Rivalries make college football special.
Coaches, players and fans alike circle one or two games on their calendar each year as “must-win” games — not because of rankings or standings, but out of a longstanding and passionate dislike for another school. For some, it would be OK if their team lost every other game if only they beat that school.
The names really say it all. Every year, Pittsburgh and West Virginia throw down in the Backyard Brawl. Utah and BYU wage an annual Holy War. Georgia and Georgia Tech engage in Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
Whether between teams in the same conference, the same state or even the same city, almost all of college football’s rivalries share a common bond: They make geographic sense.
USC’s rivalry with Notre Dame stands out because of how seemingly random it is: 2,103 miles separate Notre Dame Stadium from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The teams have never played in the same conference — Notre Dame football has seen no need for conference affiliation at all. What then does a Catholic school of fewer than 12,000 students in northern Indiana have in common with a secular institution of 36,000 grads and undergrads in the heart of the nation’s second-largest media market?
The origin of the rivalry is equally odd. Gwynn Wilson, USC’s equivalent to an athletic director in 1925, went with his wife to Lincoln, Neb., in November of that year to spend Thanksgiving watching Notre Dame play the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
The Trojans themselves were in the midst of an 11-2 season in which they played all but one game at the Coliseum and were searching for a more nationally prominent rival. The Fighting Irish were a prime candidate, having gone undefeated the previous season, which was capped off by a 27-10 victory over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl.
At this point, the line between truth and fiction begins to blur. Legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne — whose life inspired the movie Knute Rockne, All American, starring, among others, Ronald Reagan — is said to have been reluctant to agree to an annual series with the Trojans because of the long-distance travel required.
That’s when the women stepped in. Wilson’s wife got to chatting with Rockne’s wife and convinced her that a biannual trip to the sunny West Coast was an improvement upon the usual pilgrimage to freezing Nebraska.
Naturally, Rockne was convinced by his wife, and the teams squared off for the first time ever in Los Angeles the following December. This Saturday the Trojans and Irish will play for the 83rd time in their history.
It’s not just the distance between the schools, however, that makes the series unique. Notre Dame fills its schedule each year with games against teams from coast to coast because it doesn’t belong to a conference.
In the 1980s, for example, the Trojans’ were far from the Irish’s most fearsome opponents. USC didn’t win a single game against Notre Dame from 1983 through 1995. Meanwhile, the Irish went to nine major bowl games during that span and won the 1988 national title.
The games Notre Dame fans most looked forward to then were the team’s showdowns with the Miami Hurricanes, which reached their dramatic peak in the 1988 game dubbed “Catholics vs. Convicts,” featuring a pre-game brawl between the teams. The series was called off two years later, however, and was only renewed again last year in the Sun Bowl.
The longevity of the USC-Notre Dame series, along with its prominence on the national stage, is what sets it apart.
The two programs have won a combined 22 national championships (11 each) and 14 Heisman trophies (seven each). They’ve had more players drafted into the NFL (USC is first with 472, Notre Dame second with 469) than any other school. Both are in the top eight in all-time winning percentage.
The series has produced some of the best moments in the history of college football.
Notre Dame fans fondly recall the 1988 game in which the No. 1 Irish beat the No. 2 Trojans 27-10 in Los Angeles on their way to the program’s last national championship.
The 1977 “Green Jersey Game” is also a happy memory for the Golden Domers. That year Notre Dame wore its traditional blue uniforms during warmups before switching clothes and charging out of the tunnel in special green jerseys followed by a giant Trojan horse. Led by quarterback Joe Montana, the Irish won 49-19.
USC supporters can claim “The Comeback” from 1974, in which the Trojans trailed 24-0 with 10 seconds remaining in the first half and rallied to win 55-24. Running back Anthony Davis scored four of his 11 career touchdowns against Notre Dame in that game.
More recently, Matt Leinart converted a 4th-and-9 pass to Dwayne Jarrett at Notre Dame Stadium in 2005 on the Trojans’ dramatic late drive. Leinart won the game with a one-yard quarterback sneak on the famous “Bush Push” play, giving the Trojans a 34-31 victory.
It’s moments like those that make USC and Notre Dame’s rivalry stand out as truly special.
“Sellin’ the Sizzle” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.