First things first: No, Charlie Weis cannot fault Reggie Bush for the play that has defined the running back in Notre Dame fans’ eyes.
“I’ll say the same thing to you as I said to everyone else,” Weis said. “I would like to think that my running back would’ve been heads-up enough to do the exact same thing in the same situation, rather than complain about it.”
USC and Notre Dame gather for their 87th meeting Saturday, a decade after the infamous “Bush Push” tilt -- the rare overhyped contest that actually surpassed its pregame buzz. The top-ranked Trojans entered that contest with a 27-game winning streak. The No. 9 Fighting Irish entered as the flavor of the season thanks to an apparent resurrection from first-year coach Weis. What ensued was the usual chaos and urban myth-making that grows with time -- complete with an NCAA cleansing of the game’s very existence -- along with rules changes, some revisionist history and, well, the not-so-insignificant fact that both teams have not been nearly as good at the same time since. (Their 2006 and 2009 meetings are the only games of the following 10 in which both entered ranked.)
But what stands out above all else is the natural awareness by all involved parties that they were in the midst of an indelible moment in college football history, a sentiment that is validated by their recollections this very day -- which are not all that different from Oct. 15, 2005.
“I did the Flutie game,” then NBC broadcaster and current USC athletic director Pat Haden said, referencing the 1984 Boston College-Miami game that helped Doug Flutie capture the Heisman Trophy. “That game and the Notre Dame-USC game were probably the two most exciting ones.”
Haden stated the exact same thing on the NBC broadcast as Matt Leinart scored the game-winning touchdown.
“You’d hate to say the greatest game you’d been a part of is a game you lost,” Weis said. “I’ve had a couple that have ended with the good guys winning. I’d say that was the greatest game that I’ve been involved with that we were on the wrong end of the scoreboard. By far.”
Weis was perhaps the biggest prisoner of the moment. Amidst the agony of defeat, he walked with his son, Charlie Jr., toward the USC locker room, chatting with Bush and Leinart and asking them to seek permission for him to enter.
Upon being granted entry, Weis delivered a brief congratulatory message to the winners for their roles in the instant classic, a move of class that doubled as a teaching moment for his son, an aspiring coach.
“I said: ‘Charlie, let me tell you something,’” Weis said. “I said: ‘Losing sucks, and I’m not a good loser. Losing sucks. But you have to recognize the difference between doing things with class and doing things without class. This is one lesson I’d like for you to see going forward, especially if you decide to get into this rat race, which you say you wanna do at this very young age. You have to understand that there’s a right way and wrong way of doing things, and hopefully you just learned the right way how to handle something like this.’
“And then he just shook his head, because he was a 12-year-old kid. He was miserable."
Fresh out of college, Charlie Jr. is now an offensive analyst for Alabama.
Before his first season as Irish coach, Weis ordered green jerseys for his players in the summer, not knowing if he would even utilize them. But having been a Notre Dame student in 1977 -- when then-coach Dan Devine surprised his team for the USC game by placing green jerseys in their lockers as they warmed up in their blues -- Weis recognized the magnitude of the moment, which crystallized in the days leading up to the game, with the Friday night pep rally being held at Notre Dame Stadium.
“It was 40-something-thousand people -- the entire half of the stadium was filled top to bottom. For a pep rally. That’s unheard of,” then-Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said. “I still remember when [USC] got off the buses at the stadium, there were a bunch of students there, which they may or may not have heard from me letting them know when USC arrived.”
The psychological effect was at play -- whether by design or not.
“I remember speaking to [Weis] before the game, me and Dwayne [Jarrett],” former USC receiver Steve Smith said. “And he was just like: ‘You guys are tough guys.’ He was a nice guy, but I felt like he was kind of trying to play like a mental game with us, trying to make us feel comfortable so we could slack off or something.”
Weis insists the remarks were genuine. He says that USC team and the Trojans’ 2008 squad remain the best college outfits he has ever seen up close.
Which is why, despite Quinn rushing for a go-ahead touchdown with 2:04 left, that feeling of inevitably that comes with playing against a dynasty was forever lurking.
“Going into the game when Coach Weis and I talked before, he said: 'This is gonna be one of those games where the last team that has the football is probably gonna win,’” Quinn said. “And I remember reaching across the goal line and as my teammates are celebrating I was peeking up at the scoreboard to see how much time was left, and my first thought was: ‘This is awesome, this is great, but there might be too much time on the clock.’
“We almost scored too quick. Anytime you have a guy like Reggie Bush in the backfield, anything’s possible. That guy was the best college football player I ever have seen, still to this day have seen on film. There was never a moment where he touched the football where you didn’t think he was gonna score a touchdown.”
The rest, as they say, is history: Leinart hit Jarrett on fourth-and-9 to keep USC’s last drive alive; the officials later put seven seconds back on the clock after time had inadvertently run out; and Bush pushed Leinart in from the 1-yard-line and the Trojans dynasty reigned.
USC’s three-peat attempt, of course, was eventually halted by Texas in the national championship game. The Trojans were later forced to vacate their 2005 wins. Bush returned that year’s Heisman Trophy.
Not that it’s any consolation to Irish players past or present.
“I couldn't have been more depressed about it,” said current Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt, who grew up an Irish fan in USC country. “And actually, no, I guess I could have.
“I could have been on the team.”