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Not surprisingly, game day at USC seems more like a celebration of the history of the program than of any collective concern about victory or the opponent. It's traditionally been almost a given that the Trojans will win -- even though during most of the 1980s and 1990s it was not exactly a sure thing.
And then, before the 2001 season, Pete Carroll turned up, bringing with him a boundless enthusiasm, NFL head coaching experience and -- very soon thereafter -- national championships. From 2002 to 2004, Carroll's Trojans went 36-3, won the AP national championship in 2003 and received both the coaches' and media vote in 2004.
They're in abundance at USC. On campus is a bronze Trojan warrior, popularly named Tommy Trojan, a composite of 1930 Rose Bowl player of the game Russ Saunders and All-America Erny Pinckert, among other players. The 295-pound Victory Bell goes back and forth between winners in the USC-UCLA rivalry, and a bejeweled shillelagh -- a Gaelic war club -- awaits the victor of the Trojans-Notre Dame game. On the field, USC has wrought some other traditions: its backs have recorded 1,000-yard rushing seasons 23 times, giving rise to the term Tailback U.
A case could be made for Mike Garrett, whose 1,440 yards in 1965 was a rare total in that era. Or one could argue for Charles White, who had the astronomical number of 6,245 yards rushing in his four years. Then there was Marcus Allen, whose 2,427 yards on the ground in 1981 was not surpassed until 1988, when Oklahoma State's Barry Sanders gained 2,628. When USC finally had a Heisman Trophy winner who wasn't a running back, it was a most worthy quarterback, Carson Palmer.
But the best USC player was its most notorious, 1968 Heisman winner O.J. Simpson. With a devastating combination of speed and fluidity, Simpson amassed 3,423 yards in only two seasons, rushing for 23 touchdowns his senior year. He then validated his college career at Buffalo in 1973 by becoming the first NFL running back to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. Simpson became a broadcaster and actor before his fame came crashing down in 1994. Accused of the stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson, his former wife, and Ronald Goldman, Simpson stood trial on murder charges. He was acquitted in a controversial verdict but was later held liable in a civil trial.
John McKay was renowned for his withering sense of humor, but he earned his greatest acclaim for a dominating 16-year (1960-75) tenure with the Trojans. When a writer wondered how one of his tailbacks could flourish getting so many carries, McKay sniffed, "The ball's not that heavy." When Mike Hunter, a smallish defensive back, slipped and fell on a kickoff return in the hostile environs of Notre Dame in 1965, McKay said in amazement, "My god, they shot him." But he could motivate. "He knew when to loosen a team up, and he knew how to get after you," said former USC quarterback Craig Fertig. "You'd never have to worry about him slapping a player. He could do it with his tongue."
On the field, the Trojans were overpowering through much of the McKay era, winning national titles in 1962, 1967, 1972 and 1974. His teams finished in the Top 10 on nine occasions and won or shared conference titles nine times. Early in his tenure, he began employing the I-formation, using a shifty tailback behind big, mauling offensive lines. He combined that with the Arkansas defense he borrowed from the Razorbacks' Frank Broyles. Well before McKay, USC had another dominating era under Howard Jones (1925-40). With a succession of Trojans greats like Cotton Warburton, Morley Drury and Doyle Nave, Jones' teams rang up national championships in 1928, 1931 and 1932, allowing 13 points in the 1932 title season.
Old-timers might cast a vote for Jones' 1932 national championship squad, which blew through 10 opponents by the composite score of 201-13, including a 35-0 thrashing of Pittsburgh in the Rose Bowl. But the 1972 McKay-coached team ranks as one of the greatest in college football history. It had a dizzying array of talent, including sophomore tailback Anthony Davis, fullback Sam Cunningham, offensive tackle Pete Adams, tight end Charles Young, wide receivers Lynn Swann and Edesel Garrison, defensive tackles Jeff Winans and John Grant and linebacker Richard Wood. Five of those players were All-Americas that year; another six were likewise honored during the next two seasons. "I've never seen any team that could beat them," said McKay. USC began 1972 ranked No. 8 and quickly established its superiority, throttling fourth-rated Arkansas on the road. Then it breezed. Its only victory by single digits was a 30-21 decision at Stanford against a 15th-ranked team. The final two games were illustrative of USC's dominance.
Behind Davis' six touchdowns, including two kickoff returns for scores, the Trojans swamped Notre Dame 45-23, and in the Rose Bowl, USC battered Ohio State 42-17 as Davis ran for 157 yards, Cunningham dove for four touchdowns and quarterback Mike Rae completed 18 of 25 passes for 229 yards. USC gained every first-place ballot in both the Associated Press and United Press International polls, a first.
The 1967 USC-UCLA game seemed to have something for everyone. It had the 1967 Heisman Trophy winner, UCLA quarterback Gary Beban, against the 1968 honoree, O.J. Simpson. It featured the nation's No. 1 team in the Bruins, who came in at 7-0-1, while USC (8-1) was No. 4 only because it had lost at Oregon State, 3-0, the previous week. And of course, it matched intracity rivals. Beban's 20-yard touchdown pass to Dave Nuttall early in the final quarter put the Bruins ahead 20-14, but with 10:38 remaining, Simpson unspooled a winding, 64-yard touchdown to give the Trojans a 21-20 victory, one that helped them win the national championship. Another big game came in the 2005 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma.
In what was billed as a near-even matchup, the Trojans destroyed the Sooners 55-19 behind Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart.
In 1964, Notre Dame came to Los Angeles with a roster that included Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte at quarterback and end Jack Snow, a first-round NFL draft pick in 1965. The Irish were top-ranked, 9-0, and, in an era when they didn't accept bowl invitations, found themselves on the threshold of a national title with a 17-0 halftime lead. That's when McKay delivered one of his most understated, but effective, halftime speeches. He told his team: "If we don't score more than 17 points in the second half, you'll lose." Then he walked out of the locker room. The Trojans, who that day finished a pedestrian 7-3 season, proceeded to stun Notre Dame with a second-half comeback capped by Fertig's touchdown pass to Rod Sherman with 1:33 left and won 20-17.
There have been comebacks from bigger deficits. But perhaps none is as renowned as USC's cataclysmic rebound from a 24-0 deficit to shock Notre Dame 55-24 in Los Angeles in 1974. The Irish entered the game 9-1 and had eight NFL draft picks in 1975. They had an imposing defense, keyed by two future first-round linemen, Mike Fanning and Steve Niehaus, which was underscored by the hole USC found itself in when trailing 24-0 late in the first half. The Trojans, however, took a kernel of momentum into the dressing room with a touchdown 10 seconds before the half, making it 24-6. Then the floodgates flew open. Anthony Davis took the second-half kickoff and bolted 102 yards and, suddenly, the Coliseum was alive. "We turned into madmen," Davis would say later.
That touchdown ignited a 35-point third quarter for USC, with quarterback Pat Haden throwing for two scores to J.K. McKay and Davis scoring twice on the ground. In staccato fashion, USC scored another two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, the second on safety Charles Phillips' 58-yard interception return. That made it a 55-point barrage in less than 17 minutes. Said a dumbfounded McKay, son of the USC coach: "Against Notre Dame? Maybe against Kent State . . . but Notre Dame?"
USC first played football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1923 and is the one constant at a facility that has also hosted six pro football teams, two Olympic Summer Games, baseball's Dodgers and the Trojans' archrival, UCLA. Built at a cost of $800,000, the structure was renovated in 1993, including an 11-foot lowering of the floor and removal of the running track. That had just been finished when a massive earthquake in early 1994 brought about the need for $93 million in repairs.
The Trojans have two, both on different levels. Their intersectional rivalry with Notre Dame is considered the greatest in the sport on a national level. Begun in 1926, it is an unbroken series except for a 1943-45 hiatus owing to World War II. The game was played in November at both Los Angeles and South Bend sites until 1959, when the Trojans performed so miserably in a cold-weather 16-6 loss at Notre Dame that athletic director Jess Hill proposed October home dates for the Irish and late November dates for Notre Dame to visit USC. The UCLA rivalry is its own rarity, pitting two schools in a major metropolis that both boast big-time football. In this one, the Trojans are the long-standing program with a thick pedigree, appealing more naturally to athletes in the area with a hardscrabble background. UCLA is seen as the nouveau riche school, reflected in its upscale Westwood locale compared to USC's comparatively gritty neighborhood.
USC's earliest teams were known as the Methodists or Wesleyans. In 1912, athletic director Warren Bovard asked Los Angeles Times sports editor Owen Bird to come up with a nickname more favorable to university officials, and Bird, seeking one which befitted a fighting spirit, settled on Trojans.
It began when USC director of special events Bob Jani saw a fellow named Richard Saukko riding his white horse, Traveler I, in the 1961 Rose Parade. Saukko was persuaded to appear with his steed at USC games, and a tradition began. There have been several successors to the original Traveler, but the horse has always been white, and always ridden by an alumnus or student. It appears annually at the Rose Parade and has also been on stage and screen.
At home, USC wears cardinal jerseys with gold crescent stripes and numerals on the sleeves, a style reminiscent of the jerseys the team wore during the glory years of the 1960s. Road jerseys are white with cardinal numerals and crescent stripes and numerals on the sleeves. Pants and helmets are the same at home and away. Pants are gold with double-cardinal piping, and helmets are cardinal with the Trojan warrior symbol on the sides.
The Notre Dame-USC series never would have happened if not for a woman's touch. With the hope of talking Irish coach Knute Rockne into a series with the Trojans, USC graduate manager Gwynn Wilson traveled in 1925 with his bride Marion to Lincoln, where Notre Dame was playing Nebraska. As the Wilsons joined Knute and Bonnie Rockne on the train from Lincoln to Chicago, Gwynn Wilson quickly became pessimistic, discovering that Rockne felt his team was traveling too extensively. But in another compartment, Mrs. Wilson spoke eloquently about the weather and the wonders of Southern California to Mrs. Rockne, who then persuaded her husband. In 1926, the teams began a memorable series, one that Gwynn Wilson credited to his wife.
"USC's not the No. 1 team in the country. The Miami Dolphins are better." -- Washington State coach Jim Sweeney, on the 1972 national champion Trojans, widely recognized as one of the greatest college teams of all-time