It was 32 years ago, but Scott Tinsley still remembers what it felt like to walk through the tunnel to the Coliseum field that day. You could hear the crowd’s roar get louder with each step.
“It was like you were ready to jump out of an airplane,” Tinsley said.
Those kinds of peak emotions tend to linger, to stay embedded in our memories. Sometimes, a sensation, a smell, the angle of sunlight coming through the trees or a nationally televised football game can trigger them anew.
Tinsley will be back home in Orange County watching Saturday’s game against the No. 1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish with more than a little rooting interest. He was the backup quarterback thrust into the starter’s role the last time the USC Trojans knocked the Irish out of the national championship picture.
That is exactly what the Trojans are trying to do this weekend against the top-ranked and undefeated Irish -- with backup quarterback Max Wittek stepping in for Matt Barkley, just as Tinsley had taken over for Gordon Adams in December 1980, when Notre Dame came in to the Coliseum ranked No. 2 with 9-0-1 record.
For years, Tinsley owned a sports bar and grill in Laguna Niguel. Former players would periodically get together there. Some of them had more accomplished careers, both in college and the NFL, but Tinsley had one thing to brag about: He never played for a Trojans team that lost to the Irish.
“That was something to hang my hat on,” Tinsley said.
This week is all about history lessons at USC, in part because the present has been so bitterly disappointing. This team can redeem itself -- at least partially -- in the eyes of Trojans players who came before it, if USC can spoil Notre Dame’s lofty ambitions. Coach Lane Kiffin is so keen on using that as motivation, he got his team together for a lecture about the history of the rivalry early this week.
“We try to work on that. I don’t think that’s natural for them,” Kiffin said. “It is what it is. It’s what we live in nowadays. We’re dealing with 17- to 21-year-old kids and, for whatever reason, they don’t come here understanding it.”
Only a handful of players on this USC roster were even born in the 1980s, and the Irish haven’t exactly been the dominant program for most of their young lives. One USC player, linebacker Doug Scott, was a month old the last time Notre Dame won a national title.
USC has won nine of the previous 10 meetings with Notre Dame, the only loss coming the last time Barkley missed a game with an injury, in 2010.
It almost takes a family connection for some of them to get the importance of this rivalry. Safety T.J. McDonald’s father, Tim, played defensive back at USC from 1983 to 1986.
“My dad never beat them, so he definitely has a chip on his shoulder when it comes to this rivalry,” the younger McDonald said. “He just tells me it’s a big game. The whole Trojan family is watching. Everyone wants to see how the Trojans are going to play, how they respond from last week.
“We’ve just got to be able to go out there and make a statement.”
Kiffin took his turn as a history professor earlier this week. Defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron gets his turn Friday -- his day to address the team.
“Ten to 20 years from now, when you’re sitting down and watching the game with your kids, how do you want to remember it?” Orgeron said. “You’re always going to remember this game.”
If doing it for their forebears doesn’t do it for these guys, maybe simple spite can motivate them. In previous seasons, Notre Dame was the team trying to win its moment of national glory by knocking USC off the top spot.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Orgeron said. “I know they understand that part of it.”