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For one group of fans, USC-UCLA is a religious experience

A long-ago prank at St. John's Seminary in Camarillo led to a long-term commitment to the Bruins-Trojans basketball showdown.

February 08, 2010|Jerry Crowe

Loosely tied to a rivalry that often splits loyalties in the Southland, it is a decades-old tradition celebrating fraternity, faith, sports and a shared experience.

And it started, its organizer notes, with a prank -- an act of deception by a group of would-be Catholic priests.

Basketball, it seems, pulled them from the righteous path.

It was February 1971 and, like thousands of other hoops-loving Southern Californians, some sports-minded students at St. John's Seminary College in Camarillo were galvanized by a midseason showdown between unbeaten USC and once-beaten UCLA, the four-time defending national champion.

The basketball version of the crosstown rivalry was nearing its zenith, Paul Westphal and the second-ranked Trojans preparing to battle Sidney Wicks and the third-ranked Bruins.

But with 300 seminarians enrolled at St. John's, only one television on-site and interest in the game running high, procuring a decent seat to watch might require an act of God.

That's when ringleader Mike Crowley and about a dozen of his closest friends drew up a bogus seating chart that put them in the prime rec-room seats for UCLA's victory over USC.

Two days later, however, there was hell to pay for their wayward act: The monsignor had caught wind of their duplicity.

"He booms, 'Gentlemen, you have manifested everything a Christian man is not,' " Crowley says, the words still ringing in his ears. " 'You're a disgrace to good character.' "

After a long silence, Crowley says, the monsignor continued, "Do you donkeys believe in life after death?"

Then, after another pause, one last stage-whispered salvo: "Pull something like this one more time and find out!"

Right then and there, Crowley says, he and his chastened fellow pranksters vowed to change their ways.

Never again, they promised, would they resort to chicanery to view a game, or to deceive classmates.

Next time, they swore, they would attend the USC-UCLA game, which they did a month later at Pauley Pavilion.

And a tradition was born.

Sunday at the Galen Center, Crowley's so-called "Traveling Squad" of former St. John's seminarians will attend their 40th USC-UCLA basketball game, having turned up once every season since pulling off the forgery that sealed their bond.

Crowley, a former USC pitcher who played on a Trojans team that won the 1963 College World Series, says he calls the group "The Traveling Squad" because "we couldn't take everybody -- just like a team can't take everybody on the road."

Some have died or dropped out along the way -- and only three of the 20 or so regulars who remain were ordained as priests.

But it's an accomplished group, including lawyers, doctors, educators and businessmen.

Among their ranks: Dr. Marvin Southard, director of the L.A. County Department of Mental Health; Rick Baedeker, a former Hollywood Park president; banking executive Jim Yacenda; USC business professor John Nicoll; and Orange County lawyer Gary Pohlson, a UCLA graduate and self-described "crazy" Bruins fan who nevertheless defended former USC quarterback Todd Marinovich against drug charges in the 1990s.

"It's amazing that we've stayed together all these years," says John Cafiero of Venice, Fla., who travels farthest to attend. "It's mostly because of Crowley that we haven't split apart."

Crowley, a retired schoolteacher, will turn 70 in March. Most of the others, he says, are about 10 years younger.

Though only a handful attended USC or UCLA, they're divided about evenly between Trojans and Bruins fans.

"Some don't care," Pohlson says.

Still, they continue to show up year after year, eager to reminisce with old friends and share laughs.

No wives, girlfriends or children are welcome.

"It brings us back to how we were at [the seminary]," says Crowley, who spent three years at St. John's.

As is their custom, they'll gather Sunday for breakfast at the Marina del Rey Marriott -- "at one big, long table, like the Last Supper," Crowley says.

All but Cafiero will make the trip from California or Arizona.

After breakfast, they'll enjoy a privately chartered, cocktail-fueled three-hour cruise in the marina.

A steak-and-wine dinner at Taix French Restaurant in Echo Park -- "again, one big, long table," Crowley notes -- precedes the game at the Galen Center.

(It's easier to get tickets at the Galen Center, Crowley says, than at Pauley Pavilion.)

At the game, they'll sit together.

Father Joe Holguin, who was part of the original "Traveling Squad" of six, considers it a can't-miss event.

"For me, it's good therapy," says Holguin, chaplain at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, "because I don't have to be somebody else. We can all be ourselves.

"There's a quote that's often repeated by Crowley: 'You're only young once, but you can always be immature.'

"That's kind of how we are."

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