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USC vs. Notre Dame: The Greatest Rivalry of All Time

Oct 19, 2011, 10:52 AM EDT
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USC takes on Notre Dame this Saturday at 5 p.m.

22 National Championships. 14 Heisman trophy winners. 21 All-Americans, College Football Hall of Famers, and NFL Hall of Famers. 941 No. 1 draft picks. The winner of this game has often gone on to play in and win the national championship. These are just some of the figures that are shared between the USC Trojans and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, in what is considered by many to be the greatest intersectional college football rivalry of all time. The statistics seem to support this belief, as five of these USC/Notre Dame games are in the Top 10 most watched college football games in history. For most of us, the rivalry really only began in the late 90s or early 2000s, when we first became aware of this glorious sport.However, the historic rivalry began long before any of us were even twinkles in our parents’ eyes.A few years back, ESPN ran a special on this rivalry, and it may have been one of the best documentaries I have ever seen about sports. If you saw the doc, then congratulations, you already know the fabled history that this rivalry has. If you haven’t though, fear not! I’m about to give you a crash course, flashback style. It all started back in the 1920s, in the early days of collegiate football…Legend has it that this rivalry was born from “a conversation between wives,” of USC athletic director Gwynn Wilson and Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne. USC was looking for a national rival, and the Trojans sent Wilson and his wife to the Nebraska/Notre Dame game on Thanksgiving. Rockne was initially against a home-and-home series against the Trojans because of the travel requirement, but Mrs. Wynn successfully convinced Mrs. Rockne that a trip to beautiful, sunny Southern California every two years would be worth it. On December 4, 1926, USC and Notre Dame became permanent fixtures on each other’s schedules. Some historians offer other motives for the origin of the rivalry, but this obviously the best story, so we’ll roll with it. The first game was played that same year and result in a 13-12 win for the Irish. Coach Rockne was quoted as saying this was the greatest game he ever witnessed. And speaking of Rockne, Trojans have him to thank for landing legendary head coach Howard Jones. USC offered Rockne the position as head coach for the Trojans, but he ultimately turned it down. Instead, he suggested that USC look at his friend Howard Jones who was coaching at Iowa at the time. The Trojans took his advice, and hired Jones to replace “Gloomy Gus” Henderson. The rest, as they say, is history.Some other important games from the Early Days include the one in 1927, where 120,000 fans—one of the largest crowds in college football history—showed up to watch the Irish edge out SC, 7-6. Then there was the game in 1931, where the Trojans came back to upset Notre Dame 16-14, after trailing 14-0. The win for the Trojans snapped Notre Dame’s 26-game winning streak, and was the Trojans’ first win over Notre Dame. USC’s yearbook, El Rodeo, called it “the biggest upset since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over that lantern.” Many historians cite this game as the one that thrust USC into the national spotlight, elevating it to the level of an elite program.In the 40s, Notre Dame won the national championship in ’43, 46’, 47’ and ’49. USC had good squads these years, but only one was able to compete with the Mighty Irish. The 1948 Trojans yet again spoiled Notre Dame’s 21-game winning streak, with a 14-14 tie.In 1959, 33 years into the rivalry, the two schools played the last game in South Bend in November. Going forward, the Trojans would still host the Notre Dame in the Coliseum at Thanksgiving, but the Irish would, from then on, host USC in October.

Notre Dame in their legendary shamrock jerseys

The two decades from 1960 to 1982 featured some of the best Trojan and Irish squads of all time. The two combined to win 8 national championships, and is considered by fans to be the Golden Age of the rivalry. It produced legends like former USC AD and Heisman trophy winner Mike Garrett, Heisman trophy winner O.J. Simpson, Joe Theismann, current AD Pat Haden, Anthony Davis, Anthony Munoz, Ronnie Lott, Sam “Bam” Cunningham (who’s play was integral to integrating football in the south) and Lynn Swann. This period was especially intense under head coaches John McKay for SC and Ara Parseghian for Notre Dame, in 60s.There were two huge games in the 70s, the first in ’74 and the other in ’77. In ’74, USC came back from a 24-0 deficit to win 55-24, in what is considered to be one of USC’s top ten wins of all time. In ’77, Notre Dame came onto their home field during warm ups in their traditional blue jerseys. After that the team went to the locker room, where the players found the two team captains clad in emerald green jerseys, and more green jerseys were in all the players’ lockers. Notre Dame came back onto the field in the new jerseys, the first time they ever played in green. They went on to blow the Trojans out, 49-19.From 1983-1995, Notre Dame went absolutely nuts and beat USC 11 straight times. This decade was horrible for USC, but there were some stars here and there, like Rodney Peete, Todd Marinovich, and Marcus Allen. From 1996-2001, USC got back in the game, splitting wins evenly with the Irish.

And this, ladies and gents, brings us to the best time in the USC/Notre Dame rivalry: The Decade of Dominance.

Former Coaches Pete Carroll and Charlie Weiss after a USC victory

Pretty much for the entire 2000s, USC put the smack down on Notre Dame. Facing teams led by Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and backed up by greats like Lendale White, Reggie Bush, Troy Polamalu, Lofa Tatupu, Rey Maualuga Taylor Mays, Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, Keith Rivers, and countless others, the Irish stood absolutely no chance. The best game of this period unarguably had to be the one in 2005, imfamous throughout college football for “The Bush Push.” USC went into South Bend and provided a thriller like no other. The Irish took the lead with two minutes left in the game. With the game seemingly over, QB Matt Leinart stormed back on 4th & 9 with a pass to Dwayne Jarrett to bring the Trojans within the Notre Dane 15-yard line. On the next play, Leinart tried to scramble into the endzone but the ball was knocked out of bounds short of the goal line. The Irish fans began to storm the field, but the referees spotted the ball at the 1-yard line, with seven seconds on the clock. Instead of going for the tie, “Big Balls” Pete Carroll lived up to his nickname and went for it, and Trojan fans the world over would love him for it. The Trojans ran the ball with Matt Leinart, and Reggie Bush pushed him from behind, into the endzone. Technically this is not a legal play, but it is rarely ever called, so the play stood. I remember watching this game during my sophomore year of high school, and knowing right then and there that I wanted to be a part of the Trojan family. Since The Bush Push, no other rivalry game has been nearly as dramatic, or as talked about. USC destroyed Notre Dame eight consecutive times, and it was awesome.

This rivalry, more so than others, resonates in a particular way with the fans. It means pride. It means power. It means winning. It means knowing that your squad is one of, if not the, best team in country. It means you get the Jeweled Shillelagh for one more year, with the bragging rights that come with it, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you play the game.For decades, gladiators clad in fiery crimson and gold have marched from the locker room to the tunnel, ears ringing with the cries and cheers of the students that worshipped them as greater than humans. The noise doesn’t bother them. The beads of sweat start to form on their brows, from either nerves or anticipation, but at the moment that they step from the tunnel to the field, they realize what the game means to their legacies as players, as representatives of their institutions and legions of fans. From that point on their minds clear and they enter into a state of serenity, for on the football field a man’s skill and strength are tested; adversarial combat that ensures that if you are indeed the best man, it will be seen on that day. All of the pregame hype, all of the words of Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit become meaningless, as the only words playing in their heads are those of the immortal Vince Lombardi: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.”

Fight on.

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