SI Vault
John Underwood
November 03, 1975
The latest in a long line of outstanding USC tailbacks is Ricky Bell, a workhorse who carried the ball 40 times to help the Trojans beat Notre Dame
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November 03, 1975

For Whom The Bell Toils

The latest in a long line of outstanding USC tailbacks is Ricky Bell, a workhorse who carried the ball 40 times to help the Trojans beat Notre Dame

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A: I tell them to come to my office on Tuesday and I'll let 'em carry one.

And, finally, in a game fraught with extraneous issues (Was John McKay going to Tampa to coach the new pro team? Yes, said the Los Angeles writers, already kissing-him goodby in their columns), USC beat Notre Dame 24-17. The outcome more or less substantiated what McKay has been saying lately—that Richard Lamar (Ricky) Bell is perhaps the greatest runner in the country.

Bell has already broken USC's single-game rushing record (with 256 yards vs. Duke), is leading the country in rushing (1,233 yards in 217 carries) and is averaging 176 yards a game, a pace that would put him past Ed Marinaro's season record of 1,881 yards. He is carrying the ball almost as often as the rest of the USC team is carrying and passing and catching it. He will, says McKay, "do anything to help this team. He'd play linebacker tomorrow if we asked him."

McKay had, in fact, asked Ricky to play linebacker as a freshman. Ricky said sure. As a sophomore last year, he was asked to play fullback. Swell, "as long as I make the traveling squad." By year's end, McKay was comparing him with Sam (The Bam) Cunningham. Then, in the spring, when a shortage arose, Bell was moved to tailback—the position of Anthony Davis, O. J. Simpson and Mike Garrett before him. "At USC being the tailback is an honor," says Bell.

Under McKay being the tailback is also a load. USC tailbacks do not get time off for good behavior. They get to carry the ball one more time. Last summer Bell went to an Army-Navy store and bought some boots. He could be found at 5:30 every morning slogging on the beach at Playa del Rey. At night he unloaded freight in a meat packing plant to increase his strength and stamina. He carried a ball around with him "to get used to holding it."

Dave Levy, the USC defensive coordinator, says he thinks he knows what it must be like looking at Bell from the other side of the barrel, "all arms and elbows and knees. He runs like a blacksmith. He attacks. He's a linebacker playing tailback. Our guys call him Mad Dog. They yap when he carries the ball." Another coach says that Bell does not have O.J.'s great speed or Garrett's moves, but he grinds into you, bouncing as he hits, and then moves forward again, finding small cracks and fissures, slashing through, busting tackles, always moving forward. "From O.J. you got finesse, from Ricky Bell, fractures."

But off the field, a pussycat. "Everybody likes him," says McKay. One of seven sons of a Houston bellhop, Bell went West with his mother and two brothers nine years ago. As a youngster he helped solve family financial problems with stints as a school custodian and as a $1.65-an-hour playground assistant in the neighborhood just north of Watts. His mother gave him an ear for music (brother Archie has a rock group called The Drells) and a Baptist's compassion for people. "I never had the urge to beat people up," Bell says. "I stayed away from fights." He won't even spike a ball. "It's not my style."

Bell didn't have the urge to go to USC until he saw O.J. running for a touchdown on television and found out he was doing it two miles down the road at the Coliseum. "I didn't even know where the Coliseum was," he says. When Assistant Coach Willie Brown came to see him, Bell, defensive end-fullback for Fremont High, was wearing a jersey with the number 00. The 00 "went to the meanest man on the team," he says. "That was me." Brown was wearing a USC national championship ring. "I saw it," said Bell, "and I said, man, I want one of those. Now that I've got one, I wouldn't mind a couple more."

Comparisons with O.J. are inevitable. Like Simpson, Bell is a handsome young man with a strong face, is pleasantly outgoing and instinctively modest, and wouldn't mind at all changing those "$1.65-an-hour days" to "$1.65 a second." Last fall he switched his major to speech so he could "talk to you media guys." But the comparison with Simpson pleases him "only in the sense that it's a compliment to be mentioned in the same breath." As a runner, Bell is certainly his own man—he does not have Simpson's sliding, gliding style, but at 6'2", 215 pounds probably delivers a heavier blow in an unavoidable collision. At the same time they both seem to get stronger as a game progresses, and though Bell doesn't mind "giving a guy a piece" when he gets the chance, he prefers "the paths of least resistance."

Against Notre Dame, his paths were meant to lead as far as possible from Steve Niehaus, the celebrated 6'5", 260-pound tackle. Or to take Niehaus on wild-goose chases. With greater use of motion to influence the Notre Dame roverback and a deeper set (by a yard) for Bell on sweeps to the outside, McKay hoped to wear out the big Irish linemen, knowing there wasn't a whole lot else he could do with Niehaus, who plays so well and so recklessly. "He's like the guy with the pet gorilla," said McKay. "Somebody says, 'Where does he sleep?' The guy says, 'Anywhere he wants to.' "

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