ASU's first Fiesta Bowl win and the memories, friendships that followed

When ASU plays Stanford University Friday, the first-ever Fiesta Bowl winners will be honored for their 50th anniversary

It almost wasn’t meant to be.

With under a minute left and the game tied at 38 apiece, ASU was a few yards away from winning the inaugural Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium against Florida State University.

Quarterback Danny White got in the huddle and relayed the play call from the Sun Devil sideline — a play-action pass.

Offensive lineman Steve Matlock was surprised they wouldn’t hand the ball to running back Woody Green, who ran for a team-high 1,310 yards that year.

“You run a dive to Woody right over (offensive lineman) Roger Davis and we’ll win the game and get out of here,” Matlock recalled telling White.

Matlock and Davis were covered in green mud from the paint that came from the dormant bermudagrass field. White looked at them and, without argument, changed the play to exactly that. 

Moments later, Green ran behind Matlock and Davis for the touchdown. 

The rest was history.

The memories of the 1971 ASU Football team lie deeper than a Fiesta Bowl trophy. The bond developed during harsh practices and games created lifelong friends 50 years later.

When ASU plays Stanford University Friday at 7:30 p.m. MST, the first-ever Fiesta Bowl winners will be reunited in person and honored for its 50th anniversary.  

In the weeks leading up to the Fiesta Bowl, ASU had one month between its final regular season game vs. UA and the Fiesta Bowl game on Dec. 27.

The ASU coaching staff made things more interesting during the break by holding practices in a handful of places around the Valley. One of the places they practiced at was Wickenburg High School, and the team stayed at a nearby dude ranch, Rancho de los Caballeros.

The team practiced twice a day under the instruction of head coach Frank Kush. There was no television and no forms of communication to keep players in touch with their friends back in school. The team's days consisted of playing football, bonding together and sleeping.

READ MORE: Former ASU football players share stories about their legendary coach Frank Kush

One of the most exciting stories to come out of Wickenburg was the escape of backup center Ron Lou.

The team would have two two-hour practices each day. Due to the lack of depth, the only rest they received was when another player was substituted on a play. When Mike Tomco, the ASU starting center, left Wickenburg to get married, Lou was the only center on the field.

Lou was quiet amongst his teammates and didn’t show much emotion. He was frustrated with the grueling practices that kept him on the field during the whole time because he had no backup.

At the end of an hours-long scrimmage,  linebacker Larry Delbridge rushed past Lou and tackled White with a late hit. Kush was furious with Lou, subjecting him to a handful of Oklahoma drills before wrapping up practice.

A promotional magazine for the 1971 Fiesta Bowl is shown

After practice, Lou had enough. He packed his bags, walked to a highway and hitchhiked.  

When Frank Kush found out about Lou's disappearance, he sent the Department of Public Safety to look for him. They found him hitchhiking on the other side of Wickenburg.

“(Assistant coach) Don Baker threw me in a motel, calmed me down and that was that,” Lou said. “It’s a memory, that’s for sure.”

Five decades later, the stories from the 1971 team are frequently told with plenty of laughs through a 20-odd person group text and in email exchanges. 

“I’ll get a call or a text almost every day or two from someone on the team,” Matlock said. “Brotherhood is a term that’s worn out today, but we’ve been using that term for a long time to describe us. We had a great group of guys and some of them are my best friends today.”

Matlock, 71, got his first job out of ASU as a La-Z-Boy sales rep in June 1973. He worked his way to become the senior vice president of retail development of the company before retiring in 2013.

White, 69, went on to play 13 seasons in the NFL, all with the Dallas Cowboys. He has the fourth-most passing yards and third-most touchdowns in the history of the storied franchise. 

“The guys from that team are as close today as we were back then,” White said. “It’s really been incredible.”

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