. The building was easily in excess of 100 decibels. Digger Phelps set up David Rivers to take the ball up court. But, Rivers smacked straight into Bruin David Immel and got called for the charge. Coach Digger Phelps jumped straight into the air, curled his legs up underneath himself, and came straight back down in the manliest toddler-who-needs-a-nap-I-won’t-go tirade I ever have seen. I still cannot see Digger on TV without remembering him make that high, straight leap. I also remember that it took John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins to build an 88 game winning streak to make Digger a great coach.
UCLA Beats the Irish, Reheats the Rivalry on Late Surge, 63-59 – January 25, 1987, Los Angeles Times
UCLA’s 89-84 Victory Stuns North Carolina – December 02, 1986, Los Angeles Times