UCLA vs. USC: Not Exactly Life and Death

This weekend will see many of the great historic rivalries in college football; Auburn-Alabama, South Carolina-Clemson, Ohio State-Michigan, Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Florida-Florida State, Ole-Miss-Mississippi State and yes, UCLA vs. USC as well. While the showdown in Southern California may feature two teams that have been on a collective roller coaster all season, and while it may not have any obvious national implications, the game is still one of the more amazing and unique spectacles in college football.

While other rivalries divide a state or a region, the UCLA vs. USC game divides one city. The two schools are literally 12 miles apart from each other. The distance it takes most of you to make a round trip to your shopping mall is all that separates these two schools.  This part of the duel cannot be underemphasized for people not living in the greater L.A. area. While Los Angeles is geographically expansive, there is a shrunken perspective when it comes to the local college football landscape. While both schools recruit nationally, every coaching hire that has been made at either school for the last 50 years has placed an emphasis on being able to recruit locally. That means players that were teammates for four years in high school could become bitter rivals for the next four years in college. Parents who used to sit next to each other at their kids’ games now stop talking to one another. Administrations and athletic departments may talk about a healthy rivalry with the other institution, but these two schools neither respect nor like each other.  I have a friend who is a USC fan. He is the only one I can have because any more would be too many, and I am certain he feels the same about me. I would check but we don’t speak to each other this week.

Some historical perspective is needed to properly paint the picture of the rivalry. The two began playing the series in 1929. UCLA was 10 years old as a school. USC was nearly half a century old and already a football powerhouse featuring “The Thundering Herd.” The Trojans dominated the early years with UCLA not winning a game in the matchup until 1942. The Bruins were long considered the understudy in L.A. What made it worse for Bruins fans was that the two schools spent decades sharing the same home stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which is right next to the USC campus. Growing up going to the UCLA games with my grandfather was always like visiting someone else’s home. Even for a Bruins’ home game, the place felt like it belonged to the Trojans.

When the two played at the end of the season the Coliseum was split in half for the fan bases, but that was where the similarities ended. USC fans, known back then for being “old money,” wore their slacks with polo shirts and a sweater draped over their shoulders.  The women wore fine jewelry and adorned their lapels with red and gold flowers. They had catered tailgate parties with white table linens and champagne flutes. They wore buttons that proclaimed “God is a Trojan.” UCLA fans threw out blankets to sit on the grass with their picnic baskets, embracing the fact that USC was a high priced private school and UCLA was a state run school that was pleading for donor money like it was a PBS pledge drive. They were proudly equipped with, “If God is a Trojan, I’m an atheist,” on their buttons.  The USC band would strut into the stadium playing “Conquest” with the Trojans fans waving the victory sign, while UCLA fans would wave their car keys as a sign of their belief that USC was the rich boy school and the football program was bought and paid for.  Both teams wore their home uniforms and the TV visuals against the usually sunny Southern California fall afternoons were always breathtaking.

UCLA fans had to suffer through the dominant Trojan coaching eras of John McKay and John Robinson, while the “gutty little Bruins” got along with the affable enough Terry Donahue, who would win plenty of games but never truly compete for the top rung of college football. When Robinson left for the NFL, UCLA finally had its window as USC hired the likes of Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and Paul Hackett to guide the Trojan legacy. Even a second stint of John Robinson between Smith and Hackett didn’t live up to the ’70’s and early 80’s for USC. Donahue rode the proverbial wave at UCLA, started pulling in conference titles and helped the Bruins win seven straight bowl games, including three Rose Bowls.

The biggest change however, was UCLA moving to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena as its home stadium beginning with the 1982 season. The move, which coincided with the coaching carousel across town, meant Bruin fans finally felt like they had a home field advantage and could shed the inferiority complex that had dogged the program for all too long.  USC fans would now be relegated to the seats in the corner of the end zone, and USC would reciprocate at the Coliseum.  UCLA would go on an eight year winning streak that extended through the end of the Smith coaching era at UCLA, through the second Robinson tenure and the entire Hackett term. The Trojans would then make their own program changing decision by hiring Pete Carroll as their new head coach in 2000. UCLA countered with its coaching uncertainties, going through Bob Toledo, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel before fortuitously landing Jim Mora and the current three game winning streak.

The history of the game has been laced with some of the greatest players ever and they have gone on to win Rose Bowls and national championships and have distinguished NFL careers; O.J. Simpson, Bob Waterfield, Jackie Robinson, Marcus Allen, Anthony Munoz, Jonathon Ogden, Freeman McNeil, Jeff Fisher.  But their legacy comes down to one question; how did you do against UCLA or USC? Think all schools do that? Troy Aikman is in the NFL Hall of Fame. He has three Super Bowl rings. Only last year did he finally have his number retired at UCLA; and during the ceremony you could hear fans murmur the undeniable memory throughout the stadium, “Hey the guy went 0-2 against USC and Rodney Peete.” Cade McNown had off the field problems at UCLA at the end of his senior year and was an unquestioned bust as a pro quarterback. But in Westwood he is treated as football royalty because he was 4-0 as a starting quarterback against the Trojans. It’s all that matters to most of us here.

Because the schools are so amazingly close together, the students at both school newspapers play a flag football games against each other every year. It’s called the Blood Bowl. The bands used to do the same, but the games really did turn bloody and it was stopped in 2000 when USC people stole UCLA band equipment during the game. The bear statue at UCLA and the Trojan statue at USC will be covered and protected all week as both have been subjected to the other school’s colors in rivalry week pranks. They will play for the Victory Bell, an old Southern Pacific railroad bell, and the right to paint it school colors for a year. But what they are really playing for is the right for the players to claim ownership over one city when they hang out during the offseason knowing those from that other school will also be right there. They are playing for the fans to be able to go out in public the next day wearing their colors knowing they will run into folks from the other school hanging their heads.

As former UCLA head coach Red Sanders once said, “The USC vs. UCLA game is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that.”

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