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At USC and Notre Dame, They Take This Game Very Seriously

Big from the start in 1926, the storied rivalry has been steeped in memorable moments.

November 29, 2002|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

There are singular moments of individual glory, so many of them. Six touchdowns in a game by USC's Anthony Davis. A 56-yard, game-winning punt return by Notre Dame's Tim Brown.

USC falling behind 24-0, then scoring 55 unanswered points. Notre Dame playing its starters until the bitter end, to preserve the shutout in a 51-0 win.

National titles have been won and lost; players have made themselves Heisman Trophy winners. Jersey colors have been changed, from Notre Dame's traditional blue to kelly green, in hopes of gaining a psychological edge, as in a notable 1977 game in South Bend, Ind. And then there's that Trojan white horse, the sight of which nearly made a Notre Dame coach physically ill.

USC versus Notre Dame is arguably college football's greatest rivalry. The schools will play, Saturday afternoon in the Coliseum, for the 74th time and for the 57th consecutive year. Notre Dame leads the series 42-26-5, but those 26 Trojan victories are more than any other team has against the Fighting Irish. And Notre Dame's 42 wins are the most by any USC opponent.

The rivalry aside, for the first time since 1988, when Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 and USC No. 2 in the country, this game has huge meaning for both teams. The winner should receive an invitation to one of the nation's four biggest -- and richest -- postseason bowl games.

That's how it is with these two teams, each always expecting greatness, from themselves and from each other.

The winner will also earn a shillelagh trophy that, according to legend, was flown from Ireland by Howard Hughes' pilot. There are 42 emerald-studded shamrocks to represent the Notre Dame wins and 26 ruby-decorated Trojan heads for USC's victories.

No fewer than 11 Heisman Trophy winners -- the award goes to college football's best player -- have been produced by USC and Notre Dame. In 14 of the games, one of the teams went on to win a national title. Twice USC, in the last scheduled game of the season, has upset the Irish and cost them the national title.

The second time came in 1964. Trailing 17-0 at halftime, USC rallied to win, 20-17. The game-winning touchdown came with 1 minute, 33 seconds left on a fourth-down, 15-yard pass from Craig Fertig to Rod Sherman after defender Tony Carey had fallen down.

Fertig, a broadcaster for USC games on television, paid a visit to the Trojans' practice Monday. "I busted into their meeting," Fertig said, "and I was wearing a green sweater with a shamrock over my heart. I was a wild man. Coach [Norm] Chow [a USC assistant coach] told me to settle down a little bit because it was only Monday.

"But it's a big game, it's always been a big game, it always will be a big game.

"It's hard to explain, but if you're an SC person you will always have to play Notre Dame and if you're a Notre Dame person, you'll always have to play SC."

This rivalry is about so much more than a trophy. It is about history.

"When I got to USC," said Davis, who scored his six touchdowns against the Fighting Irish in 1972, "I studied about the past games. Did you know the first game was in 1926 and it was started by two women?"

Well, maybe.

USC's traditional version of the story is that Marion Wilson, whose husband, Gwynn, was the Trojans' athletics team manager (much like today's athletic director), was on a train to Chicago along with the Notre Dame team, determined to convince Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne that a series of games between USC and Notre Dame would be a good idea.

Rockne thought his team was traveling too much and didn't like the idea of hauling the Irish halfway across the country on the train. But Marion was in a compartment with Rockne's wife, Bonnie. The women hit it off. Bonnie told Knute she thought the game was a good idea.

And a legendary series was born.

"But there's no truth to that story," said Murray Sperber, author of "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football. "What happened was that the Los Angeles Coliseum had been recently built. USC people came to South Bend and offered a huge amount of money and Notre Dame accepted."

It is the nation's greatest intersectional football rivalry, according to historian Bernie Kish, director of the National College Football Hall of Fame. Since 1926, except for three years during World War II, the Fighting Irish have traveled some 2,000 miles to Los Angeles or the Trojans have traveled a similar distance to the Midwest.

Sperber called the team's train travel west "a pilgrimage. The Fighting Irish train would go south to New Orleans, to Houston, across Arizona, to places with large Catholic populations, and when they came back they would go through San Francisco and Denver and take a long time at each of those stops. They were given parades and parties and it was an amazing journey."

The maturation of the rivalry, in many ways, matched the maturation of this country.

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