When cardinal clashes with blue: Looking back on the crosstown rivalry over the years

USC’s Spirit of Troy marching band with the Victory Bell at the 2012 rivalry game in the Rose Bowl. UCLA won the game 38-28 and reclaimed the Bell. (Daily Trojan file photo)

After eight straight years of losing to rival UCLA, USC’s football team finally won the annual crosstown contest in 1999. Sam Gammell, then a junior, was swept up in the crowd at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and rushed the field in celebration.

“[It] was a massive, incredible kind of thing,” she said. “That was the first time we had gotten the Victory Bell back [during my time at USC].”

As a member of the USC Helenes, a community service organization, Gammell remembers painting a streak of red on the frame of the brass bell awarded to the winner of the annual rivalry game.

These are the stories — the memories — that have come to define the rivalry. In a year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, though, there won’t be any of those. USC and UCLA will play the game. But the rivalry game tradition is so much more than the on-field play — it’s a citywide spectacle.

Players prepare extra hard to earn the bragging rights that come with a win. The stadiums fill with alumni and fans from around the city, Southern California and the country. 

And for years, students have devised numerous traditions and pranks for the week leading up to the big game.

Gammell and Steve Short, who graduated from USC in 1991, recall attending the annual Conquest concert and walking down Trousdale Parkway past the Trojan Knights guarding the Tommy Trojan statue — traditions that still exist today. Gammell said her peers were disappointed that the annual bonfire didn’t happen during her time at USC.

“They’d light this huge bonfire that would probably go 10, 15, 20 feet in the air, and then they’d have the Bruin stuffed animals and things like that that they would burn in the bonfire,” Short said. “Looking back on it, it’s probably a little inappropriate, but it was just to get people obviously fired up before the big game.”

Short said he heard of past rivalry festivities from his father Garry, who attended USC from 1955 to 1959. The Friday before the football game in 1958, Garry, his fellow Daily Trojan editor Joe Jares and Undergraduate Student Government senator-at-large Larry Lichty authored a fake Daily Bruin newspaper filled with USC praise. Various USC student groups paid for 8,000 copies of the fake paper to be printed, and 25 other students helped coordinate their distribution in Westwood.

That was only one of several pranks that were passed down as stories in the Short family. That same year, UCLA students rented a helicopter, planning to dump 500 pounds of manure on Tommy Trojan. But, Steve explained, laughing, the plan backfired, and the manure was drawn back into the helicopter.

After exchanging pranks and a good deal of trash talk in the week leading up to the game, the energy in the stadium is typically just as lively, with packed stands and back-and-forth chanting.

“I don’t know if there’s any [chant that’s] fit for publishing,” Gammell said, chuckling.

Former All-American defensive lineman Shaun Cody, who played for USC from 2001 to 2004, loved rushing out of the Coliseum tunnel to a roaring crowd, especially before those rivalry games.

“It was definitely a sight to be seen when you’re standing on the field you look out at the stands and the Coliseum’s packed to the brim with cardinal and gold and that blue across the way,” Cody said. “You definitely know you’re in the game, and you’re excited to experience that moment.”

But some Southern California natives aren’t always dressed in the same color on game day — many come from families with divided allegiances.

Professor Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches the “Sports, Business, Media” class at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has only missed one rivalry game since 1964. His mother was a Bruin and he had family friends who were USC fans, so he was at the Coliseum every weekend when USC and UCLA shared the stadium.

“It’s almost like every year [was] a family reunion,” Fellenzer said of the rivalry game. “You’d have all the banter back and forth before the game, after the game, the buildup leading up to it.”

He remembers moments that “seem[ed] larger than life” to him as a kid, including UCLA’s late two-score comeback in 1965 to prevent USC’s Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mike Garrett from making the Rose Bowl as a senior. He was there for running back O.J. Simpson’s famous 64-yard run that solidified a 1967 Rose Bowl berth for the Trojans.

The only game he missed? 2006, when UCLA was the clear underdog but won 13-9 to end USC’s national championship hopes.

“I kept looking, going ‘How could you not be there?’” he said. “It had been so many years.”

Now, the Los Angeles area has 11 major professional sports teams that vie for the attention of the city’s fans. The Rams and Chargers occupy a new $5 billion stadium. The Dodgers won the 2020 World Series. The Lakers and Clippers finished atop the NBA’s Western Conference this season, and the Lakers ended up NBA champs.

Given those choices, Fellenzer says future rivalry games are likely to draw a sellout crowd only if the stakes are high — a Rose Bowl or a College Football Playoff berth, for instance.

“You’re going to have the diehards and the students of course, that college game is going to be [their] top priority, but [for] the sports fans that would go to those games other years when I was growing up … you’ve got real serious competition,” he said. “In a city that’s about winning and star power, it takes teams that are really good to get people to drop what they’re doing and go out.”

But no matter the teams’ records, there’s a heightened energy in practice before facing UCLA, Cody said. Bragging rights are always on the line. As a Southern California recruit, Cody had played against several players on the opposing team prior to college, and there was always the risk of running into the UCLA guys around the city.

“You know throughout the year you’re going to see [the other team’s players]; whether it’s working out somewhere [or] you run into them at a restaurant, they’re going to be around,” Cody said. “When you had those bragging rights on your side, it was definitely better walking somewhere that was UCLA territory or a UCLA restaurant after winning the game, and they couldn’t tell you anything … You ran the place.”

Although the football game is the most-viewed spectacle between the two schools each year, Fellenzer noted that the rivalry is so special because the competitiveness extends to every sport.

“It’s what college sports are all about,” he said. “It’s the color, it’s the drama. So many games have meant so much over the years in every sport … It’s a list that’s really unmatched, I think, in any college rivalry, when you talk about the caliber of world-class athletes across all sports.”