Monday, December 8, 2008

The USC-Notre Dame Rivalry

I’m a couple of weeks late in talking about this, but the USC-UCLA football game this past weekend reminded me of the great rivalry between the University of Southern California Trojans and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. It also reminded me of the first USC game I ever attended, in 1964.

This greatest of intersectional rivalries was first played in 1926, with the Irish winning 13-12. Three years later, they would play before the largest verified crowd in NCAA college football history – 112,912. Over the years, Notre Dame won 42 times, USC won 33 times (including the other weekend), and there were 5 ties.

The one and only USC-Notre Dame game I attended was a great one. My friend Earl Nitta (Hilo High School classmate) invited me to attend the game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He told me to wear a white shirt, and loaned me another student’s ID card so I could get in at the student price.

The guy in the ID looked nowhere like me and I told Earl that. “Don’t worry,“ he said, “over here they can’t tell one of us from the other.” He was right, I zipped through the turnstile in a trice, excited that here I was, about to attend my first BIG college football game (the Honolulu Stadium only held 28,000; that day at the Coliseum, there were 108,000 people in the stands).

When I walked out of the tunnel, I was overwhelmed by the noise and the size of the crowd. I swear to God, I felt myself leaning forward and almost fell! I tell you, I was speechless. The crowd was magnificent! Tommy Trojan came riding out on Traveler, brandishing his sword! The USC band came marching out of the tunnel onto the field playing “Fight On,” the Irish band was in the stands playing the Notre Dame fight song, I had tears in my eyes, and I swear my knees were shaking.

THIS is what college football is all about.

Notre Dame was ranked #1 in the nation; they were undefeated and favored by 11 points. This was the legendary Ara Parseghian’s first year as their coach, and he had them at 9-0. John Huarte was the Irish quarterback, and he would end up winning the Heisman Trophy that year. His favorite target was Jack Snow, who went on to star for the Los Angeles Rams.

USC, coached by the legendary John McKay, was unranked, with a modest 6-3 record. But Trojan quarterback Craig Fertig overcame a 17-0 Notre Dame lead. Rod Sherman caught critical passes, Mike Garrett (he won the Heisman Trophy the following year) tore through the Irish line, and USC held strong against Notre Dame’s last-second desperation drive, winning 20-17.

Notre Dame’s national title hopes were crushed and they fell to #3 when the next ratings came out. The Trojans were optimistic that they would be in the Rose Bowl, but unfortunately, they didn’t make it that year.

Although I’ve been to other USC football games since, nothing will ever compare to my first big college football game experience in a big time venue between two storied big time universities, two future Heisman Trophy winners, and two marching bands playing the greatest fight songs in the world.

I've been a USC fan ever since, and I'm reminded of all this each year when USC plays Notre Dame. Tradition is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

And, I am forever indebted to Earl, God rest his soul.

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