A young boy grows up in South Bend, Ind., in the 1960s with a minimal but clear vision of the famous 10-10 between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966. The memory of the following week’s game has vanished. The record book says Notre Dame defeated Southern Cal, 51-0.
Southern Cal. Not USC. That’s what we used to call the team virtually everyone now refers to as USC.
Beat Southern Cal. That’s what the hand-made signs said. They dotted the sidewalks on the Notre Dame campus, taped there so that those inclined to declare their feelings toward the hated Trojans could be expressed.
Southern Cal. The mere pronunciation of the name brought butterflies to the stomach. To see them run onto the Notre Dame Stadium field in their white jerseys, gold pants and cardinal helmets/trim literally struck fear in the heart.
The first time in-person view of Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal came in Notre Dame Stadium in 1967. O.J. Simpson led the Trojans to a 24-7 victory in a game observed from the east corner of the north end zone on a sunny mid-October day.
They tied each of the next two years, and in 1970 – the season the Irish went back to bowl competition – Joe Theismann set a Notre Dame passing record (526 yards) that still stands. Amidst torrential rains, the Irish fell, 38-28.
After Notre Dame’s 1966 shellacking of the Trojans, the Irish defeated Southern Cal just twice from 1967-82. As great as the Ara Parseghian era at Notre Dame was, he won just three times and lost six with those two ties during an 11-year span.
The silver lining, of course, was the significance of those two victories under Parseghian. There was the 23-14 victory in ’73, sparked by Eric Penick’s 85-yard touchdown run, and the 49-19 victory in ’77, forever known as the green jersey game.
Notre Dame claimed national titles those two seasons, intertwined with the ones won by USC in 1967, 1972, 1974 and 1978. These were the years the Trojans collected Heisman Trophies from Mike Garrett in ’65 to O.J. in ’68 to Charles White in ’79 to Marcus Allen in ’81. Tim Brown would become Notre Dame’s seventh Heisman winner in 1987.
From the southwest corner of Notre Dame Stadium, a senior in high school watched as the Notre Dame student body’s version of the Trojan Horse was wheeled through the tunnel.
Astonishingly, as if you couldn’t believe what your eyes were seeing, the Irish came out in green jerseys before Notre Dame rolled the Trojans en route to the ’77 national title.
After John McKay and Parseghian, it was John Robinson and Dan Devine, as Devine orchestrated the ’77 jersey hijinks with, of course, the indomitable Digger Phelps playing his “green machine” role.
In a series earmarked by streaks, USC won five in a row from 1978-82 as the Devine regime transitioned into the Gerry Faust era while a naïve Catholic boy from the south side of South Bend enrolled at the only university he ever wanted to attend.
As the Faust era rolled into the great reign under Lou Holtz, the Irish won an incredible 11 games in a row, taking advantage of the star-crossed coaching tenures of Ted Tollner and Larry Smith, who were a combined 0-10 against the Irish.
Saturday night’s game between Notre Dame and Southern Cal will be my 31st in a row, including 15 trips to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a place – like those cardinal and gold uniforms – that still makes the stomach churn a bit from the sheer magnitude of one of America’s great symbols of athletic competition.
There was the Tim Brown-led comeback in Holtz’s first year, a 38-37 victory that allowed the Irish to finish 5-6. More importantly, it propelled Notre Dame to greatness under Holtz while starting his own personal eight-game winning streak against the Trojans.
With the Irish and Trojans ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in ’88, Notre Dame went to Los Angeles and won, 27-10, to propel them to the national title over West Virginia. This time, it was Tony Rice, Rocket Ismail, Frank Stams, Chris Zorich, Wes Pritchett, Michael Stonebreaker and Stan Smagala leading the way.
After an incredible 15-3-1 record against Southern Cal from 1983-2001, the party came to a crashing halt for the Irish. Enter Pete Carroll, who won each of his last eight games he coached against Notre Dame, most in convincing fashion.
The most memorable was the 34-31 win over the Irish in 2005 – the “Bush Push” game – as Charlie Weis parlayed a valiant loss into a stream of seven-figure paychecks from Notre Dame, the last of which will be cut – believe it or not – this December.
Despite a 0-5 record against the Trojans, the Southern Cal game always will have a special place in Weis’ heart…and retirement fund.
In the last seven games between Notre Dame and Southern Cal, the Trojans have been coached by Carroll (2009), Lane Kiffin (2010-12), Ed Orgeron (2013), Steve Sarkisian (2014) and now Clay Helton.
It’s been a series of streaks and upheaval, incredible highs and devastating lows, streaks of unprecedented success and seemingly never-ending losing ruts.
When the Irish and the Trojans square off Saturday night under the lights in Notre Dame Stadium, the home team will be the only ranked team – No. 14 in the AP poll. In the last 35 games, both teams have been ranked just eight times. Nationally, Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal has lost some of its luster.
But the feeling between Notre Dame and Southern Cal has not changed. The series that began in 1926 when Knute Rockne brought his team across the country via train to take on Howard Jones’ Trojans will reconvene for the 87th time, interrupted only by the three-year (1943-45) dose of reality known as World War II.
To this day, when USC runs onto the field, those butterflies become active again. The images of John McKay and Ara Parseghian, John Robinson and Dan Devine return. You envision Pete Carroll stalking the Trojan sideline while vividly recalling the glory of a childhood filled with national titles and, in the case of 2012, a win propelling the Irish to a shot at the big prize.
For the 36th time – God willing – a fan that became a sportswriter will be in attendance Saturday night at a football game between Notre Dame and Southern Cal. That’s more than 40 percent of the games played between these two teams.
That’s the sign of an aging observer of the Notre Dame-Southern Cal series, and a fortunate one at that.