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More than any Utah football team until 1994, and perhaps 2004, the 1964 Utes gained the nation's attention.

For a fleeting moment, though, they'd wondered how badly they wanted it.

The 1964 Liberty Bowl was the first bowl game ever played indoors — the priciest bowl ticket to that point, broadcast across the U.S. on more than 210 ABC stations.

Against the surreal backdrop of Atlantic City Convention Hall, Utah walloped West Virginia 32-6 and set off for a spree in the Big Apple, where tight end Merlin Driggs recalls that one sports page headline read "Utah who?"

But what ended in glitz was bought with grit:

Trudging through snow drifts to scrape off the snow and ice on the Ute Stadium field for December practices. Playing through broken fingers and separated shoulders. Enduring the fury of hard-nosed assistant "Bullet" Bob Watson.

Wingback John Pease said the team's seniors gave some thought to skipping the bowl game and calling it a wrap at 8-2, "because they were sick of being beaten up."

But gentlemanly head coach Ray Nagle was able to convince them that he'd tone down the team's practices, described by Pease as "street fights."

And the months of brawling paid off.

The Utes won their first bowl in 18 years, their last for 28.

A half-century later, the pages yellowing, the newsprint chipped and faded, the 1964 Utes recall a time when, as two-way star Roy Jefferson puts it, "I wasn't walking on the floor. I was walking on air."

Bowl bound • Even though Nagel was just 30-30-1 heading into 1964, Utah had lost a number of close games during its 4-6 1963 campaign, and expectations within the program were high.

Team captain Ernest "Pokey" Allen — later a successful coach at Boise State — and Richard Groth were both competent under center, with Allen proving a stellar safety as the season wore on.

Other standouts included backs Ron Coleman (now a professor of history and ethnic studies at the U.) and Allen Jacobs, Pease, and tackle Mel Carpenter.

But Utah's star, unquestionably, was Jefferson, a split end, cornerback and place kicker who would become a Pro Bowl wideout for Washington and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL.

He could also have punted, said Pease, a longtime NFL defensive coach.

"I've seen Elway, I've seen Montana, I've seen Lawrence Taylor, I've seen Ray Lewis. Roy was, all-around, the best athlete I've ever seen."

The 1964 offensive playbook included four runs and about as many passes. Utah's approach was simple, Driggs said: "We basically ran the ball down people's throats and were just tougher than the people we played."

It was a while before they found their stride, though.

They lost 23-6 at Missouri. Driggs said the Utes took the field in Columbia to an eerie silence, and when the tens of thousands flew into a sudden frenzy at the sight of their Tigers, Utah was intimidated. Said Pease: "By the time we figured out we could beat them, we had lost the game."

And they lost 14-13 at Wyoming. Jefferson blamed himself for missing an extra point that he aimed left of the left upright and still missed right in the whipping wind, Driggs blamed the refs' failure to see that a Utah punt had hit a Wyoming player's leg before he'd recovered it, and Pease blamed two Utah drives that stalled inside the Cowboys' 5.

But against Frank Kush's powerhouse Arizona State Sun Devils, Utah stopped them from reaching the end zone for the first time in 77 games, and players carried off Nagel after a 16-3 victory

According to guard Vinnie Panariello, an ASU player said, "Forget it. I quit."

"He lost his ambition to go out on the field."

The Utes kept winning as tackle Greg Kent painted each week's score onto his old Chevy, dubbed the "Snagmobile" for its owner's crooked teeth.

They earned a share of the WAC title by beating BYU, shut out a Cal team led by legendary quarterback Craig Morton, and didn't allow a touchdown for 24 straight quarters until Utah State broke through for six — and only six — in the regular-season finale.

"Bullet" Bob • Nagel, later a head coach at Iowa and currently in poor health, left an unfailingly positive impression on media, players and even players' wives.

"I never saw him lose his cool," Coleman said.

In an era when coaches were "rough and somewhat brutal and maybe even cruel," Jefferson said, "you always knew you could go and talk to him."

He was the good cop.

And then there was Bob Watson, who players called "the hatchet man," "the hammer," "a tyrant."

Nicknamed "Bullet" Bob as a jab at the shape of his hairless head, Watson played with Nagel at UCLA and was in his second year at the U.

He was a stickler for detail, and Pease said that in his 48 years of coaching, Watson "was the only guy I've ever been around who could watch a football play and tell you what all 22 guys did, right and wrong."

He'd tell you, all right.

Guard Ted Snoddy remembers that when Watson's wrath was incurred — which was often — "You could see the saliva and the spit coming out of his mouth, and you could see the veins in his bald head pop out."

It was single-wing football, Pease said, "bludgeon and assault drills," and Watson was of Bear Bryant's opinion that if a player couldn't handle the physicality, it was best to find that out in practice.

So they'd scrimmage every day. Full-tackle. And if Watson didn't think a player was appropriately manhandling the guy opposite him, he'd deliver a personal demonstration.

Driggs said that minutes before the Liberty Bowl's kickoff, Watson grabbed him by the jersey, pulled him close to his face, and said "You'd better play your best game of the year, or I'm going to kick your ass."

"I said, 'I will, coach, I will.'"

Maybe as much as anybody — even Nagel or Jefferson ­— Watson is credited by former players for Utah's success.

And as much as anybody, he was hated.

Jefferson felt that way until, after the Utes won the bowl, Watson called him into his office to say he was sorry.

"I chose a way to try and get the best out of you that wasn't very dignified," he told him, "and I'm embarrassed, and I want to apologize for doing it."

Both men then cried.

"Here I hated a guy for two years that was trying to do the best for me, and it was tough, you know?" Jefferson said. "That was a tough moment. But I appreciated him giving me that moment."

Watson died years ago in Southern California. Snoddy last heard he ran a motel, and Jefferson heard he had become a pastor.

Prior to his death, Jefferson called a couple of times to thank him again.

"I just told him that I was thinking about you, coach."

Boardwalk bliss • One of eight bowls in 1964, the Liberty Bowl was held indoors to combat lagging attendance during five years at Philadelphia Stadium. And it was a spectacle.

Best-known as the home of the annual Miss America pageant, the Atlantic City Convention Hall was the site at which Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated for a full presidential term months earlier.

Utah's players felt like rock stars.

Wingback Jerry Pullman was the son of Pullman Tailors founder David, and his father made them golden camel-hair blazers with "U. of U." sewn into the pockets. Players bought fedoras to match.

All decked out, players strolled the oceanside in the bitter chill, belting out the 1964 Drifters hit "Under the Boardwalk."

Married players were allowed to bring their spouses, so some had rushed marriages to get a free honeymoon. (Wives were off-limits after curfew and stayed on another floor prior to the game.)

Guard Ketil Moksnes also notes that players were giddy at receiving pristine white uniforms for the bowl, which they donned at the hotel before being bussed over to the locker room-less convention center.

Much was made of the condition of the field — 4 inches of sod atop 2 inches of burlap, atop concrete — and while former Utes have varying accounts (Pease said it was similar to Astroturf, Driggs said his entire body was black-and-blue days later), most agree it was not worse than the frozen tundra they'd practiced on at Ute Stadium.

The end zones were shorter than usual — abbreviated for a stage at one end and overhanging seats, with uprights attached to the railing, at the other — and it was easy to lose a punt in the arcing track lights.

But Utah had "Bullet" Bob. These were not obstacles.

Coleman felt the Mountaineers were poor tacklers and told Jacobs and wingback Andy Ireland: "Once you make contact, just keep pumping, keep pumping, because they didn't wrap up."

Even as Jefferson and Pease exited the game with shoulder injuries, Coleman totaled 154 yards, including a 53-yard scamper, and Moksnes said the Utes were so unaffected by the Mountaineers that after routing them, they ran their usual post-practice sprints on the convention center turf, "laughing all the way."

The teams met again for an after-game dinner (players without wives were provided dates by a modeling agency) and presented watches by Ed McMahon before the Utes left for New York with envelopes full of money.

"I remember coming home with 50 cents," Snoddy said.

Jefferson, drafted in the second round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, prevailed on his new team to score about 20 tickets so that his wife, Candie, and teammates could enjoy the musical "Golden Boy," featuring Sammy Davis Jr. and Lola Falana.

For Driggs, the highlight was seeing his photo on the front page of The New York Times sports section. Snoddy treasured the sight of his name in TV Guide. And Panariello remembers that prior to the game, a Mountaineer nicknamed "Motor Mouth" by his own team had been asking "Where's Utah?"

At the post-game dinner, it was "Where's Motor Mouth?"

He never showed up.

Bygones • There is no existing game tape from the Liberty Bowl game.

Some have misplaced or ruined their blazers and watches.

And when the 1964 team was inducted into the school's Crimson Club Hall of Fame in September, it is the nature of time that many old friends were missing, too.

But for those who stay in touch, Panariello said, it's like they're picking up a conversation they left off yesterday.

It's remarkable, said Driggs, how the voices and mannerisms of his former teammates endure, even as the years change them.

"We went through a lot together," he said. "We survived 'Bullet' Bob together. There was no animosity among the players. We played well and we played hard and we were blue-collar guys."

And, said Vinnie, he always tells his former teammates he loves them.

"Because, you know what? I do."

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

1964 Utes by the numbers

Record • 9-2, including a seven-game win streak to end the season

Key wins • New Mexico (defending WAC champions), Arizona State, California, Utah State, West Virginia

Scoreline • Utes were fifth of 120 teams in scoring defense (6.2) and 17th in scoring offense (21.3)

Scoreless • Utah held seven of 11 opponents without a touchdown and went 24 straight quarters without conceding a touchdown.

Team leaders • Richard Groth completed 50 of 107 passes for 785 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions while Ernest "Pokey" Allen went 28 for 60 for 409 yards, four scores and four picks; Allen Jacobs carried 175 times for 752 yards and scored eight times while Ron Coleman carried 123 times for 750 yards and scored six times; Roy Jefferson caught 24 passes for 395 yards and two touchdowns while John Pease caught 23 for 406 yards and two TDs; and C.D. Lowery intercepted eight passes while Allen added five as a safety.

Team makeup • The Utes were predominantly Californian — 32, against just 19 from Utah — and at a time when the nation was driving toward change with college football in tow, the team saw an infusion of black players. This wasn't a big topic of discussion among teammates, said wingback John Pease, but "I think it was real good for the student body, and I think it was real good for the state."