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It's old-home week for UCLA, and not in a good way

Saturday's UCLA-USC game at the Coliseum revives painful memories of the Bruins' last home game at the Exposition Park venue. That wrenching 22-21 loss to USC in 1981 capped UCLA's uncomfortable 53-year tenancy at the stadium next to the campus of its crosstown rival.

November 25, 2011|By Chris Foster
  • USC quarterback Matt Barkley leads the offensive huddle against Washington at the Coliseum on November 12.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley leads the offensive huddle against Washington… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )

Norm Johnson, a former UCLA place-kicker, was checking television listings the other day and one thing jumped out at him.

"The 1981 UCLA-USC game was on college football classics," Johnson said. "I was upset."

Sure. Blocked field goal, no Rose Bowl — it was a bad day.

But that wasn't the reason Johnson was upset. "I would love to see that game," he said. "I have never seen the replay."

Why he would like to relive a 30-year-old nightmare isn't clear.

One second he was lining up a 46-yard field goal to send the Bruins to Rose Bowl. The next, the ball was bouncing on the ground around him and UCLA was off to Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl.

The Bruins played at the Rose Bowl in 1982, just not in it on New Year's Day.

USC's 22-21 victory ended UCLA's 53 years as a Coliseum tenant. The Rose Bowl became the Bruins' home, but not until several months after USC's George Achica blocked Johnson's kick to deny the Bruins a spot in the Rose Bowl game.

"To be honest, I don't remember the specifics," said Johnson, who lives in Kitsap County, Wash. "I do remember a Sports Illustrated photo. You can see one of our linemen on his back and George Achica on top of him."

That photo embodied how UCLA viewed the pecking order at the Coliseum.

The venue was home to Los Angeles football. The Rams played there, followed by the Raiders in 1982. USC and UCLA were technically equals, but there was nothing 50-50 about it from the Bruins' perspective.

"The Coliseum was not on USC's campus, but it was on USC's campus," former UCLA Coach Terry Donahue said. "It would never, ever be a home field for us."

So the Bruins went farther from their campus to find a home, moving to the Rose Bowl before the 1982 season. Since then, UCLA has played 29 miles from its campus, the farthest distance of any Football Bowl Subdivision team. Miami, at 21 miles, is second.

The logistical challenges were worth it.

"From the first game we played in 1982, from the minute the game started, I knew we had made the right move," Donahue said. "There was a different chemistry. People felt liberated."

The sendoff from the Coliseum wasn't so pleasant.

The Bruins entered the game with a 7-2-1 record and could go to the Rose Bowl with a victory.

"You know only two words after playing USC, exhilarating and devastating," Donahue said. "When we beat USC in 1980, it was exhilarating. When we beat USC in 1982, it was exhilarating."

The 1981 game?

"That wasn't exhilarating," Donahue said.

Marcus Allen, who had 219 yards rushing, scored to give USC a 22-21 lead with 2 minutes, 14 seconds left in the game. But UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey moved the Bruins to the USC 29-yard line, leaving Johnson in position.

"There was no one more reliable than Norm," Ramsey said. But, he recalled, there was a problem: "We had a 170-pound long snapper and George was 270 pounds."

Achica pushed through the middle.

"Norm hit the ball well," said UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, the holder for Johnson that day. "I heard a thud, thud. I had visions of scooping up the ball and running for a touchdown. Then I was swarmed."

When Washington beat Washington State that day, the Huskies were on their way to the Rose Bowl game. And Johnson, who spent 18 seasons kicking in the NFL, was forever reminded of that after signing with the Seattle Seahawks the next spring.

"Every time I told people up there where I went to school, they'd say, 'Oh, you're the one who sent the Huskies to the Rose Bowl.'" Johnson said. "I heard that a lot."

UCLA had to wait to play in Pasadena until the following fall. There were some good memories at the Coliseum, but also plenty of frustration.

Donahue had a 25-8 record in the Coliseum, but five of the losses were to USC. The Trojans had a record of 11-3-1 against the Bruins from 1967-81.

"It felt entirely like our stadium to us," former USC receiver J.K. McKay said. "I'm sure it felt the same way to them."

It did.

"We felt like third string, behind USC and the NFL," Johnson said.

The NFL was the tipping point.

John Sandbrook, then UCLA's vice chancellor, said negotiations between the Raiders and the Coliseum Commission left UCLA outside looking in. Besides, he said, "our fans always had to go to USC's stadium and tailgate in USC's parking lot."

Ramsey said he enjoyed playing at the Coliseum, but "by the end of the year, it was always pretty chewed up with three teams playing there. At the Rose Bowl, we had a race-track field."

In its first home game in Pasadena, UCLA came out of the gate with a 41-10 win over Long Beach State. The Bruins went to three Rose Bowl games the first four years in their new home.

"Playing there gave us an identity," Donahue said. "We were no longer in [USC's] shadow."

chris.foster@latimes.com

twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

Staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.

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