This is the time of year when America’s second largest city becomes a house divided.
On one side is the University of Southern California, a private school located in a gritty neighborhood just south of downtown Los Angeles whose students, alumni and fans wear cardinal and gold and are fiercely proud of, and extremely fanatic about, their Trojan football team.
On the other side is the University of California, Los Angeles, a public institution that calls Westwood, a tony area of L.A’s Westside, home. The exclusive Bel-Air neighborhood sits on the school’s northern borders.
Better known to one and all as UCLA, their blue and gold-clad community is known more for their dedication to basketball, where they’ve won 11 national championships, but there is still an enthusiastic fan base for the Bruins on the gridiron.
This year marks the 80th meeting of these two colleges, located just 12 miles apart, in football. Bonfire rallies will be held on the respective campuses, and bragging rights in Los Angeles will be on the line.
Though there were a few periods where UCLA had the upper hand, this rivalry has generally gone in USC’s favor as they lead the all-time series 44 to 28, with seven ties.
The 21st century has been particulary one sided, as the Trojans have won 10 out of 11 meetings against the Bruins, most of those wins coming by blowout; with the exception of 2006, when UCLA knocked 2nd-ranked USC out of the BCS National Championship Game with an epic 13-9 victory, ‘SC has owned the Bruins.
That was also the case in the early days of the series; the Trojans outscored UCLA by a combined score of 128-0 the first two times the teams met in 1929 and 1930. The talent level of the two teams were so lopsided that they stopped playing each other for seven years after that.
Throughout the rivalry’s history, USC has had a natural advantage over UCLA in football to the point where with a few exceptions, it’s been considered an upset whenever Troy falls to Westwood’s Bruins.
Even during UCLA’s record eight-game winning streak over the Trojans from 1991-1998, most of those wins were close and went down to the wire, with UCLA having to fight for those triumphs.
There are two significant factors that I feel explain why ‘SC’s generally been ahead of the Bruins as a football program…
First, the simple fact that USC has had a 31-year head start.
When UCLA first opened as the Southern Branch of the University of California and fielded their first team in 1919, the Trojans had been playing the gridiron game for 31 years; that’s like running the Olympic 400 meters with Usain Bolt having a 30 meter head start.
The second factor is the more pertinent one, which lies in the cutural and institutional emphasis that football has had at the two schools over the decades, and for the most part continues to.
In the 1910s and 20s, USC’s administration decided to make a serious commitment to building the best college football program on the west coast. Lots of money from prominent boosters and alumni went toward that direction, which paid off with the Trojans’ first Rose Bowl appearance in 1923.
With its 22 Rose Bowl wins, ten national championships and six Heisman Trophy winners (it was 11 national championships and 7 Heismans respectively, but we all know what happened), USC has more than succeeded in becoming a football power.
More importantly, the “Trojan Family” demands top excellence from the pigskin; losses are devastating and anything short of the Rose Bowl or the BCS National Championship Game is considered a disappointment at best and an absolute failure by most.
This “Win at all costs” mentality is so entrenched that the program paid for it with their NCAA sanctions this year.
I suppose that to most, if not all, Trojans, losing 30 scholarships over three years and having to vacate 25 wins, including the BCS title in 2004, is worth all the glory.
In a stark contrast, UCLA does not have that kind of mindset toward its football team, and never really has despite the fact that they had a couple of good runs on the national scene in the early 1950s and the 1980s.
The biggest Bruin success has been on the basketball court. With its 11 NCAA titles during the 1960s and the 70s, any emphasis on sports excellence was funneled in that direction.
By the late 80s, UCLA’s athletic department decided that rather than committing themselves to merely having the best football program at the expense of other sports, they wanted to build the best overall athletic program.
That emphasis has come to fruition in the past 15 years, as the Bruins overtook their Trojan counterparts in number of NCAA team championships; as of this writing, UCLA has won 106 national titles, which leads the nation.
USC is a distant third.
To put all of this in a nutshell, this level of football focus can be summed up this way:
At UCLA, Bruin football is seen as one piece of the athletic pie. It’s considered an important piece, but it’s still one piece nonetheless.
At USC, football is seen as the whole pie, the engine keeping Trojan athletics going. Without the pigskin, ‘SC sports is largely insignificant to their fans.
As long as the cultural emphasis at the two schools is what it is, UCLA’s football program will always be behind USC’s; the proverbial blue and gold headed stepchild.
For the Bruins to even things out, a complete philosophical change neds to happen.
Everyone, from the chancellor to the athletic director on down, must commit their energies, and especially their money, to having a championship-level program rather than a team that has a couple of good years every decade and is mediocre the rest of the time.
On the other side of the coin, the Trojans have never accepted mediocrity from their football team, and they never will.
Too many UCLA students, alumni and fans have, and therein lies the problem.
The worst thing about this is the reality that, in my opinion, UCLA will never put up the money, resources and support to build a program that will be in the BCS top ten every year, like ‘SC.
Because of their culture, I don’t think the Bruins will ever completely eliminate the natural advantage that USC has over them on the gridiron; as long as they beat the Trojans twice or so every five years and grab two or three Rose Bowl bids every decade, that’s considered just fine to too many folks in the UCLA community.
Which is too bad, as rivalries are best when both programs are completely even.