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Too close for comfort

Proximity makes USC-UCLA special, but a coach can make a difference

December 01, 2007|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The House of Blues had a little too much cardinal and gold in it for Bob Toledo's taste.

Toledo was UCLA's football coach a few years ago and was escorting a group of recruits into the restaurant when USC assistant Ed Orgeron appeared with a passel of recruits in tow.

"It was the damnedest thing I had ever seen," Toledo recalled. "They start talking to our recruits in the parking lot and I was getting mad."

So what happened? "We were talking to their recruits too," said Toledo, who now coaches at Tulane. "We ended up with Marcedes Lewis out of that group. They got Darnell Bing."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 67 words Type of Material: Correction
College football coaches: An article in Saturday's Sports section on the USC-UCLA rivalry said that only twice have the Trojans and Bruins brought in new coaches in the same year, one of them being in 1920 when Howard Jones joined USC and William Spaulding joined UCLA. However, Jones came to USC in 1925, so there was only one year, 1976, in which both schools hired new coaches.

That, Toledo added, "is how it works in that rivalry. You're so close that everyone knows each other's business. You have to live 365 days together in that city. That's great if you're the guy who won that year."

For the other? Well, that's not so great.

The UCLA-USC football rivalry is about the personality of those running the programs. The ebbs and flows of the series seem to hinge on one side having a coach who stands out, while the other searches for the counterbalance.

Ohio State's Woody Hayes and Michigan's Bo Schembechler barked at each other from across state lines. Down south, Auburn and Alabama have 120 miles of Dixie as a buffer zone.

Within the Los Angeles city limits, there is one guy looking down and one guy trying to climb up.

"In Los Angeles, the persona of the person really makes a difference, whether it's the Lakers or Dodgers or USC or UCLA," former USC coach John Robinson said. "You guys don't write about boring guys, and if the boring guy is not winning, you lose that front-page attention. That becomes a factor in recruiting."

Both schools may have to seek new leaders after this season.

At USC, the annual speculation that Pete Carroll is off to the NFL has started, and those around Heritage Hall figure that someday the NFL will make him an offer he can't refuse.

Out in Westwood, Karl Dorrell's $2.05-million pink slip is ready -- a buyout package to be paid over two years, sources familiar with the athletic department say. A victory over USC today coupled with a berth in the Rose Bowl is believed to be the only thing that will prevent Dorrell's exit. His 1-3 record against USC is hardly a selling point.

"At UCLA, you got to beat USC," former Bruins coach Terry Donahue said. "You don't have to beat them all the time, but you need to beat them enough to keep your job. What is enough? That's probably in the hands of the decision-makers."

Only twice have USC and UCLA brought in new coaches in the same year -- in 1920, when Howard Jones was hired at USC and William Spaulding at UCLA, and 1976, when Robinson and Donahue arrived near the same time.

Robinson beat UCLA his first four games, continuing a 14-5-1 Trojans run that began under John McKay. Donahue and the Bruins were increasingly cast as second-class citizens in Los Angeles going into the 1980 game.

"The press and the talk shows were saying that if I didn't win that game, I was gone," Donahue said.

The Bruins prevailed, 20-17, and won five of the next seven meetings.

Donahue went 10-5-1 against USC from 1980 to '95, with the Trojans having three coaches in that span, including a second tour of duty for Robinson. When he returned in 1993, UCLA was the A-list-and-klieg-light program.

"I could tell we didn't have as many good players," Robinson said. "The focus on the program had slipped. . . . I always felt guilty that I didn't recognize that and it took me a couple of years to say, 'Uh-oh, things are not same.' "

UCLA won eight consecutive games against USC -- Donahue the first five and Toledo the next three. The Bruins also came within one Edgerrin James run of playing in the national title game in 1998. That loss to Miami started the slide back.

"I think you have to be a good coach, a good recruiter and a good PR guy in both those jobs," said Toledo, who lost his last three USC games and was fired after the 2002 season. "There are so many functions you got to attend, so much media, and you're both in one city. Everything you do is displayed under glass."

And change is always a new hire away.

"All of a sudden, Pete was doing a great job and the worm has turned a little now," Toledo said.

The series has been a pendulum swing. When one university finds the guy, the other usually needs a Grail-like quest to stem the momentum.

A dynamic, high-profile coach has always turned things around.

Jones came to USC in 1925, when college football began to swell in Los Angeles. He won four national titles and had a 5-0-1 record against UCLA.

The Trojans had a 12-2-4 record against the Bruins when Red Sanders was hired on the recommendation from sportswriter Grantland Rice. UCLA won six of nine games against USC under Sanders before he died of a heart attack before the 1958 season. The Bruins won their only national title in 1954.

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