Watching like it's 1985

ESPN Classic is rolling out old USC-Ohio State games, and it's great to see the -- hey, where's the damn score bug?!

Published September 11, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

With Ohio State scheduled to play USC Saturday, ESPN Classic is showing tapes of old Buckeyes-Trojans games, cleverly calling it "Ohio State vs. USC Week."

So I got sucked into watching an embarrassingly large, a get-a-life large, chunk of the 1985 Rose Bowl Wednesday. USC won that game 20-17. Spoiler alert. I guess I should have said that the other way around.

I don't spend a lot of time watching ESPN Classic -- if I had the plenitudinous free time that allows a person to watch random mid-'80s Lakers-Celtics playoff games a quarter-century after the fact, I wouldn't spend it that way -- so I was struck not so much by seeing those old teams as by how different the broadcast looked.

It was an NBC broadcast, with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olson at the microphone. A very good pair. Even when stuck with annoying announcers I don't find myself longing for the days of Dick and Merlin, but now that you mention it, they were really fine.

On-field fashions and TV fidelity have been constant enough over the last 23 years that the game itself didn't look particularly foreign. Watching football action from the 1950s in the 1970s was like watching a Valentino movie. The film was black-and-white and the uniforms, the players themselves and the things they did looked completely foreign. The same was true in the '90s watching action from the '70s. It immediately felt like looking back at a different era.

Not so much in this one. There were subtle differences in strategy, formations and, especially, looking closer, in the size of the players. They didn't look noticeably small, like players from the '70s or earlier do now, but there weren't any 350-pounders. At one point, Enberg made a fuss over the height and weight of an Ohio State linebacker named Anthony Giuliani, noting that he was 5-11, 245 pounds, an unusual ratio then that wouldn't raise an eyebrow today.

But it was possible to forget I was watching a 23-year-old game until the cameras focused on the coaches and fans, whose fashion choices looked a little more dated.

At least it was possible to forget until I looked for the score bug. Which I did every few seconds. Of course, there was no such thing back then.

Fox started using the score bug when it began broadcasting the NFL in 1994, and it quickly became an industry standard. That's a long time ago now, so of course we're all used to it, but it's not like I was watching a score-bugless game for the first time. I was 31 years old in 1994.

It drove me crazy. ESPN Classic has a logo bug for "Ohio State vs. USC Week" at the top right of the screen, and I found myself unconsciously glancing up at it every few seconds in search of the score. Enberg and Olson just never, ever, ever seemed to give the score.

It brought back suppressed memories of turning on a game and waiting forever for someone to say the damn score. I used to sit there and try to figure it out from context. "What's the damn score? OK, they're passing, and it's quarter to 4. This game started at 1 so it must be the third quarter. So they're probably down by at least 10 or so. Let's check the body language. Could it be 20? Are there empty seats?"

Kids, if you ask why I didn't just check the Internet, I'll throw my Geritol at you.

The score bug. It completely changed the experience of watching a game. Hard to believe, but there were actually people who objected to it as on-screen clutter when it was introduced. I remember seeing it in the first moments of the first game of Week 1 in '94 and thinking, "Holy crap, what a great idea!"

Another thing that reminded me that this was Jan. 1, 1985, and not a day later: The NBC cameras focused lovingly on the wave, which the crowd did while the action was hot and heavy in the second half, and Enberg and Olson made note of it without scoffing at it, Enberg saying without judgment that here was at least one thing from 1984 that had carried over into '85.

1984 wasn't a dominant year for either USC or Ohio State. The Buckeyes had gone 9-2, the Trojans 8-3. Almost nobody on the Trojans jogged my memory, though that could be because I wasn't paying a lot of attention to college football at the time. Ted Tollner, who's still around as a San Francisco 49ers assistant, was the head coach. But the tailbacks were the forgettable Fred Crutcher and Ryan Knight. The quarterback was a lefty named Tim Green. Jack Del Rio, the current Jacksonville Jaguars coach, was a star linebacker. He was about the only immediately recognizable name.

The Buckeyes had a better team with more star power. Mike Tomczak, who had a long career as an NFL journeyman, was the quarterback. Keith Byars was the running back, though the Trojans kept him mostly in check. Linebackers Pepper Johnson and Chris Spielman anchored the defense. The two best players on the field that day were both Ohio State freshmen, Spielman and wide receiver Cris Carter, who was fantastic.

It was funny to watch OSU kicker Rich Spangler kick field goals straight on, not soccer style. I wouldn't have thought that was still going on in big-time college football in January 1985. Mark Moseley, the last straight-on kicker in the NFL, was nearing the end of his career then.

Spangler set a Rose Bowl record with a 52-yarder that day. Steve Jordan of USC, kicking soccer-style, hit two 51-yarders. After the second, Enberg said, "Isn't that something? In 70 previous Rose Bowls, no one ever kicked one longer than 47. We've got three 50-yard-plus field goals today."

Another one of those subtle differences. Imagine a 47-yard field goal being any kind of record.

Ohio State looked like the better team and pretty much dominated for most of the day, but the Buckeyes were done in by four turnovers.

And then a random mid-'80s Lakers-Celtics playoff game came on.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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