There are other rivalries that claim to be more intense in college sports, but those claims are made by people who don’t know or understand the uniqueness of the UCLA/USC Rivalry.
There isn’t another that compares to its insular intensity and its, well, home-grown hatred.
UCLA’s former great head football coach, Red Sanders said playing USC is not a matter of life and death, “it’s more important than that.”
Los Angeles is the only city in the United States that two major FBS teams share. Bruin fans have to work and mingle with Trojans on a regular basis. Perhaps the most storied rivalry in college football is Michigan and Ohio State, but those two schools are 183 miles apart. Their alumni run across each other most often in Chicago, which is a good 240 miles from UofM, so there are smatterings of office rivalries in Chicago between the alumni of the two Big Ten schools, but nothing like UCLA and USC in Los Angeles. There are in-state rivalries like Alabama/Auburn, Mississippi/Mississippi State and Florida/Florida State, and those rivalries are admittedly very intense but really, to be candid, made up of essentially the same type of person on either side of the rivalry. There isn’t one in-state rivalry that forces confrontation among co-workers in offices or patrons in Starbucks in one city to the extent of UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, and few are intensified by the polar idealogical divide between the two schools.
Probably the closest comparison anywhere in the nation is the rivalry between North Carolina and Duke. Those two schools are closer than UCLA and USC, only 12 miles apart, and even though they are in separate cities (Chapel Hill and Durham, respectively), many of the schools’ students and alumni can’t help but co-mingle. The rivalry, too, represents an idealogical difference in a similar way to UCLA and USC – the public school vs. the private. But hey, how many alumni from either school stay in the area after graduation? There are seemingly more undergraduates at UNC then there are residents in Chapel Hill, and you know all of the silver-spooned Dookies get out of blue-collar Durham as soon as they get that tassle.
And heck, that’s just a basketball-based rivalry anyway.
So, there really isn’t a rivalry that rivals the demographical and idealogical nature of the UCLA/USC Rivalry, where the two schools feed their alumni into a figurative cage match within the confines of one metropolitan area.
In the great book, “UCLA vs. USC, 75 Years of the Greatest Rivalry in Sports,” the late author Lonnie White interviewed John Wooden about the rivalry. Wooden said: “When I was hired by UCLA, I really didn’t know about the intensity of the rivalry. It really surprised me how people hated the other. I never felt that way, but I also had never been in a situation with two major universities in the same city before.”
It’s not just in offices and Starbucks, but we have to live amongst each other. It’s not as if there are two areas of the Los Angeles area that are cordoned off, designated as a UCLA residential region and another a USC region, even though Orange County comes close (and all UCLA fans who live behind the Orange Curtain have our sympathies). Here in Conejo Valley, where I live, it’s pretty evenly-divided among UCLA and USC fans. At Westlake High School, during UCLA/USC week they’ve had “UCLA/USC Day,” when students wear gear to represent the school they root for, and I’ve heard it’s a pretty balanced day of blue/gold against red/yellow.
And then it’s all about bragging rights. The fans of whatever team wins, for the next year, lord over his group of friends and co-workers who are fans of the other school. Psychologically you know you have some self-satisfaction for the next 12 months. A friend of mine, a UCLA fan, said that in his office, for the last two years, he’s been killing it in his job over his USC colleagues, and he thinks it directly stems somehow from UCLA beating USC the last two years in football. At the very least, for so many UCLA fans it just makes life easier if UCLA beats USC in football. Even if you’re not a trashtalker, it shuts up the USC trashtalkers for 12 months. When you’re wearing a UCLA sweatshirt at the mall, and you pass a guy wearing something USC, he’ll tend to look the other way or go hide in Brookstone.
And what makes it unique beyond other rivalries in the country is this doesn’t play out primarily on Internet message boards like with other rivalries. It occurs in your kid’s pre-school, at church, and the AYSO field. If you’re a UCLA or a USC fan, you live it every day, everywhere you go. There’s no escaping it.
It’s actually a pretty big, almost claustrophobic burden to carry.
The rivalry extends to all sports – and beyond sports. But it seems focused and crystalized by the annual football game. There’s nothing like two groups of men dressed in battle gear trying to beat the hell out of each other that really expresses a rivalry the best, far better than volleyball or tennis.
So, it’s not a stretch to assert that the meaning and ramifications of the annual UCLA/USC crosstown football game is unrivaled anywhere in the nation.
It’s especially meaningful when the game actually has some on-the-field ramifications to it. In the Rivalry’s history, there have been many games when a conference championship or even national championship were on the line. This season the implications of the game are among the most heightened of any game in recent years. Both UCLA and USC still have Pac-12 South Champion aspirations. USC is in first place in the Pac-12 South, and UCLA is tied for second, just a half game behind. UCLA is in the driver’s seat right now to win the South, but if USC won Saturday it would greatly enhance its chances, and UCLA would be entirely cast out of the race. If USC loses, they’re out, so it’s essentially a Pac-12 South elimination game. UCLA still has a reasonable chance at making the College Football Playoffs, but it would be throwing those out the window with a loss Saturday.
Even beyond the conference or national championship implications, you could make the case that a win by either team pretty much validates its season. UCLA had big expectations heading into the season, but then those expectations were soured when it lost two games in a row. Now that UCLA has rebounded to 8-2, is ranked #9 in the country, controls its own destiny in the South and has a shot at the College Football Playoffs, the excitement for the season has been completely rekindled. USC, at 7-3, hasn’t lived up to USC’s lofty pre-season expectations with its up-an-down performance, but a win Saturday would cement the first year under USC coach Steve Sarkisian as a success (and enable him to avoid the moniker of Seven-Win Sark). UCLA, with a win over USC, could still lose to Stanford, and go to a lesser bowl game, and UCLA fans would still probably come away with satisfaction that it was a successful season.
Really, at this point, most would generally agree that a win over USC relatively makes or breaks UCLA’s season.
In casually talking with a few friends and relatives this week – all UCLA fans (who else would I hang with?) – the general sentiment has been similar.
“This is it for me; it’s now set up that a win over USC makes the season,” one said.
Another texted me: “I know we always want to beat them, but this is the game we really need right now, at the very least, to retain the impression that Jim Mora’s program continues to progress.”
The best one, a text: “I can’t remember the game being this important and intense in the last 10 years. The trash-talking in the office has reached new heights. I’ll have to quit my job and move if we lose. Worth it.”
In all the conversation and text exchanges, no one really made the point that it's more important this year because UCLA has more riding on the game than USC, which is what you would assume. Much of it is still just about the pure, singular meaning of beating USC.
When the you sit down in your stadium seat every year on that Saturday in late November, and you experience the familiarity of the shadows and the slight chill from a Fall early evening, and see the two contrasting sets of colors (and it’s so fitting that the pretty blue and gold clashes so horribly with that garish red and yellow) everywhere you look, there is a unique awareness among all UCLA and USC fans just how powerful the game is, in any year. It’s just not about a sports championship. It’s beyond bragging rights. It’s your world view against theirs. When those two home uniforms face off against each other across the line of scrimmage, there is so much in each of our souls that recognize what’s on the line.