Q-and-A with Hal Bedsole: 50 years later, the USC receiver gets his due from the College Hall of Fame

Staff photo by Hans Gutknecht
Hal Bedsole acknowledges the crowd during a USC-Cal game earlier this season when he was recognized for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, which will take place tonight in New York.

With Hal Bedsole’s journey to New York tonight for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame comes a full nostalgia tour.

It was 50 years ago today when, as a USC junior wideout, he was honored at the same Waldorf Astoria hotel as the youngest member of the College Football All-American first team, the only underclassman picked on the 11-man team with the likes of Heisman winner (and future College Hall of Famers) Terry Baker, Lee Roy Jordan, Jerry Stovall, Pat Richter, Mel Renfro and Bobby Bell, all of whom went both offense and defense in those days.

For this visit, Bedsole will be the oldest of the group of 17 inductees, coming up on age 71, for the College Hall’s class of 2012 — the only player representing the decade of the 1960s.

“Maybe that kind of summarizes this whole thing,” Bedsole said. “If I said, ‘pick a guy from the ‘60s for the Hall, would you pick me?’ That’s what they did.”

The 1959 L.A. City Player of the Year while playing quarterback at Reseda High, Bedsole was a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder who spent a standout year at L.A. Pierce College in 1960 before new USC head coach John McKay came calling.

Bedsole’s conversion to a receiver couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

In three seasons as the go-to man from quarterbacks Pete Beathard and Bill Nelsen from 1961-63, “Prince Hal,” as he was called, set a record that still stands at the school – the greatest average-per-catch for a career at 20.94 yards (with 30 or more receptions).

His career marks of 82 catches for 1,717 yards and 20 touchdowns may not jump off the page by today’s measurements, but in the context of the times, he’s also remembered as a star of the 1962 national championship team and catching two touchdowns in USC’s win over Wisconsin in the ’63 Rose Bowl to cap an undefeated season.

Before leaving to New York, Bedsole, who 11 years ago was inducted into USC’s athletic hall of fame, reflected on his honor and career from his Palm Desert home:

Q: With your size, how did you end up playing football at USC instead of maybe playing basketball at UCLA?

A: My two sports were baseball and football, and in the L.A. City system, you couldn’t play basketball and football at the same time. You had to make a choice of a sport each semester. Right before I left high school, some friends at Reseda talked me into trying the shot put on the track team – I did it strictly to be with my friends – and at the first meet I ended up breaking the school record. My grades weren’t so great, so I went to Pierce, again with my friends, and did the discus, shot put and high jump. One of my favorite days was when we went to USC to compete against their freshman team, and I got to meet (legendary Trojans track athlete and then coach) Jess Mortensen. When I went to USC, the work load in school was so horrendous, there was no way I could do both football and track. In the off season, all I could do was rest. Before I went to USC, I kind of burned my bridges at Notre Dame. They heavily recruited me out of high school, but because of my grades, they wanted me to go the New Mexico Military Academy first, and I didn’t want to do that. I was shocked I didn’t get recruited by UCLA to play in their single-wing, because I was just a bigger, faster version of Billy Kilmer, who was running it then. I thought of myself as a running quarterback. USC had talked to me some when Don Clark was the head coach, but now John McKay was recruiting me after he took over. But I wasn’t sure I was going to USC unless they offered a scholarship.

Q: But with all the quarterbacks USC already had, why would you want to go there? You had to switch to receiver. How did that happen?

A: It’s a matter of who you believe. I’ve read John’s book, so I know his version. I know that I went to McKay on the Tuesday of the first week before the season opener on Friday against Georgia Tech (in 1961). After practice, I said, ‘Is there any possibility I could play Friday?’ He said, ‘Not at all,’ because they weren’t going to get down to the third- and fourth-team players. I said, ‘What if I switch to a different position?’ I know that sounded kind of naïve, but I asked him anyway. ‘Well, what position?’ If I went to receiver, I’d be on the third team, ‘but that would be up to you if you switch because you can’t switch back (to quarterback),’ he said. To me, my only goal at USC was to get in the game. I know that sounds funny when you have guys today who get all kinds of guarantees and all. So I went to receiver and if it didn’t work out, then I figured I’d move to the specialty defense – and this was a time when the NCAA required you to play both ways, to limit scholarships, and a team could make one substitution per quarter, so they’d sub in a whole new team on defense or offense.

Against Georgia Tech, on the opening kickoff, Jim Bates, probably the fastest player on our team, broke his leg. He was the starting left split end. So right away, I was promoted to second team after the first play of the game, unfortunately for Jim. Georgia Tech drove all the way with the opening kickoff, marched eight minutes, so we took the ‘red’ team out with two minutes left to let them rest and put in the ‘yellow’ team – so that got me in. I get thrown a pass and run for about 20 yards. This looks pretty good. I ended up catching two or three balls that game.  I’m not sure what McKay’s opinion as of my performance, but the next game, against No. 1 Iowa on national TV, I was back to second team and was in the game in the second quarter and caught a 79 yard touchdown pass. Then I had another touchdown pass and a 2-point conversion. From then on I was a starter.

McKay’s story was that he came to me and said he wanted to switch me to receiver because I was too big to be a quarterback. Then why did he recruit me? I found out years later that he did it knowing he wasn’t going to play me at quarterback, which I assume was true. I know we had Bill Nelson, who was a wonderful leader and good thrower, but not very good on defense. Pete Beathard was able to go both ways. It was clear to me that once he recognized who the best athletes were, they could get shuffled around, and that was McKay’s way. He’d move tailbacks to guard because they were quick and agile. It was all about building team speed.

Q: So without that switch of positions, you likely wouldn’t be in this position today of going into the College Football Hall of Fame, right?

A: No question, and I might not have believed it at the time, but I’m sure this was all directed by a higher power. Your fate is what you’re given, from one thing to another. Maybe if I went to Notre Dame, I’d have stayed a quarterback, I don’t know. But I do know that the trait I had was: I always made big plays, on every level. Leading the City in scoring, leading Pierce in scoring, leading USC in scoring my first two years, and then (in the NFL) leading the Minnesota Vikings in scoring.

Maybe that’s why I’m in the Hall of Fame. You get remembered for the sum of what you’ve accomplished. I absolutely believe the best thing that happened to me was getting to go to USC, even if I didn’t play quarterback. I’m forever grateful I went there and graduated. To me, it was a miracle at the time getting recruited by USC.

Q: Was it a surprise to the team that McKay had a national championship team so soon in 1962?

A: That became a gateway to a renaissance at USC. They hadn’t won a championship in 30 years and hadn’t been to the Rose Bowl for 10 years prior to that. The fact is, you always look for opportunities. I know I looked at the USC teams when I was in high school and junior college and was confident I could play there. I’m sure all kids secretly think, ‘I could get into that lineup.’ But I’m proud to be part of that ’62 team. Four national championships for McKay followed that.

Q: Why do you think it’s taken all these years before the College Football Hall finally came calling? It’s not as if your stats changed or anything.

A: I’ve given a lot of thought to that in the last few months, and really, there’s no explanation for it. It must be divine intervention. I’ll tell you why. Assuming there’s 12,000 member who vote in the foundation, not many at all could say, ‘I remember watching him.’ I think there’s a window of comparability when they can look at the statistics. My window was a long time ago, before a lot of changes took place. I know my numbers are very modest. I’m not sure if many of the voters even know we were required to go both ways. I honestly think it’s just another one of those blessings I’ve had my whole life.

It’s a mind-boggling thing, with all the candidates, the Heisman winners and Outland Trophy winners and Butkus winners, many who haven’t got in (the Hall).

Q: If you’re looking purely at the stats – the first USC player to ever have a 200-yard receiving day (201 vs. Cal in 1962, a mark that stood for 21 years). What do you think of that accomplishment all these years later?

A: I think that was earth-shattering at the time in college football. The one stat the still gets a lot of attention was the average-per-catch. I look back on that and still don’t know how that happened. A shade under 21 yards – I’m as proud of that as anything still being a USC record. I still see it published in every USC game program, so my grandkids can see it. I really didn’t even know they kept that kind of statistic.

Q: The two touchdown catches in the 42-37 win over Wisconsin in the ’63 Rose Bowl . . . do you think anything attached to that game has left a lasting impression on people to this day?

A: I’ve heard my whole life about how it was such a wild and crazy game. There were jerks like me who thought we could have beat them 75-10 if McKay didn’t decide to be nice and say, ‘Let’s not embarrass these people … we’ll run the ball and get out of Dodge.’ The game as 42-10 at the time and maybe McKay pulled the starters out one touchdown too soon in the third quarter in that one. I had my two touchdowns in the third quarter (including one of 57 yards from Beathard). Who knew Ron Vander Kelen would throw 29 times in the fourth quarter?

Q: How did you take to having the nickname “Prince Hal”?

A: I guess it was kind of embarrassing. It started when one writer, I think Mel Durslag of the L.A. Times, did some take off of Henry VIII and somehow the nickname ‘Prince Hal’ was wove into the story. It all seemed silly to me. I didn’t think it would last. But then, before I knew it, on campus, that’s all I heard people call me. Just like ‘Jaguar Jon (Arnett).’ It’s an endearing way they say it. Nothing negative about it. Not everyone gets a nickname and the fact they took to it was funny earlier this season when I was being recognized on the field at a USC game for the College Hall of Fame. My grandkids heard people yelling ‘Hey, Prince!’ at me. They were wondering who they were talking to. Finally, my granddaughter said, ‘Pops, what’s Prince Hal?’ I said, ‘I’ll have to tell you later …’

Staff photo by Hans Gutknecht

Q: How do you size up the USC team’s performance this year?

A: There’s a huge difference being the defending national champions and coming off a year where you’re ranked No. 1, and this team was not close to being the No. 1 team last year. So they shouldn’t have been voted No. 1 this year and challenged to stay there. It was more reasonable to rank them 5, 6, 7 . . . Instead, that No. 1 ranking was an anchor around their neck. In 1962, we didn’t make it to No. 1until halfway through the season and we got better as we went up the ladder. I’d have hated to open at No. 1. There was no evidence of that with this team without having an established line on both sides of the ball. We had the skill players, but that front seven has to be there. Once I saw how we played against Hawaii (in the opener), I knew we weren’t No. 1. The second game against Syracuse was more proof. I’m not criticizing our kids. The thing about sports that I love is you have to earn it. If they try to give it to you and you don’t deserve it, you won’t have it long. I regret they were put in to a position that came with a lot of pressure that didn’t need to be.

Looking at the wide receivers, how many teams have two bona fide All-Americans with world-class speed? Sometimes you don’t get one per decade, and we had two. Robert Woods was a lot this season like I was a senior – kind of used a lot as a decoy. I felt bad for him running through coverage so they could find Marquis Lee a lot of the time. His production was half of last year’s. He’s a wonderful player. But Marquis Lee has great athleticism and speed. The net effect is to take advantage of both of them, but Matt Barkley didn’t have a lot of time to throw. He couldn’t get his feet square and he was under duress to many times so it nullified the receivers to some degree. If it was a senior-laden line and Barkley could have had an extra count to put the ball where he wanted, he could have been unbelievable.

Q: What interests you most about watching today’s game?

A: The one thing is they allow offensive players to make the big plays because of more restrictions on the pass interference rules. The receivers can be the stars today with all these rules that favor them. They can’t touch you now. Back then, it was bump and run so much. And the quarterbacks are so accurate today. It’s so sophisticated with having them put the ball on your back shoulder and all that. As a big receiver, I’d have benefited from that. It still amazes me seeing the skill level of the kids today. They’re the top of the sundae, no question.

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  • Ray Danganan

    Mr Bledsoe
    congratulations on your induction…and enjoyed your views of SC football.
    Heard so much about you an dthe teams prior to my time there (1970-1976)…enjoyed all the stories!
    Fight On Prince Hal!

  • Duarte_Road

    Great read! Thanks!

  • Bob Barnett

    Loved him when I worked w his pal Richard Mertes in the early 70s. Those guys knew how to have a good time.

  • Linda Leist Giancanelli

    Hal, do you remember me from Reseda High School. We had some classes together. Very proud of all your accomplishments. Have missed you at the High School Reunions. God Bless..

  • Audrey Van Smack

    A true Trojan…..RIP Hal.