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Still the One

Pro teams have come and gone, but USC has held fast and carved out its own piece of history

January 01, 2006|Melvin Durslag

You begin with an audit that shows that the Rams bid adios to Los Angeles. The Raiders departed and so did the Chargers. Three Los Angeles pro teams, members of off-Broadway leagues, entered into rest.

Then UCLA fled Los Angeles, choosing to nest in Pasadena. And the baseball Angels, born in Los Angeles, selected as their new residence Orange County, named for citrus since traded for stucco.

Only USC remains in its old location, a vaunted force doing football business since 1888 with varying results, but mostly pleasing to the legions worshipping at the shrine of Tommy Trojan.

That romance has been evident for decades now, dating perhaps to the series matching USC's Howard Jones with Notre Dame's Knute Rockne. It precedes football travel by propeller. The "Trojan Special," as Southern Pacific called it, would roll out of Union Station in Los Angeles bound for the war zones of South Bend, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Seattle, New Orleans and the like.

And settled aboard would be USC boosters and alumni, blessed by the privilege of riding the rails with the troops. At such ports as Tucson, Denver, St. Louis, even Tucumcari, N.M., the train would stop for maybe three hours, permitting the players to unload for a workout.

The faithful following was admitted to the practices, even was willing to abandon the club car for them. That is the kind of sacrifice over the years for which Trojan supporters are known.

And now USC stands on the doorsill of a monstrous combat against Texas that will net one of the principals something described as a national championship.

This will happen Wednesday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where visitors come trustingly in winter, expecting soft trade winds and tropical fahrenheits. By the third quarter, they feel the game is being played in Duluth.

And, mind you, this is when kickoff takes place at 2 p.m. When it happens at 5, as it will Wednesday, the functions of USC and Texas will dim in the struggle for life.

Since Texas is a relative stranger in these parts, it must be briefed on the intriguing history of the Rose Bowl. Like a tip on a horse, there is a story that goes with it.

To start with, football wasn't even in the plan of locals deciding to sponsor a winter festival in Pasadena in 1890. They had in mind a parade, foot-racing, jousting and equestrian exercises. Then in 1902, someone was inspired to suggest a football game. Stanford and Michigan were enlisted. And the game was such a roaring success that football was dropped in favor of polo, always a hit with plumbers and garment workers.

A chariot race and an auto race also were introduced, not to mention a race between a camel and an elephant. When they tried an ostrich race, and an ostrich kicked the bejabbers out of his rider, it was decided such events were too violent. They went back to football.

That was 1916, and, by 1923, the new stadium was completed and USC marched in to trim Penn State.

Historians have recorded that Penn State, trapped in a traffic jam, arrived at the scene 45 minutes late. The moon had risen over the Arroyo Seco when the game ended. Sportswriters had to light matches to complete their brilliant accounts.

If USC has experienced its ups and downs in the Rose Bowl, the same may be said of the sports literati, America's foremost thinkers. Entertaining exquisitely, the Rose Bowl used to serve wrapped sandwiches to the press. One author unwrapped his gourmet treat and announced that the meat had turned green. The Rose Bowl disputed this, arguing that the writer had mistaken the lettuce for the meat.

"If I can't tell lettuce from roast beef," the writer insisted, "I'll hang up my napkin."

Every coach bringing a team to the Rose Bowl has prepared with a science uniquely his own. Woody Hayes, for instance, once had water shipped from Ohio. Hayes also enlisted uniformed guards to patrol his practices. No one was going to spy on the old field marshal. It never was disclosed whether the guards were armed, but you developed the fear that a little kid crawling under the fence would be shot dead.

Hayes performed in the Pasadena game eight times, usually arriving on the scene eight to 10 days ahead of time. The distinguished leader of Ohio State would explain, "When you fight in the North Atlantic, you train in the North Atlantic."

In matters cerebral, Hayes and the Rose Bowl never seemed to connect, starting with his first visit in 1955. For one of the few times in the game's history, rain invaded the area. Making his reconnaissance, Hayes submitted that the pregame and halftime shows should be canceled.

"Band members wear flat shoes," he explained, with his customary erudition. "Flat shoes mat down grass, and there goes your footing."

Hayes lost the argument, concluding he couldn't be responsible for earthly ignorance. But he still managed to best USC that day, 20-7.

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