“We just don’t recognize,” goes the line from a famous sports movie, “the most significant events in our lives while they’re happening. “
The same Hollywood landscape that produced “Field of Dreams” was once famous for inhabiting the real-life nightmares of Bay Area teams. But just as the days of USC football dominating Stanford are gone, so too are we witnessing the most significant change in the decades of competition between the two regions.
Northern California sides aren’t just enjoying unparalleled success. They’re exacting revenge for decades of torment from select Southern California foes. This month offered the two latest examples.
First, the Giants won three of four at home over the Dodgers. Where the amount of World Series trophies won in the last five years outnumbers the Dodgers’ haul from the past 50, where the Giants have won 12 of their last 18 home series in this rivalry, “Dodger Blues” go on without an end in sight.
Days later, the Warriors set a new NBA record for regular season wins, a mark for years held by the 1971-72 Lakers. The two teams now inhabit a Bizarro World of professional basketball. The defending NBA champs – who boast the league’s best player and stand as the league’s premier West Coast franchise – will finish beyond the Lottery-bound Lakers for years to come.
All that had me hunting for examples of Stanford football’s newfound supremacy over USC. The Cardinal beat the Trojans twice last year in the span of three months. Between 1958 and 1990, Stanford won three times (3-29-1). The Cardinal is 7-3 since 2007 against USC. Of the series’ previous 50 games, Stanford won nine.
Only once in this decade have the Giants dropped a season series to the Dodgers, who lost one season series to San Francisco during the ’70s. The Warriors completed a fourth consecutive campaign beyond the Lakers in the standings. That feat occurred all of six times in their first 50 seasons (1963-2012) together out west.
The Pac-12 is unique because it contains markets where college and pro sports thrive at the highest levels. Within this realm exists an equally distinctive dynamic, a conflict that matches the largest regions of our country’s most populous state.
At stake in this fight is equal parts local and national superiority. Where both ends of California have long created worldwide cultural trends, this is significant. From what perspective does the country view West Coast sports? For so long, it was through Steve Garvey’s smirk, John Wooden’s pyramid or Pete Carroll’s eternal optimism.
Southern California ruled.
Stanford football’s golden age coincides with unprecedented runs by two of their professional neighbors. All three have parlayed individual talent into historic hauls of team success and national appeal.
Christian McCaffrey breaks Barry Sanders’ supposedly unbreakable record on the way to a Rose Bowl blowout triumph. On baseball’s biggest stage, Madison Bumgarner turns into a combination of Sandy Koufax and Paul Bunyan. Stephen Curry channels Wayne Gretzky, another star of ordinary physical stature who rewrote the record book.
These are this generation’s Bay Area sports heroes. But who are the villains, the rogues who personify frustration and disappointment for scores of local fans? Think John McKay. John Wooden. Ron Yary. Tommy Lasorda. Pat Riley. Rodney Peete.
It’s impossible put this region’s ongoing success into context without comparing it to the droughts of years past.
Northern California fans born at the edge of the Baby Boomer years never saw Willie Mays thrive in his prime or Wilt Chamberlain lead the San Francisco Warriors to the NBA Finals.
Instead, an unmatched period of dominance stretched from this generation’s early youth to young adulthood. For a host of L.A. area favorites en route to championship glory, resistance from Bay Area foes wasn’t just futile. It was laughable.
· Stanford lost 12 straight (1958-1969) to USC before coming up short in all but two meetings between 1972 and 1990.
· A 14-year stretch (1972-1985) saw the Giants go 104-142 (.423) against the Dodgers and finish behind Los Angeles in all but one season. One of every five losses to L.A. was by shutout. The Giants eclipsed fourth place only three times. L.A. placed lower than second just twice.
· The Lakers and Warriors met seven times in the NBA Playoffs between 1967 and 1991. Golden State won the first series before dropping the last six.
· The 49ers went 3-23-1 against the Rams between 1967 and 1980, when L.A. captured nine division titles to the Niners’ two.
· Cal lost 52 straight games to UCLA in basketball between 1960 and 1986 and another 18 consecutively (1972-1989) to the Bruins in football.
Down south these days, instability reigns on multiple fronts. A city plagued by underperforming schools, high poverty and departing Fortune 500 companies gets no boost from formerly old reliables.
The Dodgers’ World Series drought – Kirk Gibson’s heroics were 28 years ago – is the longest in the history of the franchise (Ed. Note: ...and still less than half as long as the Giants' longest World Series title drought), Brooklyn included. The Lakers just completed their worst three-year stretch since moving from Minneapolis.
How restless will things along the Figueroa Corridor get if USC (last Rose Bowl, 2008) doesn’t win a Pac-12 crown, and now? Since first reaching Pasadena after the 1922 season, USC football has never waited more than eight years between Rose Bowls.
I’ve gone into painstaking detail on the Stanford-USC evolution. The Cardinal’s ineptitude served as a two-part reminder. Its string of losses distanced the series from the compelling rivalry it was for decades. The Trojans’ extended dominance showed Stanford just far it stood from an actual championship standard. It merged everything Giant and Warrior fans thought about their L.A. stories.
But no longer. And it isn’t simply what teams like Stanford say. It’s how loud they’re saying it.
The Cardinal didn’t just win as a 41-point underdog at the L.A. Coliseum. Its encore was the winningest decade in program history. The Giants didn’t just finally build a downtown ballpark. They won three World Series and became the fourth-most valuable team in baseball. The Warriors didn’t just break the NBA record for wins. They own a record the Lakers once held for 24 years.
The next chapter in this saga is less than six months away. A week-long stretch between Sept. 12 and Sept. 19 features this trio: USC’s visit to Stanford Stadium, the Rams’ first Bay Area appearance since moving back to Los Angeles and the start of a three-game set between the Dodgers and Giants at Chavez Ravine. It all promises to be significant.