For the past fifty years, like clockwork, Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills, has honored the two elite college football teams who have earned the right to compete in the annual Rose Bowl Game with a feast fit for royalty known as the Lawry’s Beef Bowl. The Sporting News calls it the “Best Tradition” among all the bowl games.

This summer, the 1976 Rose Bowl Champion UCLA Bruins created their own sort of time machine, turning back the clock 30 years to reunite and raise a toast to each other at Lawry’s in honor of their monumental bowl game upset over Woody Hayes’ top ranked Ohio State Buckeyes.

To refresh your memory, the 1976 Rose Bowl Game pitted the 17-point underdog Bruins against an undefeated Buckeye squad that had already whipped UCLA 41-20 earlier in the season. However, behind the combination of Dick Vermeil’s coaching, near-flawless execution of his offensive strategies, and a relentless, opportunistic defense, UCLA prevailed over Ohio State in convincing fashion, 23-10, thus handing the national championship to the Oklahoma Sooners by default.

So, that was the honey-glory that attracted former Bruin players, coaches, pep squad and administrators back to the hive in Westwood where they filled up two buses before heading over to Lawry’s to celebrate the pinnacle achievement of that Cinderella season.  As the buses rolled up to the traditional red carpet “walk of champions” at Lawry’s, they were greeted by present day Bruin cheerleaders and UCLA band members heralding their arrival with the school fight song.

The improbability of that Rose Bowl victory three decades ago cannot help but draw comparisons to the current state of UCLA football. Prior to that magical season, the Bruins had posted respectable win-loss records of 8-3, 9-2, and 6-3-2, over a three-year period. Meanwhile, cross-town rival USC won the Pac-8 title and earned the right to compete in the coveted Rose Bowl Game each of those seasons, with all three games deciding or factoring into the outcome of the national championship.

Contrast that with the past three years, where UCLA fielded competitive teams that made three straight bowl appearances (Silicon Valley Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl, and Sun Bowl) while the Trojans dominated the Pac-10, and played for a piece of the national championship all three years, twice in the Rose Bowl and once in the Orange Bowl.

Is it possible for the 2006 version of UCLA Bruins football to pull off the improbable this season by ending USC’s current stranglehold on the conference title and earn an appearance in the Rose Bowl Game?

John Sciarra, former Bruin quarterback and one of the stars of the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, thinks that it’s possible, but more than likely another year away.

“USC is certainly vulnerable on offense with the loss of Bush, White, Leinart, and three linemen, but their defense will be as solid as ever, and that’s one of the three keys to winning championships in football,” says Sciarra. “You have to play great defense, run the ball effectively, and create turnovers with your special teams.”

From his perspective, Sciarra feels USC still holds the edge on paper, with recent recruiting classes keeping them ahead of the pack in overall talent. Still, he doesn’t see the Trojans’ quarterback situation being a difference maker like it has the past few years with Leinart at the helm. If redshirt sophomore Ben Olson can live up to the lofty expectations placed on his shoulders, and the Bruin defense can keep USC’s big play offense off-balance and hungering for possession time, UCLA just might have a shot at the upset.

“That’s what made the difference for us back in 1975,” recalls Sciarra. “Our defense played their best two games of the year against USC and Ohio State. Without those stellar performances from our D, there wouldn’t be a conference championship or a historic Rose Bowl victory, period.”

Sciarra believes this year will be the turning point for the Bruins’ return to glory. Citing their 8-game winning streak at the start of last season, coupled with the lessons they learned in the two blow-out road losses to Arizona and USC last year, he expects a bowl appearance and a shift in the recruiting wars that will start bringing local talent back to Westwood.

“Karl [Dorrell] led UCLA over the edge last year and his players believe they can win now,” says Sciarra. “The team developed a lot of character during the course of winning five come-from-behind games last season. I’m really excited to see how they perform this year with an improved defense and new faces at the skill positions. I think the tide is turning in their favor.”

When asked to share some of his favorite gridiron recollections stemming from the 1976 Rose Bowl victory, the former Canadian Football League Rookie of the Year (B.C. Lions, 1976) and six-year NFL vet (Philadelphia Eagles) didn’t hesitate to pull a couple memories out of his bag.

The week after the Rose Bowl Game, John and fellow Bruin Randy Cross were on their way to Hawaii to play in the Hula Bowl.  When they arrived at the airport, Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was there to personally greet them, complete with island beauties placing the traditional leis around their necks. Thanks to the windfall national title Oklahoma gained from UCLA’s win over Ohio State, Sciarra and Cross were treated like kings that week by Switzer and his staff.

“To this day, I still have the t-shirt Barry Switzer sent me the week after the Hula Bowl,” says Sciarra. “The note he sent read: ‘As promised, enclosed please find the t-shirt.  Wear it on the beaches of California and you’ll attract all the lovelies.’ The front of the t-shirt says, ‘Oklahoma Sooners, 1975 National Champions,’ and the back reads: ‘Thank you John Sciarra and the UCLA Bruins for making this possible.’”

Another powerful moment that lingers in Sciarra’s memory occurred just before the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1981 Super Bowl clash with the Oakland Raiders. Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil invited a special guest to speak to his players.

“Dick introduced [then retired] coach Woody Hayes to the team and we gave him a standing ovation,” recalls Sciarra. “Woody spoke for about an hour and he managed to toss in a few jokes about the 1976 Rose Bowl Game, too. It was a powerful example to see these two great coaches relating with each other away from the game time pressures under which you would normally see them.”