The Only Rivalry that Matters: It’s UCLA vs. USC on Saturday!
Those who know me know that I'm a Trojan. I've been one my entire life. So, nothing gets me more excited than the Clash of the Crosstowns, otherwise known as the Big Game, the annual gridiron match between the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins. This annual game determines who "owns" the city for the next year and which team can lord it over the other for the next 364 days. It decides which coach gets the better football recruits. It determines who gets to take possession of the Victory Bell. It causes fights not only on the field but between students on the two campuses and inside families. (Ask me, a true Trojan doesn't even consider marrying a Bruin.) In other words, it shows the world which team is better. It's this Saturday and it's going to be a wild and woolly affair.
For the first time in many years, this game has meaning and substance -- the boys on both sides are playing for something. The Bruins, after having their fans call for the mid-season firing of their head coach Rick Neuhisel due to ugly losses to lousy teams, have resurrected their program (and saved their coach's neck) with a few well-timed wins. Even with a slightly-better-than-mediocre 6-5 record, they actually have a chance to play in the first-ever Pac-12 Championship game. Meanwhile, the Trojans are at the end of a two-year ban on post-season play. So, even though they, by rights, are the leaders in the Southern Division of the Pac-12, they cannot play in the Pac-12 Championship game. Oh, what a beautiful and perfect scenario for future editions of the Trojans-Bruins rivalry: the Trojans actually win the Pac-12 while the Bruins get to play in the game. This is not something that will sit well with the Trojans (ever!), yet it’s something that the Bruins will hold over the Trojans forever.
Because the universities are a mere 12 miles apart and are forced to share the same city, the competition is already at full throttle. UCLA had claimed the upper hand with a higher ranking, academic overachievers and a seemingly better location on the west side of town. But, USC has not only closed the gap, it has bypassed its crosstown competition by earning a higher ranking in US News and World Report (two years in a row, I might add) and by being named College of the Year in 2000 by both Time and Princeton Review, in part because of its enduring work with its Neighborhood Academic Initiative program. With equally high-achieving students and the largest international student population, USC has carved a niche on the West Coast as a popular, highly academic and much-sought-after college.
But, let’s get back to football. To get the juices flowing before the Big Game, both teams have their annual pep rally, where coaches and football players get passionate and mascots are burned in effigy. And, in the days leading up to the game, hijinks can get a bit crazy. It began in 1939, with the Victory Bell, which was a gift to the Bruins...until clever Trojans, pretending to be helpful Bruins, removed it from the Coliseum during a game, and hid it from UCLA’s student body for a solid year. The next year, with the rivalry threatening to be canceled due to the missing Victory Bell, the two schools got together and agreed to make it the trophy for the annual game. From that point on, the winner takes the spoils and gets to paint the bell in their school's colors.
Meanwhile, pranks continue to befall both sides. Tommy Trojan, the iconic statue that reminds every Trojan to be Faithful, Scholarly, Skillful, Courageous and Ambitious, stands in the middle of the USC campus, so how surprising was it to find him doused with manure by a Bruin with access to a helicopter. Since that bit of not-so-adorable vandalism, Tommy is completely covered and guarded 24 hours a day by Trojan Knights (the school's service group) during the week before the Big Game. Meanwhile, as recently as two years ago, some stealthy Trojans wandered onto the UCLA campus and nailed their bronze Bruin statue with Cardinal and Gold paint (particularly clever, since the bear was also under watch). One of the most inspired pranks in this rivalry involved 20,000 crickets, painted red and gold, and unleashed in the UCLA library.
And then there were the card stunts that shouted insults across the field to each rooting section. In the old days, when card stunts were in vogue and students in the rooting section held up different colored cards to spell out various cheers (or, jeers) during halftime, I happened to be sitting in the section when one of the most famous mistakes occurred on national television during the Big Game. The USC card stunts used to be programmed by the wonks at Caltech. But, at the very last minute, Kodak bought an ad, asking the rooting section to spell out its company name. Little did we know that this would affect the rest of the stunts, for, right there, on national TV, we were spelling out "Westwood sucks."
Meanwhile, the Spirit of Troy, the Trojan Marching Band, used to play football against the UCLA band in the week before the Big Game, but this ended a few years ago when tensions ran high and instruments went missing. Anyway, we don't need a field competition to say which band reigns supreme. The Spirit of Troy is world renown, after all, being the only marching band in the world with a song that went double-platinum on the Billboard charts. That would be "Tusk," on which the band played behind Fleetwood Mac (and which the Bruins will hear again and again on Saturday because there's one specific refrain that USC fans love to chant). We have our own lyrics for the UCLA fight song, just as I'm sure they have for ours. And, we even have a saying about our “Perfect Day” – it’s a win for USC and losses for UCLA and Notre Dame. There have been 34 such Perfect Days since 1960. And the rancor continues.
Meanwhile, the best excitement always comes on the field. But, no matter which team is better, there is always a risk of an upset. The opponents love nothing more than to ruin the other team’s chances at a ranking, a bowl game or owning the keys to the city. And, one or the other of these scenarios has occurred time and time again. It will be difficult to duplicate the excitement of 1967’s “Game of the Century” featuring UCLA’s future Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Gary Beban and USC’s future Heisman Trophy-winning running back O.J. Simpson. ABC announcer Keith Jackson, who was in his first year of broadcasting college football games, called it the “greatest game he has ever seen.” The winner? USC, thanks to a 64-yard touchdown run by O.J. I was there. It was spectacular. But, then so was the game at the Rose Bowl that found UCLA leading 42-38 with 1:19 left and the Trojans, led by quarterback Todd Marinovich, mounting a furious comeback resulting in a touchdown pass to Johnny Morton with 20 second left, giving the Trojans a 45-42 win. I’m sure there are memorable wins for the Bruins, too…I just don’t remember them!
But, this year, there’s so much more on the line that tensions are already ramping up. There really shouldn’t be a question who will win the game. USC, with a 9-2 record, a smashing defense that closed down #4 Oregon, a record-breaking quarterback in Matt Barkley and two of the most exciting wide receivers playing the game (Robert Woods and Marqise Lee) is most likely going to beat UCLA. But, the momentum of the game can turn on a dime, so it’s not wise to be too confident. Right now, I’m guessing the coaches of both teams are studying game film and charting plays they plan to unveil; expect to see plays and formations you haven’t yet seen from either of these teams. And, I suspect the players are practicing with renewed vigor and determination because no one wants to lose this game. After all, you’re playing against kids you went to high school with, played club ball with and run into at restaurants, theaters and clubs. When you win, you can walk into a room standing a little taller than when you lose.
Meanwhile, the Trojan mascot, Traveler, is, I’m sure, under tight security, as is the Cardinal-and-Gold Victory Bell, the Bruin bear and Tommy Trojan. Students and alumni are pulling out their sweatshirts to show school pride and tailgates are being planned where we’re likely to see both Trojans and Bruins standing side-by-side.
See? Nothing else compares to this rivalry. It affects husbands and wives, fathers and sons, brothers and sisters. And, as I sit here, wearing my Cardinal-and-Gold “Beat the Bruins” T-shirt, I’m thrilled to be going to this Crosstown rivalry on Saturday because there just isn’t anything else like it in the world.
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