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We Love L.A.: USC vs. UCLA

(This story was published in 2003).

By: Todd Heustess

LOS ANGELES--As a football lovin’ kid growing up in the South Carolina, I always had a fascination, with the “other” USC. In fact, in the early 80’s the USCs even played, adding to the allure. I mean who wouldn’t be interested when the Trojans play the Cocks, right? When I watched Trojans games on TV back then, they seemed so glamorous and they had the most beautiful cheerleaders ever. Those girls in their tight, white sweater tops were visual embodiments of California girls, glamour and a wet dream, all right there in the L.A. Coliseum. I may have been a confused, closeted boy in those days but cheerleaders certainly made a lasting impression on me. West Coast football captivated me. It was where they had the Men of Troy, O.J., Hollywood-like glamour, great weather, and a football-rich tradition.

Their allure was even more compelling because of where they played their home games, with USC playing in the Coliseum and UCLA playing in the Rose Bow, two of the most famous venues in all of sports. I was lucky enough to go to the 1984 Olympics in L.A., and visited both the Coliseum (track and field) and the Rose Bowl (soccer) for events and made a vow then that I was going to one day go to college football games at both venues.

And when I moved to L.A., I made getting tickets to USC and UCLA games a top priority. When I finally made it to games at both venues I could not have been more surprised at how different my expectations were with the actual atmosphere at both stadiums. Over time, I grew to love and appreciated the uniqueness of each venue, and more importantly, the distinctions between the two schools’ fans, whose campuses are separated by seven miles of freeway.

And to this day, my favorite college football scene is the annual clash between the two heated rivals, either at the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum. That game is always an event on the L.A. sports and social scene, with 90,000 + fans jamming into either venue, a cross-town rivalry that has no real parallel in terms of proximity or familiarity between the players, students, and alumni. The games between UCLA and USC at the Rose Bowl were always my favorite, especially the late afternoon games, because there was always such electricity in the air, such a buzz in the ancient stadium. By the time the two schools play in mid-November, it is also a lot cooler in L.A., especially in Pasadena, so it almost feels like fall as the day fades into twilight and the San Gabriel Valley cools off.

It certainly is a different feeling than when UCLA plays an afternoon game in Pasadena in September or early October. Afternoon games that time of year are not for the faint-of-heart, or the easily dehydrated. In L.A. there are two climates and Pasadena, which is, just northeast of downtown L.A., is in the Valley climate, meaning hot, dry air in the summer and early fall. It’s not unusual for games at the Rose Bowl in the early season to be played in temperatures in the 90s, with the sun draining every ounce of energy out of the fans. I think that explains why the games can be such subdued affairs up there. Still, it always was interesting to me that unless the Bruins were playing USC, the Bruins fans at Rose Bowl games (at the games I attended) were rather laid back and usually it was the visiting teams’ fans (Arizona State, Oregon, Tennessee, Colorado) that was making noise and raising a ruckus.

I’m not sure why that is, whether it’s just the laid back California mentality of the fans, the fact that the Rose Bowl is a good 30 minutes away from the UCLA campus in Westwood, or that the venue is so big that even crowds of 60,000 to 70,000 seemed dwarfed and quite by comparison. It certainly is scenic, with the Rose Bowl surrounded by mountains.

The tailgating is quite typical, though I have to admit that I never noticed a huge preponderance of drunken rowdiness unless the Bruins were playing the Trojans. Maybe it’s the heat or the traffic. Maybe it’s the fact that the Rose Bowl is literally in a neighborhood, surrounded by expensive houses in the affluent city of Pasadena. Maybe it’s the pastel blue and gold colors that remind one more of a Pier One Imports catalog than a football team. Maybe it’s the fact that UCLA is, and always will be a basketball school, the sport that really inspires the passion (and anger) of Bruin faithful because the experience of seeing a basketball game at Pauley Pavilion is nothing like a game at the Rose Bowl, in terms of fan fervor. Or maybe (and this is my theory) the UCLA fans have it right: Football is a nice diversion, but it’s not worth getting crazy over. If they win, great. If not, then it’s no big deal. That certainly is in stark contrast to the constant whining I hear from Gator fans in Florida or Nebraska fans who apparently live for Cornhusker football and nothing else. (These are just two examples of “overzealous” fans—I could name a lot more, heck even do a whole column on it).

The atmosphere is quite different at the Coliseum, an urban shock, in direct contrast to the gentile atmosphere that surrounds the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. USC’s campus is next to the Coliseum and both are just southwest of downtown L.A.. I never expected that a school as famous (and expensive) as USC would be surrounded by urban blight. Only the Orange Bowl has a similar atmosphere.

In all the times I went to games at the Coliseum I never felt threatened, though I did say a little prayer when I left my car in someone’s front yard or driveway. There isn’t a lot of parking around the Coliseum so most fans are forced to negotiate their parking with the friendly residents (think “Boyz in the Hood”). No matter where they’re parked, you can be sure that they are tailgating in earnest. Trojan fans are a good bit rowdier than their Westwood counterparts. Even though the Coliseum feels smaller than a 90,000 + stadium (no upper deck, an open end zone) it does get a good bit louder than the Rose Bowl, no matter who USC is playing, but it is especially crazy when Notre Dame and UCLA are playing there. There’s more of a sense of tradition too (at least to this observer) with Tommy Trojan in his gladiator outfit, riding the horse into the stadium to the strains of their famous marching fight song. And then there are those cheerleaders, who I think should join their now famous (to Outsports readers) counterparts at the University of Miami and do a beach calendar.