College football has its share of legendary rivalries. Ohio State/Michigan, Auburn/Alabama, Oklahoma/Texas will always draw countrywide attention. The games have historically had national implications. There is a rivalry unlike any of those though. In some years, the UCLA-USC game has major ramifications. Other times, like this year, it is “just that local rivalry.” But for the residents of Southern California, it has always been and will always be so much more. The late Red Sanders, who coached the Bruins from 1949-1957, was known to have said, “The UCLA-USC game is not a matter of life and death. It is much more important than that. “
This will be the 85th renewal of the UCLA-USC game. The series is 46-31-7 to USC’s favor. To understand why it matters so much, you need a geographical perspective. The Southern California area that encompasses Los Angeles and Orange Counties is one of the most expansive county land areas in the country. Yet the two major universities that call it home are all of only 13 miles apart from one another.
Too Close For Comfort
It is the closest of any two rivals in major college sports. Oklahoma and the University of Texas are more than 300 miles apart from each other. Alabama and Auburn are in the same state but even that is a 156-mile gap. UCLA and USC have just 13 miles between them. The distance most of you go to your local home repair center and back on a typical Sunday. The hatred and division between these two, as well as the day to day realities, create a much larger chasm.
UCLA vs. USC; Learn The Rivalry
USC opened in 1880. That give it about a 39-year head start on UCLA. It is private school with an annual tuition tab of $52,000. Ironically it sits in one of the more financially depressed areas of Southern California. The visual of youngsters who can afford the tuition, driving the BMW they got for high school graduation through that part of town is always a mental contradiction.
UCLA is a public school, part of the nine-campus University of California system. As a public school, it’s tuition is under $13,000 per year. In 2017 it was the first school in the country to get 100,000 undergrad applications and has an acceptance rate of about 10%. It is quietly nestled in an area called Westwood, in the west side of LA. The opposing irony here is that because it is a relatively affordable public school, you see plenty of students driving their second-generation hand-me-down cars through the neighboring areas of Bel Air and Brentwood right next to campus.
The List Is Long
Like many schools, both universities have a who’s who of notable alums, both in and out of athletics. Both have renowned business schools. USC has a famous film school, while UCLA has one of the most well known medical centers in the country. What makes this different, again, is to have the list in such close confines to one another. We are in the midst of “Hollywood,” at least theoretically. USC touts famous alums the likes of Will Ferrell, John Wayne, Ron Howard, Fess Parker and Kyra Sedgewick. Even current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got his post-graduate degree from USC. The Bruins tout their own “Hollywood” red carpet list as well with Rob Reiner, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Mariska Hargitay, and James Franco.
Want alumni irony? Legendary filmmaker John Singleton is a USC grad, yet he used the UCLA campus as his primary location for his movie Higher Education. For those really old folks who can remember 1970’s television, Three’s Company star John Ritter was a USC alum. His co-star Joyce Dewitt was a UCLA alum and they were known to trash talk on the set.
Of course, both have their athletic luminaries. UCLA is the home of athletic and social justice icons Jackie Robinson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Arthur Ashe. They also count Bill Walton, Troy Aikman, Reggie Miller, Jimmy Connors, and Jonathan Ogden, among their hall of fame legends. USC has Cheryl Miller, (Reggie’s sister in case you did not know), Randy Johnson, Mark McGwire, and Stan Smith. Of course, there is a long list of well-known football players that called USC home. The school would prefer if you not mention O.J. Simpson though.
For most of at least 60 years of the rivalry, the two teams shared the LA Coliseum, right next to the USC campus, as their home stadium. They would alternate home Saturdays and on rivalry day, they would split the stadium in half for the fans. UCLA moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982. While USC basically has an on-campus stadium because of the Coliseum’s location, UCLA students complain every year about the commute from Westwood to Pasadena for home games. Many of them support the idea of an on-campus stadium, even though, based on space, it would be capped out at 50,000 seats.
Not The Kind Of Color You Want
With familiarity, comes contempt. The mascot statues on both campuses have been subjected to fresh paint from the other side. Both now get covered and are under 24-hour protection the week of the game.
At the end of all the pomp and circumstance with the rivalry, it is still that 13-mile distance that makes the athletic rivalry such an anomaly in the national football landscape. The schools spend much of the year recruiting the same players. That causes high school friendships to end. Old prep rivals become teammates for life. Families are split when a child goes to the wrong school.
We’re Not Messing Around Here
There was a young up-and-coming athlete with college potential from a UCLA family. When friends used to ask the family where the child was going to go to college, the reply was, the kid could go to any university, anywhere they wanted, except USC. If they went to USC, they would get no money from the parents and could not home at Christmas. This is how Bruins and Trojans exist every day with each other while living as neighbors. This is the significance of how the town and its people divide.
In part two, we will get to the gridiron to drill down on the football part of the rivalry. We will show the on-field history that makes this unlike any other rivalry in the country.
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