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It's a Series Made of Memories : Since 1926, USC-Notre Dame Has Been a Storied Rivalry

November 25, 1988|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

It's USC's centennial season of football, and Saturday's game against Notre Dame at the Coliseum will be the 60th in the storied series. Let the memories roll:

In 1925, Gwynn Wilson, a USC graduate manager in athletics and his bride, Marion, were aboard a train bound for Chicago with a mission in mind: to persuade Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne to agree to a series against USC.

Rockne, already a legendary coach, was cool to the proposal, according to Wilson.

"I thought the whole thing was off," Wilson recalled. "But as Rock and I talked, Marion was with Mrs. Rockne, Bonnie, in her compartment.

"Marion told Bonnie how nice Southern California was and how hospitable the people were.

"Well, when Rock went back to his compartment, Bonnie talked him into the game. He then looked me up and said, 'What kind of proposition do you have?' 'I said, 'We'll give you a $20,000 guarantee.'

"He said he would talk to Father Matthew G. Walsh (Notre Dame's president). He did, and the series was on, with the first game to be played on Dec. 4, 1926.

"However, if it hadn't been for Mrs. Wilson talking to Mrs. Rockne, there wouldn't have been a series."

And there would have been a void in college football lore.

Notre Dame won the first game, 13-12, when a previously injured quarterback, Art Parisien, threw the winning touchdown pass.

The Irish would win 2 of the next 3 games by 1 point, by 7-6 in 1927 and 13-12 in 1929.

The 1927 meeting in Chicago's Soldier Field attracted an estimated 120,000, the largest crowd in the history of college football.

Rockne died in a plane crash in Kansas in the spring of 1931. Still, the Irish had a 26-game unbeaten streak when they played the Trojans that season at South Bend, Ind.

Notre Dame led, 14-0, in the fourth quarter, but USC rallied dramatically for 2 touchdowns, then won the game, 16-14, in the closing minutes on Johnny Baker's 23-yard field goal.

When the Trojans returned by train to Los Angeles, they were greeted by a crowd estimated at 300,000 on a confetti-strewn parade route to City Hall.

It's still regarded as the wildest sports celebration in Los Angeles history. Yes, even topping the turnout for the National Basketball Assn. champion Lakers, particularly considering the population of the city at the time.

Marv Goux, USC's longtime defensive line coach who is now with the Rams, has his own perspective on the series.

Mention Notre Dame, and Goux will say emotionally:

"What's more important in life than coming out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium with the leaves turning brown on an autumn afternoon and the sun glinting off the Golden Dome?

"It's the best in the West against the best in the East. It's big man again big man. There's nothing like it."

So it seems.

In 1966, Notre Dame beat USC, 51-0, in a final regular-season game to clinch the national championship.

It was the worst loss in USC's history, and the next season, Coach John McKay would often seclude himself in a film room and review the game.

Craig Fertig, an assistant USC coach at the time and now associate athletic director at UC Irvine, said of the well-worn film: "We finally had to burn it when he wasn't looking."

McKay reportedly vowed then that he would never lose to the Irish again.

He came close to achieving his goal, as the Trojans won 6, lost 1 and tied 2 of the last 9 games he coached against the Irish.

Before McKay got the hang of beating the Irish, he watched Mike Hunter, a small USC halfback, return the opening kickoff against Notre Dame in the 1965 game at South Bend.

Hunter slipped and fell flat on his face at USC's 13-yard line as a partisan crowd roared its approval.

McKay exclaimed from the sideline: "My God, they've shot him."

Fertig recalled that the USC players were shivering on the field before the start of that game, while the Irish waited in the warmth of their dressing room.

So, in 1967, when the Trojans returned to South Bend, McKay wouldn't let his team take the field until the Irish did.

Fertig said an official kept knocking on the door of the USC dressing room to inform McKay that the Trojans should leave their sanctuary.

"Finally, an official said, 'Coach McKay, if you don't get your team out there, you'll forfeit the game,' " Fertig recalled. "McKay asked the official what's the score of a forfeit. When he was told it was 2-0, McKay snapped, 'That's the best damn deal we've had here yet.' "

Notre Dame students used to "shake down the thunder from the sky" in pregame rallies in an old field house on campus.

There was an emotional scene before the 1969 game when Rocky Bleier, a former Irish halfback who would go on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, limped onto the stage as the house lights dimmed.

Bleier, a wounded Vietnam war veteran who had just returned home, leaned on his cane and implored, "Let's win this one for the guys in the rice paddies."

The best the Irish could do was gain a tie, 14-14.

The greening of the Irish:

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