The biggest question mark loomed at quarterback, with juniors Paul Gilbert and Donnie Hampton expected to battle sophomore Mike Cavan for the job. Gilbert missed the season with an injury and Cavan eventually won the job, although Hampton contributed plenty.
Dooley typically preferred a run-heavy attack, but receivers Charlie Whittemore, Dennis Hughes, and speedy Kent Lawrence (who also played in the backfield) joined tough runners Brad Johnson, Bruce Kemp, and Steve Farnsworth in forming perhaps the most balanced offense Dooley ever coached. The 1968 team averaged a perfectly symmetrical 372 yards-per-game, 186 yards through the air and 186 yards on the ground.
The offense was sound; the defense was stellar.
Defenders Bill Stanfill and Jake Scott made first team All-American.
Billy Payne, a converted tight end, switched over to the defensive line and played well enough to garner third team A-A honors himself. Years later the world would come to know him as the driving force in bringing the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta. Payne later became chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, where he adroitly handled the fabled Masters tournament, and the inclusion of women members into the club for the first time.
Perhaps Payne learned useful lessons in 1968 because sport and social issues coalesced often that year.
In January, UCLA and Houston played in front of a record crowd at the Astrodome in the first nationally televised primetime college basketball regular season game. Elvin Hayes and the Cougars upset the Bruins of John Wooden and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the game smashed viewing ratings, setting the sport on the path to its eventual March Madness popularity.
In the summer, Alcindor would participate in a boycott effort aimed at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics scheduled for October, joining a group of prominent black athletes supporting both the boycott and the reinstatement of exiled boxing champ Muhammad Ali (who’d been stripped of his title the previous year for refusing induction into the military).
Nineteen year-old junior college freshman Spencer Haywood would lead the U.S. team to a basketball gold medal in Mexico City, then play a year at the University of Detroit before signing a contract with Denver of the old ABA after his sophomore season. In 1970, he signed with Seattle of the NBA and sued the league regarding its rule denying underclassmen eligibility. The NBA settled the lawsuit in 1971, paving the way for early entry into the league for future generations of players.
At those Mexico City games, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200 Meters finals, then bowed their heads and raised gloved-fists on the medal stand during the national anthem. They were kicked out of the Olympic Village and sent home the next day. A few days later, boxer George Foreman held out a tiny American flag after winning the heavyweight gold medal, an act that earned him both acclaim and enmity at home.
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