“We are not going to rest until we bring back the Pac-10 championship, the Rose Bowl championship and the national championship back to UCLA!” proclaimed Neuheisel, immediately after facetiously welcoming Lane Kiffin to Los Angeles and speaking of a changing status quo within the USC-UCLA rivalry.
The crowd mustered a sizeable cheer, but it was obvious to just about anyone sitting in attendance that Bruin fans had their reservations about lofty claims when it came to football.
After all, UCLA fans have suffered through an entire decade of football mediocrity. Having gone 1-9 against the Trojans (including a 66-19 walloping in 2005), in most years the team couldn’t even leave their own city without those championship hopes being dashed, let alone finish an entire season. UCLA has reached 10 wins only once in that time period, and — despite being the proud owners of a monstrous EagleBank Bowl trophy — has not been able to break into college football relevance.
But last Wednesday — the day in which the large majority of highly prized high school football recruits around the country confirm which college they will attend and play for in the fall — might have been a sign that Neuheisel really does believe in what he is saying.
UCLA stunned the college football world by pulling in one of the best recruiting classes they have seen in years, headlined by highly touted defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa, who many consider to be one of the best defensive ends in the country. Overall, the Bruins welcomed 22 new recruits, enough to put them in eighth place on Rivals.com’s top football recruiting classes for 2010.
Whether or not this is bad news for USC, and whether or not Neuheisel is anywhere closer to achieving his somewhat ridiculous goals after Wednesday, this still personally excites me — for it seems that, in the very least, Neuheisel has finally found a way to restore the football side of the cross-town rivalry to its full potential.
As you might have heard, the Trojans haul of recruits this Wednesday was equally, if not more, spectacular than the Bruins. But after recently finding a capable successor in Lane Kiffin to lead the already-successful foundation that USC football has had since Pete Carroll arrived, it was almost to be expected that the Trojans would have little trouble in reloading on talent.
What was less expected, though, was the Bruins ability to keep up.
To see the intriguing part of this whole situation, one has to look beyond loyalties to either team and examine what is at stake.
Consider this: The USC-UCLA rivalry in football has existed since 1929 and has been arguably more influential in creating traditions and shaping the culture at the two schools than any other event they take part in. But as of late, the match up has been lacking; other than the 2005 game, in which the Pac-10 title was still in reach for both USC and UCLA, there have not been equally meaningful implications for both schools in the same game this entire decade.
While many USC fans may prefer it that way, I have no doubt in my mind that many would also prefer to see some sparks every now again; I don’t mean sparks in the form of a late-game touchdown pass when the game is already out of reach but rather in the sense of a season-ending match up in which both teams put everything they have on the line to close out their regular schedule. No rolling over after going down by three scores, no expectations of one last trouncing before a bowl game.
College football is known for its lopsided victories and annual powerhouses. But the work that Rick Neuheisel has done shows that, with enough effort and the right (albeit optimistic) outlook, any program can still be revived.
And as much as I hate to admit it, for the sake of the rivalry — I appreciate his fighting attitude.
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