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College football's great rivalries: USC vs. UCLA

This article on the USC vs. UCLA college football rivalry originally appeared in Athlon's 1990 college football annuals. As the rivalry is renewed this week, we thought it was relevant to take a look back at the history of the football series between these two schools in Los Angeles who are separated by a mere 13 miles.

The Great Rivalries — USC vs. UCLA

By Mal Florence

Red Sanders once said that the Southern California-UCLA football series is not a matter of life or death. “It’s more important than that,” he said.

Sanders, the famous single-wing coach who came to UCLA from Vanderbilt in 1949 and coached the Bruins until his death in 1958, may have been overstating the significance of the competition — but not by much, considering what it means to alumni and followers of the Pacific-10 schools in Los Angeles.

It is the unique collegiate rivalry

There are other traditional rivalries such as Army-Navy, Michigan-Ohio State, Penn State-Pittsburgh, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Georgia-Florida, Yale-Harvard, Stanford-California, Clemson-South Carolina, Notre Dame-Southern California, Auburn-Alabama, Texas-Texas A&M.

However, only the USC-UCLA rivalry matches two major universities with renowned football programs located only 13 mile apart in a megalopolis.

Houston vs. Rice fits the geographical requirements but that’s all.

When Southern California meets UCLA, families may be disrupted the week of the game. Father and mother, brothers and sisters may have gone to rival schools.

The late November game usually decides the Pac-10 representative in the Rose Bowl. That makes victory a must for each team.

Among the many memorable games was a scoreless tie in 1939 before 103,000 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Nor will the crowds through the years forget Gary Beban’s late pass to beat Southern California 20-16 in 1965 in a game the Trojans had dominated; O.J. Simpson’s climatic 64-yard touchdown run in the 1967 game that Southern California won 21-20; and, more recently, Erik Affholter’s juggling (and disputed by the Bruins) catch in the end zone that defeated UCLA 17-13 in 1987.

The series, though, had a humble beginning.

UCLA was established in 1919 as the “Southern Branch” of the University of California, Berkeley, near downtown Los Angeles. The school outgrew its facilities and moved to its present campus in Westwood in 1929.

The University of Southern California was founded in 1880 and was playing football eight years later. By the late 1920s, the Trojans, gaining national identity with the inception of their series with Notre Dame, were a burgeoning power.

The crosstown rivalry, as such, began in 1929. Southern California won 76-0 to open the season and followed up with a 52-0 victory in 1930. The series was then discontinued.

Bill Ackerman, the late UCLA athletic director who was in the school’s first graduating class, recalled a few years ago how the series was renewed.

“After those first two games, an argument ensued as to which school would host the first game in the Coliseum,” Ackerman said. “Southern California officials believed they should have preference on dates because they regarded UCLA as only a young twig off the Berkeley branch. But I think the real reason is that USC didn’t want to acknowledge a young school coming up. The Trojans felt that they were being challenged in a city in which they were the dominant team.”

Nonetheless, Ackerman and his counterpart at Southern California, Willis O. Hunter, and the business managers of both schools met over lunch in 1935 in an effort to revive the series.

“We worked the thing out,” Ackerman said. “To stop UCLA from growing was like trying to keep the sun from coming up, and this was realized. Also, both schools needed the money. We had wasted five years. It was agreed that USC would be the host team in the first game.”

So the series was renewed in 1936, and the Bruins immediately established parity with USC in a 7-7 tie. Last year’s game was also a tie, 10-10, and was one of the few shoddily played games in the series. UCLA, a considerable underdog, almost won on a 54-yard field-goal try by Alfredo Velasco that hit the crossbar and bounced away on the last play.

More often than not, though, the games have been dramatic with stirring endings. A sampling:

1937 — Southern California 19, UCLA 13
The Trojans were apparently on their way to a routine victory, leading 19-0 in the fourth quarter. Many in the crowd of 75,000 had already left when UCLA’s Kenny Washington, a sophomore halfback, passed 62 yards in the air to halfback Hal Hirshon for a touchdown.

Hirshon had ranged far behind USC defenders because they didn’t believe that Washington could possibly throw the ball that far. It was regarded then as one of longest completed passes in college football history.

Washington, who became UCLA’s first All-American in 1939, teamed with Hirshon again for a 44-yard touchdown pass less than a minute later. The surprising Bruins reached the Trojans’ 15-yard line before the game ended but couldn’t score.

After the game, UCLA Coach Bill Spaulding visited the USC dressing room to congratulate his friend and golfing partner, Howard Jones, the Trojans’ legendary coach.

The door was locked so Spaulding knocked.

When someone asked what he wanted, Spaulding replied: “Tell Howard he can come out now. We’ve stopped passing.”

1939 — Southern California 0, UCLA 0
This was the first game in which a berth in the Rose Bowl was on the line for both teams.

In the fourth quarter, UCLA drove 78 yards to a first down on the USC 3-yard line. Two running plays gained only 2 yards, and fullback Leo Cantor was thrown for a 2-yard loss on third down.

What to do? A field-goal attempt seemed to be the percentage play, but, in democratic fashion, a vote was called for in the huddle by quarterback Ned Mathews. Five voted to go for a field goal, and five others opted to try for a touchdown. Mathews cast the deciding vote. He called a pass play.

It turned out to be the wrong decision, as Washington’s pass intended for end Don MacPherson was knocked down by USC halfback Bobby Robertson.

So USC went to the Rose Bowl. The Trojans got the bid over the Bruins on the basis of fewer ties marring their conference record: 5-0-2 to 5-0-3.

“I saw $90,000 flying out the window,” Ackerman once said. “In those days, you didn’t have to divide Rose Bowl money with other conference schools.”

1942 — UCLA 14, Southern California 7
This game is memorable only for its historical significance.

It was UCLA’s first victory over USC, sending the Bruins to the Rose Bowl for the first time.

Bob Waterfield, who later become a Pro Hall of Fame quarterback with the Los Angeles Rams, threw the winning touchdown pass to end Burr Baldwin.

Actually, gaining their first victory over the Trojans and their first outright Pacific Conference championship made earning the Rose Bowl invitation almost anticlimactic for the Bruins. Although outplayed by Georgia on New Year’s Day, they held off the Bulldogs for three quarters before losing 9-0 in the last 15 minutes.

Al Sparlis, UCLA’s right guard, flew a B-25 in 70 missions over the Hump in the China-Burma Theater in World War II. He crashed twice and earned seven campaign ribbons. “Only three of the 25 who went in flight school with me came through the war,” Sparlis said. In 1945 he went back to UCLA and made All-America.

Mike Marienthal, Sparlis’ replacement at guard on UCLA’s 1942 team, fought with the Marines on Okinawa in 1945. He lost one leg and was badly wounded in the other leg when a Japanese mortar shell exploded in his foxhole.

1952 — Southern California 14, UCLA 12
This was a matchup of unbeaten and untied teams for the first time in the series. USC won on the basis of two bizarre plays.

The Trojans scored when wingback Al Carmichael, apparently stopped on a reverse, lateraled to halfback Jim Sears, who ran 75 yards for a touchdown.

Later, a USC guard, of all people, intercepted a pass and returned it 72 yards to the UCLA 8-yard line. Elmer Willhoite’s unlikely run set up Sears’ short pass to Carmichael for a touchdown.

1965 — UCLA 20, Southern California 16
For 56 minutes, USC outgained and dominated UCLA in another Rose Bowl showdown game, but led only 16-6.

UCLA made a remarkable comeback. In the final four minutes, Beban threw a 34-yard touchdown pass and passed again for the two-point conversion.

UCLA Coach Tommy Prothro called for an onside kick, and it worked, with the Bruins gaining possession at the USC 49.

Beban had not had a good day until then, but, he said, “Sometimes things just happen in the stars.”

A few plays later, Beban called a pass play that had resulted in an interception earlier.

“The idea was for Kurt Altenberg to run a post pattern and the back, Mel Farr, to swing behind him,” Beban said. “When I dropped back, Mel was the primary receiver.”

However, Altenberg had another notion.

“All Prothro wanted was a pass to Mel to get us in position for a field goal,” Altenberg said. “I lined up near the sideline, right next to Prothro. He kept yelling, ‘Run, Altenberg, run.’ That doesn’t help you when the defensive backs are listening only five yards away. But Prothro didn’t care because his idea was to dump the ball to Farr. But that wasn’t my idea.”

Hardly. Despite double coverage, Altenberg got open to catch Beban’s 49-yard pass for the winning touchdown.

Beban never saw the receiver, nor the catch.

“I was down on the ground with one of those SC guys rolling on top of me,” He said. “The crowd let me know he had caught the ball.”

1967 — Southern Califorina 21, UCLA 20
Arguably, this was the showcase game of the series. Everything was on the line: the Rose Bowl bid, a possible (actually, eventual) national championship and the Heisman Trophy.

Beban, a senior now, and Simpson, the electrifying junior tailback, were the primary Heisman candidates at the time.

Prothro had come up with a novel defensive plan against Simpson. After every carry, Prothro’s players were to help Simpson to his feet immediately so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to rest.

“At first it bugged me when those UCLA cats picked me up,” O.J. recalled years later, after having joined the Buffalo Bills and, in 1973, having become the first pro to top the 2,000-yard barrier in single-season rushing.

“But as the game wore on and I started getting tired, I sort of looked forward to them picking me up. In fact, one of their guys was slow on a particular play, and I chided him, saying, ‘Come on, man, I’m waiting.’”

The game lived up to every aspect of its advance billing. Beban, playing courageously with a painful rib injury, enhanced his Heisman prospects by passing for 301 yards and two touchdowns.

As a result, the Bruins led 20-14 in the fourth quarter, and Simpson says that the momentum of the game had apparently shifted in UCLA’s favor. And so it seemed when the Trojans were confronted with a third-and-eight situation at their own 36-yard line.

Simpson will never forget what happened.

“Our quarterback, Toby Page, originally called a pass play; then he yelled, ‘Red alert,’ meaning the next number would be an audible.”

The play was a USC staple, 23 blast, calling for Simpson to run between tackle and guard on the left side. Simpson was thinking first down, but he got more than that, cutting back to the middle of the field and, with his sprinter’s speed, outrunning the Bruins to the end zone.

Although USC Coach John McKay was accustomed to brilliant runs by Simpson, he nevertheless said: “A good back might have made eight yards for a first down. O.J. made it to the Rose Bowl. It was the damnedest run I’ve ever seen. The very first time I saw him run the ball in spring practice (in 1967), I knew I had a very special player.”

Beban, though, won the Heisman Trophy in ’67. Simpson would claim it in ’68.

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The coach who turned the rivalry around was Red Sanders, who had played quarterback at Vanderbilt for Dan McGugin, a guard on Coach Fielding H. Yost’s undefeated, untied, unscored on 1901 Michigan team that crushed Stanford 49-0 in Pasadena’s first Tournament of Roses (Rose Bowl) game.

UCLA had won only two of 18 games against Southern California, with four ties, when Sanders arrived on the West Coast in 1949 (USC now leads the series 33-19-7). One Los Angeles writer began his column on the “unknown” Southerner: “Henry R. Sanders, 45, a male Caucasian, is the new UCLA football coach.”

An interviewer once asked Sanders how he felt about playing blacks. “I’m prejudiced in favor of any boy who can play football,” Sanders said. “and intolerant of any player who won’t block or tackle.”

Sanders had a special feel for humor and used it often to temper tension.

Fred Russell, sports editor emeritus of the Nashville Banner, in his book Bury Me in an Old Press Box, (A.S. Barnes and Co., 1957), relates that before the UCLA-Michigan State Rose Bowl game of 1954, the Bruins had practiced overtime on defenses for the Spartans’ multiple attack. At the team meeting following dinner on the eve of the game, Sanders said, “Fellows, we’ve just found out that Michigan State has three additional variations of the T which we have not covered. If you have your pencils and tablets…”

Finally, Sanders cracked a smile and the groans stopped.

The Trojans defeated UCLA 21-7 in 1949 but suddenly the trend changed. Sanders’ Bruins, using an unusually deceptive and versatile single-wing offense, trounced USC 39-0 in 1950 and won again in 1951, 21-7. The Trojans prevailed in 1952, 14-12 but three successive UCLA triumphs followed in the series.

In 1954, UCLA’s 9-0 national championship year, USC was shut out 34-0. A crowd of 102,548 jammed the Coliseum on a hot afternoon. The temperature reached 110 degrees on the field.

UCLA led 7-0 at halftime on a 48-yard touchdown pass from tailback Primo Villaneuva to flanker Bob Heydenfeldt. The Bruins, who led the nation both in scoring offense (367 points) and scoring defense (39 points), didn’t allow USC past midfield in the first half.

The Trojans advanced to the UCLA 8-yard line early in the third period, but Jim Decker intercepted Jim Contratto’s pass on the 2 and ran 98 yards. But there had been clipping on the play. USC was finished, however, and the Bruins scored 27 points in the final quarter. UCLA could not play in the Rose Bowl because of a rule at the time that prevented two straight appearances, and the Bruins had gone the year before.

Coaches in the United Press poll voted UCLA the national title. Ohio State was No. 1 in the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters. Sanders was National Coach of the Year.

In his nine years as UCLA coach, Sanders’ teams beat the Trojans six times and outscored them, 170 points to 68. No other UCLA coach holds an edge over USC in the rivalry. Current UCLA Coach Terry Donahue is 5-8-1 while USC Coach Larry Smith is 2-0-1.

“Our system isn’t glamorous,” Sanders once said. “It’s based mainly on the idea of knocking the other fellow down.”

Some called the almost old-fashioned single-wing a “horse and buggy” offense, but Sanders said, “I like to think we have a TV set on the dashboard.”

After Sanders’ death from a heart attack, a plaque in his memory was placed at the Coliseum. On it are these words of his:

“Blocking is the essence of offense.
Tackling is the essence of defense.
And spirit is the quintessence of all.”

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Not all the activity has been on the field in this series. With the schools located within relatively short driving distance, campus raids have been commonplace.

UCLA students delight in splashing blue paint on the statue of Tommy Trojan on the Southern California campus.

In 1958, USC journalism students distributed a bogus Daily Bruin newspaper, replete with Trojan propaganda, on the UCLA campus. Copies of the real Daily Bruin were confiscated. Unsuspecting UCLA students were shocked to read demeaning stories about their team and coaches. That year some UCLA students tried to sully the Tommy Trojan statue with fertilizer dropped from a helicopter but missed the target. USC maintenance crews now cover the statue with plastic and canvas the week of the USC-UCLA game.

Another time a USC student masquerading as a UCLA student became a member of the UCLA rally committee in charge of card stunts. The Trojan infiltrator altered the instruction sheet and, on game day, every UCLA card stunt was marred by a small, block USC in the corner of the section.

And, of course, the game has a trophy, the Victory Bell, which was originally owned by UCLA until stolen by USC students in 1941. Then, after a truce, it became the symbol of victory, with the winner taking temporary possession.

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For half a century, there’s been an intense feeling about this game played either in the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl, now UCLA’s home field.

“When I played in the game, the winner went to the Rose Bowl,” says Pat Haden, former USC quarterback and Rhodes Scholar, now a CBS college football analyst. “Everyone talks about USC-Notre Dame being such a big rivalry and it is. But kids go to USC because they want to play in the Rose Bowl, and to do that you have to beat UCLA. So that game is the most critical.”

Says Norm Andersen, a former UCLA wide receiver and assistant coach: “It’s the most special event in a Bruin’s career. I don’t think you really know what the game is about until you lose it. When I was a sophomore, we were to supposed to win. We didn’t.

“The hurt was terrible. You think it will go away in a couple of days. It doesn’t go away in a couple of months. The first time I went through that, I told myself I’d never get that involved in the game again. Then next year I did it again. It’s either total joy or total agony.”