As a diehard Boston Red Sox fan, I’ve been spoiled with a great sports rivalry.
In 2003, I witnessed rocket-armed ace Pedro Martinez head-lock 72-year-old Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer during a benches-clearing scrum and toss him to the ground in the same way Patriots tight end Rob “Yo soy fiesta” Gronkowski spikes a football. Almost a year later, I delighted in Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek punching Alex Rodriguez in the face after the $300 million man complained about getting grazed by a pitch as he sauntered up the first base line.
As a transplanted New Englander whose Yankee-fan sister once had a beer poured on her after she cheered for Derek Jeter in Fenway Park, I want a similarly charged football rivalry between USC and UCLA — maybe without the bar-brawling antics, but at least with the same amount of vitriol going back and forth.
But to be honest, I’ve been disappointed. A team should never lose to its rival 50-0. I don’t care if the program is in transition or if it’s starting its fourth-string quarterback.
Thankfully, the tides are changing and UCLA now boasts plenty of program cornerstones, especially redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley.
But the Bruins aren’t there yet. UCLA remains the underdog according to most people’s perceptions. Nothing screams skepticism in a program’s turnaround more than the higher-ranked team with a better record playing at home and Vegas still ticketing it to lose by 3.5 points.
So, in the interest of fairness and helping out slingshot-toting UCLA, here are four rules to becoming a respected rival — from a Red Sox fan’s perspective.
The Red Sox didn’t start ascending in the earlier part of this millennium until the team realized that whining about the Yankees’ spending advantage doesn’t solve problems or change the competitive balance. Focusing on factors outside the team’s control simply creates distractions.
We’re already off to a bad start for UCLA. Earlier this week, the UCLA athletic department forbid the Trojan Marching Band’s drum major is forbidden from stabbing the UCLA logo on the 50-yard line during pregame festivities. Violating this directive will result in the cancellation of the TMB’s halftime performance.
This decision was prompted by an SB Nation website called “Bruins Nation,” which sent out an inane memo to the UCLA administration begging for the policy change in the name of Bruin pride.
But this fiasco doesn’t foster Bruin pride; it reeks of helplessness and admits that the drum major’s traditional demonstration bothers UCLA fans. Without question, the Bruins need to follow USC’s lead here. The Trojans don’t care about opposing teams’ demonstrations at the Coliseum. We welcome Stanford’s rag-tag, tone-deaf marching band to poke fun at us, because we’re secure about our university’s prestige.
The only way to beat USC and become its equal is by winning on the field, not through bureaucratic tomfoolery.
Don’t overhype your rival
Pedro Martinez carried a reputation for being a bit of a head-hunter. When asked why he once threw a pitch at Yankees journeyman outfielder Karim Garcia, Martinez stared blankly at the reporter and asked, “Who is Karim Garcia?”
Martinez never backed down to Yankees hitters even when they were mashing Red Sox pitching. He brought an attitude to the mound and genuinely believed the Red Sox were not underdogs.
What’s the lesson here? Don’t overhype Goliath too much, and don’t be afraid to be a little blasé about your rival. It’s this type of irreverence that communicates your readiness to compete on the same level as your long time big brother.
New UCLA coach Jim Mora has stubbornly refused to amplify the USC hype, exuding Pedro-like stubborness — for good and ill — ever since he succeeded Rick Neuheisel. In his first press conference before UCLA’s bowl game against Illinois last December, Mora denied hearing of Neuheisel’s comments about USC’s “football monopoly” in Los Angeles ending, downplayed the importance of the rivalry and repeatedly referred to USC as “Southern Cal” even after a reporter informed him that USC’s administration doesn’t like the nickname.
His Monday news conference didn’t make mention of USC once, as Mora only referred to the Trojans as “the opponent.” Touche, Mora. Touche.
Build a blue-collar identity
The 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox (wow, writing that evokes nostalgia) branded themselves as a cast of “idiots.” In stark contrast to the clean-shaven, athletic Yankees, the Red Sox filled their roster with scraggly-bearded grinders, many of whom were undesired cast-offs from their previous organizations.
Though they didn’t necessarily look like a winning team at first glance, they played with a chip on their shoulder and with the intent of disproving naysayers.
Mora has already made strides in changing the culture over in Westwood, stressing accountability and hard work. To this end, one of Mora’s first measures as UCLA’s new coach was to ban the now-infamous “senior skip day,” which traditionally saw UCLA senior football players skip the season’s last day of practice and reinforced an atmosphere of quitting and undisciplined, selfish behavior.
Similar cultural changes will enable UCLA, which often underperforms its talent level, to build sustainable success.
Win a game
This one requires no further explanation. A rivalry needs the underdog to win at least occasionally. Mind you, I’m perfectly content with USC’s string of winning 12 of 13 crosstown matchups, but for this football rivalry to matter to future generations, the scales can’t continue to tip so obviously in the Trojans’ favor.
For the first time in years, this game counts for more than bragging rights and a Bruin upset seems more than plausible. Rivalries are punctuated by cycles. The question for USC fans is whether the Trojans are in the thick of a dominance cycle, like the Yankees were when they won four World Series titles from 1996-2000, or whether they are about to enter an era of parity, like when the Red Sox and Yankees clashed in titanic showdowns from 2003-09.
Saturday’s game represents USC’s opportunity to reaffirm that UCLA still has a ways to go. If the Trojans don’t definitively suppress this Westwood revival now, these next few seasons could get pretty interesting.
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