Former UCLA coach Red Sanders once said: “The USC-UCLA game is not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that.”
It is in that spirit that USC and UCLA will take the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tonight.
College football rivalry games are something special – longstanding traditions based on a deep, innate competitiveness, if not pure hatred. They are games in which everything is on the line and anything can happen, games that must be won in order to keep the rabid fan bases content and the cash flowing in.
Tonight’s game will make the 81st time USC and UCLA have faced each other, dating back to 1929, but on the field, it hasn’t been too competitive in recent years. USC has won the last 11 of 12 games against the Bruins, the only loss a stunning 13-9 upset in 2006 that ended the Trojans’ national title hopes.
A USC win this weekend may very well end Rick Neuheisel’s hopes of retaining his dream job coaching at his alma mater. With a losing record in four seasons and without a win in the all-important rivalry game, it’s difficult to fathom the Bruins keeping him on for another year unless UCLA beats the Trojans this weekend.
The coaches aren’t the only ones putting everything they have into the game – the players will face off against friends, neighbors and in some cases, brothers when they take the field. The schools are separated by just 12 miles; many players who will be on opposite sides of the field were teammates as far back as their Pee Wee football days, and many of them were recruited by the other school.
There’s a lot on the line, too, because it’s the end of the line for many of the players. UCLA’s seniors don’t want to graduate without a win over their hated rivals.
For USC’s seniors, and several key juniors, without the prospect of a Pac-12 championship berth or a bowl game, this game will be their last. Some will go on to successful NFL careers. Others may not step on a football field again. Going out with a win is the only way to go.
And if USC wins, it will be a victory lap over a successful season in the face of brutal NCAA sanctions. It’s been a rough few years for the Trojans.
One of the most successful coaches in school history, Pete Carroll, left USC to coach the Seattle Seahawks. Months later, the Trojans went from powerhouse to afterthought when the NCAA slapped USC with the dreaded “lack of institutional control” label, a two-year bowl ban, and 30 scholarships over three years.
They lost their coach, a string of victories, a Heisman trophy, valuable scholarships, and a lot of respect, but a win in this game will be a topper on a season that showed that USC might have been down, but they’re still not out.
The seniors who run out of the tunnel this Saturday are the ones who stuck with the program against tough odds, even though they could’ve transferred, no questions asked, without sitting out a year, to go to a school with something to play for. Instead, they stayed and played for pride.
“University of Spoiled Children”? They had nothing to play for, except themselves, their teammates, and the storied program in which they believed so strongly.
They stayed, when Carroll left. They adjusted to, and then thrived under, new coach Lane Kiffin, helping the Trojans achieve a 17-7 in the face of what could’ve been crippling penalties.
The seniors who stayed, and the underclassmen who chose to come to USC despite the sanctions, are finally reaping the rewards of their hard work and dedication to one of college football’s great programs.
No one thought Kiffin was qualified to step into Carroll’s shoes. He’s beginning to prove he can. No one thought the Trojans would be motivated to play at a high level without the carrot of a bowl invite dangling at the end of the season. They’re playing every game with the intensity of a bowl game, earning revenge wins over Notre Dame and Washington, battling then-undefeated Stanford into triple overtime and shutting down LaMichael James and Oregon’s high powered offense.
These Trojans have carried themselves well, in the face of tough challenges that they faced, and conquered, as a team. No one has carried himself better than quarterback Matt Barkley, who blossomed from an impromptu true freshman starter to the leader who kept the team together in the wake of the sanctions and coaching change to, finally, one of the best quarterbacks in college football. He’s only a junior, but if this is his last game, he deserves to go out on top. They all do. Over the last two years, they’ve earned it. All that’s left is to go out and earn it on the field this weekend.
It’s not a matter of life and death, but it does matter.