College football’s longest, richest and most influential intersectional rivalry is nearing 90 years of excellence in intersectional football.
One thing precipitated and accelerated the need for this series. Michigan Head Coach Fielding Yost’s hateful anti-Catholic campaign against Notre Dame led him to convince the members of the Western Conference (the then name of the current Big X, which recently went from 12 to 14 members) to refuse to schedule the Fighting Irish. Not everybody complied with Yost, but Notre Dame was in a state the same as or contiguous with most of those member schools (only Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota excluded) so this presented scheduling challenges for the Irish. The Irish looked East to Army, Navy, Pitt and others. And then they investigated the West Coast. The University of Southern Califonia, right there in the then “city on the make” Los Angeles, was eager to engage with the big boys East of the Mississippi.
There is a split of opinion about the origin of the series.
One version is that the Rose Bowl committee was eager to upgrade its profile and had been pressing to get Notre Dame to be in the game. Once the entrepreneurial Rockne got a taste of the West Coast, when he and his four Horsemen bested Ernie Nevers, Pop Warner and Stanford in the Rose Bowl after the ‘24 season, Knute saw the light , the fun, the money and the exposure that playing a West coast rival would bring.
Another version is that when Notre Dame was on its way to Lincoln to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1925 that Southern Cal dispatched its coach Howard Jones and his wife to talk to the Notre Dame entourage. Mrs. Jones engaged the engaging Mrs. Rockne, and the story goes that she convinced Knute’s better half that Mrs. Rockne might enjoy a biennial visit to the West Coast.
The third, and most apocryphal, dubious version is a blend of the previous two and surfaced in the late 70’s. This version had Knute in greater Pasadena for the ‘24 Rose Bowl. One night, he was taking the missus for a ride well east of LA, far beyond the city lights. Mrs. Rockne was enchanted, right there, on a dark desert highway, cool wind in her hair, warm smell of colitis, rising up through the air. And she declared “Knute, play USC, honey!”
In any event, the fateful day was December 4, 1926, and, other than a three year hiatus because of World War II, Notre Dame and USC have played every year since.
USC was a rising power in the late 20’s and 30’s, but Western football was still considered inferior to the East and Midwest. At the end of 1959 the Irish led 21-7-1.
After Howard Jones retired following the 1940 season, the Thundering Herd was competent but not outstanding. There was a long drought since the near unanimous USC national championship in ’32 and the one poll national championship mentions in ’33 and ’39. USC was not holding up its end of the rivalry. Between Jones and McKay, the Irish owned the series 13-3-2. A lot of the fault there lay on the broad, winning shoulders of Frank Leahy who allowed USC to beat his Irish once and tie them once.
In 1960, after firing Don Clark, USC elevated 37 year old assistant John McKay to the head coaching position. In 16 years, McKay was 127-40-8, won 9 Pac-8 (yes, there was a time before Arizona and Arizona State were admitted to the Pac X) and Pac-10 titles and won national championships in ’62, ’67, ’72, ’74. McKay never won a national championship unless he beat Notre Dame in that year. So also would it be for Parseghian, Devine and Holtz on the other sideline.
The USC-Notre Dame was as “PIVOTAL” as a game could be, because a losing team in this era NEVER won a national championship.
McKay also became a thorn in the side of Notre Dame, public enemy #1. It was under McKay that USC informed Notre Dame that it would not play in South Bend in a season ending game, but only earlier, in gentler, sylvan October climes. So since ’61 the game in South Bend has been in October, the game in Los Angeles at season’s end, quite frequently on Thanksgiving Weekend.
Adding fuel to McKay’s fire was a rascal of an LA journalist, the creative columnist Jim Murray. Murray arrived at the LA Times in 1961, the spring after McKay became head coach. And Murray delighted in tweaking Notre Dame and its fans.
When Notre Dame hired Ara Raoul Parseghian in ’64, the rivalry, with the aid of television, became a national event. After all, between ’62 and ’77, 16 years, there were 7 national championships won by either USC or Notre Dame. And in years like ’64 ’70, ’73, ’77 and ‘88 one team ended the national championship hopes of the other.
ARA VERSUS MCKAY: THE ELEVEN YEAR WAR
In Ann Arbor and Columbus they get gooey over the 10 year war between Bo and Woody from ’69-’78. It’s a local thing as neither team won a national championship during the Ten Year War, just a pretty trophy from the Big Ten Office.
But when Ara and Mckay went at it there was much more at stake, for in 5 of those years the winner won all or a part of the national championship and in ’64 and ’70, USC dashed ND’s national championship hopes. It was a Big Game.
For Notre Dame alums who arrived after the post-Leahy dark ages, the defining moment in their undergraduate years was the annual battle, the first 5 years of which were when Notre Dame still honored its self-imposed bowl ban.
’64-late holding call, Craig Sherman to Rod Fertig. Irish agony.
’65-a pelting rain and Larry Conjar’s four touchdowns were too much
’66-substitute QB Coleman Carroll O’Brien had his only start as ND QB. He was productive, 51-0.
’67-Orenthal James Simpson was just too much for the Irish
’68-in his third start subbing for the injured Hanratty, Joe Theisman led the Irish to a 21-21 tie in the Coliseum.
’69-cursed zebras! The clip on Duane “Dewey” Poskon allowed SC to escape with another tie. Poskon’s “alleged” clip ranks with Greg Davis on the Rocket Ismail punt return against Colorado.
’70-unbeaten Irish found both SC and a quagmire and despite Theisman’s record performance, SC won. No championship for ND
’71-the only desultory game in the 11 year war. Even the sideline fight was a yawn.
’72-Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns against the Irish.
’73-Eric Penick, behind blocks by Pomarico and Dinardo went 85 to glory, redemption and catharsis, ending the six year drought
’74-Irish led 24-6. SC then scored 49 in a row. Still a nightmare, ever traumatic for those who witnessed it live or on TV.
THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
Some of the most memorable games in the series occurred in that six year span in the mid-70’s. In ’72 Anthony Davis scored 6 touchdowns to lead USC to another romp over the Irish.
The next year, Eric Penick’s dramatic 85 yard run from the Wing T led Notre Dame to a win, breaking a six year victory drought against USC, and propelling the Irish to Ara’s second national championship.
In 1974, Ara’s final team moved out to a 24-6 lead. USC scored 49 points in the next long, very long, 19 minutes to crush the Irish 55-24.
In 1977, the little leprechaun himself, Dan Devine used a roster full of talent and the motivational tool of green jerseys to propel the Irish to a 49-19 thrashing of the visitors from Heritage Hall.
In each of those four years, the winning team claimed the national championship. The 70’s cemented Notre Dame versus USC as the nation’s preeminent intersectional rivalry and must-see TV for the committed college football fan.
A COMMON, BUT PERPLEXING, SHARED TRAIT
Despite the commitment to excellence, despite the achievements, National Championships, Heismans and glory, both schools have shown the ability to hire mind-numbingly inadequate coaches. Notre Dame has Brennan, Kuharich, Devore, Faust and that not-very-wise-guy from New Jersey. But USC had Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, Paul Hackett and, most recently, the only coach in any sport fired in the wee hours of the morning by being told, by a Rhodes Scholar, no less, to get off the team bus at LAX after a drubbing in Tempe, the incomparable Lane Kiffin.
The series has seen significant momentum swings. Beginning in ’67, the year Orenthal James Simpson began playing for McKay and the Trojans, USC controlled the series, 12-2-2. It is noteworthy that the two losses to Notre Dame came in ’73 and ’77. Those were glorious days in Notre Dame Football as the emotional victory over USC opened the path toward an Irish National Championship.
Under the unlikely leadership of Gerry Faust, the Irish started a streak of their own in ’83, ripping off 12 wins and a tie. Gerry Faust had a better record against USC than either Parseghian or Devine. The USC Notre Dame series defies both expectations and pattern recognition.
Pete Carroll coached USC to 8 wins in a row over Notre Dame before leaving for the Seahawks.
Notre Dame leads the series 45-35-5. Both teams remain in the top echelon of college football. And the rivalry, with all its color and glory, has a bright future. By acclamation, it is the greatest intersectional rivalry, and that means the greatest national rivalry, in college football. Thanks Howard Jones, thanks Rock!
NOTRE DAME VERSUS USC
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|3||L||12-01-1928||14||Los Angeles, CA||27|
|5||W||12-06-1930||27||Los Angeles, CA||0|
|6||L||11-21-1931||14||South Bend, IN||16|
|7||L||12-10-1932||0||Los Angeles, CA||13|
|8||L||11-25-1933||0||South Bend, IN||19|
|9||W||12-08-1934||14||Los Angeles, CA||0|
|10||W||11-23-1935||20||South Bend, IN||13|
|11||T||12-05-1936||13||Los Angeles, CA||13|
|12||W||11-27-1937||13||South Bend, IN||6|
|13||L||12-03-1938||0||Los Angeles, CA||13|
|14||L||11-25-1939||12||South Bend, IN||20|
|15||W||12-07-1940||10||Los Angeles, CA||6|
|16||W||11-22-1941||20||South Bend, IN||18|
|17||W||11-28-1942||13||Los Angeles, CA||0|
|18||W||11-30-1946||26||South Bend, IN||6|
|19||W||12-06-1947||38||Los Angeles, CA||7|
|20||T||12-04-1948||14||Los Angeles, CA||14|
|21||W||11-26-1949||32||South Bend, IN||0|
|22||L||12-02-1950||7||Los Angeles, CA||9|
|23||W||12-01-1951||19||Los Angeles, CA||12|
|24||W||11-29-1952||9||South Bend, IN||0|
|25||W||11-28-1953||48||Los Angeles, CA||14|
|26||W||11-27-1954||23||South Bend, IN||17|
|27||L||11-26-1955||20||Los Angeles, CA||42|
|28||L||12-01-1956||20||Los Angeles, CA||28|
|29||W||11-30-1957||40||South Bend, IN||12|
|30||W||11-29-1958||20||Los Angeles, CA||13|
|31||W||11-28-1959||16||South Bend, IN||6|
|32||W||11-26-1960||17||Los Angeles, CA||0|
|33||W||10-14-1961||30||South Bend, IN||0|
|34||L||12-01-1962||0||Los Angeles, CA||25|
|35||W||10-12-1963||17||South Bend, IN||14|
|36||L||11-28-1964||17||Los Angeles, CA||20|
|37||W||10-23-1965||28||South Bend, IN||7|
|38||W||11-26-1966||51||Los Angeles, CA||0|
|39||L||10-14-1967||7||South Bend, IN||24|
|40||T||11-30-1968||21||Los Angeles, CA||21|
|41||T||10-18-1969||14||South Bend, IN||14|
|42||L||11-28-1970||28||Los Angeles, CA||38|
|43||L||10-23-1971||14||South Bend, IN||28|
|44||L||12-02-1972||23||Los Angeles, CA||45|
|45||W||10-27-1973||23||South Bend, IN||14|
|46||L||11-30-1974||24||Los Angeles, CA||55|
|47||L||10-25-1975||17||South Bend, IN||24|
|48||L||11-27-1976||13||Los Angeles, CA||17|
|49||W||10-22-1977||49||South Bend, IN||19|
|50||L||11-25-1978||25||Los Angeles, CA||27|
|51||L||10-20-1979||23||South Bend, IN||42|
|52||L||12-06-1980||3||Los Angeles, CA||20|
|53||L||10-24-1981||7||South Bend, IN||14|
|54||L||11-27-1982||13||Los Angeles, CA||17|
|55||W||10-22-1983||27||South Bend, IN||6|
|56||W||11-24-1984||19||Los Angeles, CA||7|
|57||W||10-26-1985||37||South Bend, IN||3|
|58||W||11-29-1986||38||Los Angeles, CA||37|
|59||W||10-24-1987||26||South Bend, IN||15|
|60||W||11-26-1988||27||Los Angeles, CA||10|
|61||W||10-21-1989||28||South Bend, IN||24|
|62||W||11-24-1990||10||Los Angeles, CA||6|
|63||W||10-26-1991||24||South Bend, IN||20|
|64||W||11-28-1992||31||Los Angeles, CA||23|
|65||W||10-23-1993||31||South Bend, IN||13|
|66||T||11-26-1994||17||Los Angeles, CA||17|
|67||W||10-21-1995||38||South Bend, IN||10|
|68||L||11-30-1996||20||Los Angeles, CA||27|
|69||L||10-18-1997||17||South Bend, IN||20|
|70||L||11-28-1998||0||Los Angeles, CA||10|
|71||W||10-16-1999||25||South Bend, IN||24|
|72||W||11-25-2000||38||Los Angeles, CA||21|
|73||W||10-20-2001||27||South Bend, IN||16|
|74||L||11-30-2002||13||Los Angeles, CA||44|
|75||L||10-18-2003||14||South Bend, IN||45|
|76||L||11-27-2004||10||Los Angeles, CA||41|
|77||L||10-15-2005||31||South Bend, IN||34||Southern California Vacated Game|
|78||L||11-25-2006||24||Los Angeles, CA||44|
|79||L||10-20-2007||0||South Bend, IN||38|
|80||L||11-29-2008||3||Los Angeles, CA||38|
|81||L||10-17-2009||27||South Bend, IN||34|
|82||W||11-27-2010||20||Los Angeles, CA||16|
|83||L||10-22-2011||17||South Bend, IN||31|
|84||W||11-24-2012||22||Los Angeles, CA||13|
|85||W||10-19-2013||14||South Bend, IN||10|
|86||L||11-29-2014||14||Los Angeles, CA||49|