SB Nation

Bill Connelly | December 1, 2015

Los Angeles, the college football town

USC vs. UCLA and the battle to star in the country's second biggest city.

I.

Los Angeles formed its expanse, strengths and weaknesses in the 1920s.

Times publisher Harry Chandler paid to erect an obnoxious "Hollywoodland" sign to advertise his real estate development. (Eventually the "land" was lopped off by the parks department.) The Hollywood Bowl opened on Hollywood Freeway.

Showman Sid Grauman designed the construction of the Egyptian Theatre -- he told everybody Pharaoh Chic was cool, and as often happens in L.A., the entire city decided, "Okay, sure! Yeah! Cool!" -- and hosted the first movie premiere (Robin Hood).

The city's weird side thrived in this period. The occult -- the belief in astrology, mediums, past lives, channeling -- captured imaginations, giving Los Angeles an undercurrent of oddity, a combination of cosplay and darkness, that still pervades.

During the 1920s, class warfare (union rallies, bombings, the KKK) took hold, stratifying neighborhoods. Suburbs grew dramatically, even as the city's population doubled to more than 1.2 million.

In 1922, the Rose Bowl opened north of town. In 1923, the Los Angeles Coliseum followed. In 1926, Notre Dame made its first trip west to play USC -- likely a three-day trip on the Union Pacific -- to play in sunshine not associated with what was still a Midwestern sport.

The ascents of football and Los Angeles mirror each other. In 1869, when some dapper lads from Rutgers outscored their counterparts from the College of New Jersey by a 6-4 margin in the first football game, Los Angeles consisted of about 5,000 people. And when the city was becoming glamour's home, college football's first household names were arriving: Red Grange, Knute Rockne, Elmer Layden.

The thought of L.A. as a college football town goes against assumptions. This sport's capital cities are Tuscaloosa and Lincoln and Baton Rouge and Ann Arbor. It barely exists in New York or Chicago. But this small-city sport has always held a niche in the country's second-largest city.

Marriage has its challenges, though.

RoseBowl.png(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

II.

"We're not Stanford! What are we doing?"

At halftime of a Thursday night game between Cal and UCLA, the story has been either Cal's dormant offense or the swaths of empty seats throughout the upper reaches of the Rose Bowl. Television dictates that you sacrifice an occasional home game to the Thursday monster, and because of time zones, that means the Golden Bears and Bruins kicked off at 6 p.m. local time.

When you've got access to the enormous Rose Bowl, you use it. It is a National Historic Landmark, as is the Coliseum. The scenery, from mountains to sight lines, is perfect.

Watching a game in the Rose Bowl is watching every game that has been played there. There's Vince Young, ripping out USC's heart where Don Beebe knocks the ball out of Leon Lett's hands. Roberto Baggio's penalty kick is sailing over the goal about 30 yards to the left. John Riggins in Super Bowl XVII is chugging at you in slow motion near where Andres Escobar lies on his back after his own goal against the U.S. Michael Jackson's Super Bowl halftime show is up next. Sit in the end zone seats on the north side, by the video board, and you can see Brandi Chastain staring back.

The nearly 100-year-old stadium has cracks and has undergone periodic renovation. But it is still sports perfection. Calling this your home stadium, as UCLA has since 1982, is an honor you do not pass up without a really good reason.

The stadium, however, is about 25 miles north and east of UCLA's campus. The Bruins are closer to USC's stadium. From west Los Angeles, you can't drive 25 miles in any direction quickly, especially on a weekday. You cannot walk from your dorm room. That means the student football experience doesn't exist in its natural form for UCLA.

corsoo.0.gif(Google Maps)

This almost wasn't the case. In the mid-1960s, as Gary Beban was leading dramatic comebacks against USC and winning the Heisman, and as Pauley Pavilion was getting ready to host the greatest run of college basketball ever, there was a plan in motion for an on-campus stadium, just north of Pauley.

Drake Stadium is a hefty concrete mass that houses UCLA soccer and track and nearly 12,000 people. There is space around the facility, and the idea was to build a football stadium with a cozy capacity of around 44,000.

But here's where some of UCLA's greatest assets -- scenery, amazing placement (tucked in between the Bel Air Country Club, Beverly Hills, and Wilshire Boulevard), rich neighbors -- backfired. Those rich neighbors didn't want the hubbub of construction and Saturday traffic. And I have no idea where tens of thousands of cars would've parked.

Boosters and a governor looking for reelection squashed the deal. So now students have to drive.

The announced attendance at UCLA's Thursday night battle with Cal is 57,046, which sounds pretty honest. The crowd is late.

UCLA is banged up and fresh off of frustrating losses to Arizona State and Stanford. But the Bruins have a surprising 26-10 lead. Freshman quarterback Josh Rosen is out-dueling his counterpart, soon-to-be high draft pick Jared Goff. Goff has the best footwork you'll ever see -- not a single wasted movement -- but completed just five of 11 second-quarter passes as UCLA seized control.

Even though UCLA is wrecking Cal's hopes at a Pac-12 North title, halftime is an opportunity to recognize a greater enemy. The two schools' marching bands converge to dump on USC with a "Fall of Troy" halftime show.

Every few years, UCLA will perform a show like this, and the reactions are guaranteed to be even sillier than the show. Cal fans are mad that their band would act like Stanford's ridiculous collective. USC fans on Twitter are in full "pssh, jealous" harrumph. UCLA fans seem put off that their band is having fun.

The "What did we just see?" vibe is still in the air when cast members from Cirque du Soleil do their thing, and we realize we just witnessed the most Pac-12 halftime show of all time.

Despite an injury to star running back Paul Perkins, UCLA cruises to a 40-24 win. Tailgaters on the 18th fairway at Brookside Golf Club, just north and west of the stadium, coast back toward Los Angeles. With a loss assured, a Cal fan in front of me points out head coach Sonny Dykes is now 0-7 against the triumvirate of Stanford and the L.A. schools. He will move to 0-9 in the coming weeks with losses to USC and Stanford. Cal is on its way to only its second bowl in six seasons, but Dykes still has hearts and minds to win.

"UCLA should get every recruit, and it should be the best at everything," a USC fan tells me a couple of days later. He's being half-serious. The Bruins boast enough national title trophies in all sports that they barely fit in a single showcase room. They have one of the most glorious locations and climates of any major school in the country. The education is about the best you can get from a public institution.

The Bruins boast enough national title trophies (in all sports) that they barely fit in a single showcase room.

UCLA national titles

UCLA's athletic tradition is incredible, but the football tradition is merely good. You could do worse, but you could do better.

The Bruins have had some sterling runs. They went 34-5 from 1952-55, finishing in the AP top 10 each year and going to two Rose Bowls. With Beban winging the ball, they went 17-3-1 in 1965-66, finishing in the top five both years. Following the move to the Rose Bowl, they caught fire under Terry Donahue. Between 1982-88, they won 63 games and three Rose Bowls and finished in the top 10 five times. And after Donahue, they pulled off two more excellent seasons, once going 20-4 under Bob Toledo.

USC was always around to wreck the fun, though. UCLA couldn't secure an AP national title in that 1950s run (the Bruins do claim a UPI title from 1954), but the Trojans did in 1962. When Beban left, USC won another in 1967. And while Donahue and Toledo sustained nearly a couple of decades of success, the highest they ever finished was fifth. When Pete Carroll came to coach USC in 2001, he stole the mojo. USC won 11-plus games every year between 2002-08 and finished in the top four each year. UCLA stagnated under Toledo, Karl Dorrell, and Rick Neuheisel.

There is more than enough talent in the area to sustain two winners, but the relationship has always been zero-sum. USC has stumbled in the post-Carroll era because of questionable hires and NCAA sanctions. UCLA hired Jim Mora and is in the process of a potential renaissance. The Bruins went 20-6 in 2013-14, and according to the 247Sports Composite, they've signed top-12 classes in two of the last three years. Rosen is a virtual lock to become a star.

Something always seems to prevent UCLA from clearing the final hurdle, but Mora has the Bruins positioned. And most importantly, on this Thursday night against Cal, he is still 3-0 against the Trojans, who are on interim coach Clay Helton for the second time.

LA Coliseum

III.

"I just want someone who wins. I don't care if he's part of the family."

Forty years is a long time. That's hundreds of wins, tailgates, and Saturday evenings in traffic.

Forty years ago, John McKay, USC's greatest coach, had not yet left to take over an NFL franchise in Tampa. Marcus Allen, USC's 1981 Heisman winner, was a 15-year-old sophomore at San Diego's Lincoln High. Todd Marinovich, the jewel of the 1988 class who battled first with USC head coach Larry Smith, then himself, was merely the six-year-old son of a former USC lineman. Carroll was a graduate assistant at Pacific University. Reggie Bush's mother was nine years old.

Our USC tailgate host was a rugby player for the Trojans at the time. He is of the family; his brother and sister are Trojans, his wife is a Trojan, his son, a nephew, and some of their second cousins are all Trojans. Most of them are tailgating with him.

We're talking about the USC job. It's open quite a bit, and in each of the last two hires, two different athletic directors (former USC gridiron stars themselves) have gone after coaches with USC ties. More specifically, Carroll ties.

USC wants to have a type, but it doesn't. Its four greatest coaches were Howard Jones (Yale grad with head coaching experience in the East and Midwest), McKay (Oregon grad who had spent one year at USC pre-hire), John Robinson (Oregon grad who spent three years as McKay's offensive coordinator), and Carroll (failed NFL head coach 20 years removed from college experience). Combined, they had worked for USC for four years before becoming Trojan head coaches.

Robinson worked spectacularly in McKay's footsteps, going 67-14-2 in seven seasons and finishing in the AP top two three times before leaving for the Rams. Since, Trojan administrators have followed their muse to the wrong places. But you can't blame their muse for being confused. Outsiders worked out poorly (Larry Smith) and beautifully (Carroll). Guys with major NFL ties worked poorly (Paul Hackett) and beautifully (Carroll). Guys with recent USC ties (Ted Tollner, Robinson the second time, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian) have averaged only about 7.5 wins per season.

This program is one good hire from greatness at all times, but that hire is trickier than we think. You have to deal with a loud, reactionary media. You have to schmooze with vocal boosters and university higher-ups with influence throughout L.A. and championship memories. You have to deal with the politics of Los Angeles recruiting, and as the area's marquee name, you get scrutinized more closely. Your biggest asset -- glamour, access to Hollywood, famous alumni -- can become one of your distractions.

You'll get no sympathy, nor should you. USC is one of the most storied names in football and has as much high school talent nearby as almost any school in the country.

While it's easy to understand why an athletic director would think, "To understand how to do the USC job well, you have to know USC," the results do not ring true. Only one coach in the last 30 years has lived up to the expectations for more than a couple of years.

Carroll, a sainted engineer -- both of one of USC's best runs and of the sanctions that brought them to an end -- left following 2009. Athletic director Mike Garrett, one of the most fiery men to ever don an athletic director's coat and tie, tried to keep the vibe rolling by bringing in former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. It went well (10-2 while under a postseason ban in 2011), then it didn't (10-8 in 2012-13). New athletic director Pat Haden dumped Kiffin at LAX in the middle of the night following a blowout loss to Arizona State.

After a successful interim stint from position coach Ed Orgeron, Haden stuck with Carroll ties, like he not only needed to hire a good coach but also remind USC fans of the past.

Haden chose another former Carroll offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, who had spent the previous five seasons converting Washington from an 0-12 team to one that felt disappointing at 9-4. Rumors had long flown about Sarkisian's extracurriculars. That he lost his job within two years of his return was both disappointing and, to some, predictable.

Haden is the USC prototype: a quarterback, Rhodes scholar, television personality, and partner in a private equity firm. If the school were to redraw its logo tomorrow, it could incorporate a silhouette of Haden, Jerry West-style. Because the powerful school president reveres him, he survived the Sarkisian hire with his job intact.

USC Map(Google Maps)

Not that any of this matters right now. It's Saturday afternoon, and charcoal is burning. There are chicken kebobs on the grill (and as with any good tailgate, the person behind the strangely incredible chicken isn't sharing the recipe), and Modelos are in the styrofoam cooler at our feet. The quad is filled with the same color-appropriate tailgating tents that you find near every home stadium each fall Saturday. The weather is perfect.

USC is about to wreck Utah's perfect season. The fans know it, because after a few hours in the sun, with meat and alcohol in our systems, we always know our team is going to win. Sometimes, we're even right.

Until you get a lay of the land in Los Angeles, it's easy to assume USC's arrangement with the Coliseum is a trade-off: you get a historical venue, and you give up the feel of a natural stadium. Then you look at a map. The Coliseum is next door. Campus is humming like a campus is supposed to. This is what college football is supposed to be. It's just that it happens to be 10 miles from the Hollywood Walk of Fame and 15 from the Santa Monica Pier.

Before a huge conference game, this locale checks every box. There are pregame dives near campus -- the 901 on 29th and Figueroa -- and from there, you can turn to the north and west and cruise through Greek town. This will take you through the center of campus and the center of USC's universe. Heritage Hall, with its trophies and memorabilia, stands next door to the school of cinematic arts. The place that produced George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, John Singleton, and Judd Apatow sits next to the place that produced Haden, Garrett, Lisa Leslie, Reggie Bush, Ronnie Lott, Tom Seaver, and 100 national team titles.

The Coliseum is actually too big for the NFL. The biggest current stadium in the NFL is MetLife, which houses the Giants, the Jets, and up to 82,566 fans. Lambeau Field in Green Bay is the only other one that tops 80K. [Washington's FedEx Field also expanded to 82,000 this season.]

At its most cramped, the Coliseum could house more than 100,000; in the 1960s, when bench seating made way to theatre seats, the capacity slid to 93,000. And because the NFL has required sellouts to avoid local television blackouts, that meant TVs were frequently blacked out in the days of the Rams and Raiders.

When USC's rolling, 90,000 isn't a problem.

USC enters Coliseum(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

When USC's rolling, 90,000 isn't a problem.

The correlation between success and home attendance for USC is almost a perfect 1.0. From 1999-2001, when the Trojans went 17-19, the average slipped below 60,000. Following Carroll's sudden success in 2002, the average rose to 77,804 in 2003, then 85,229 in 2004, then 91,480 by 2006. It remained at 84K or higher through the end of the Carroll years, and has bounced since with a year's delay -- 8-5 in 2010? 74,806 in 2011. 10-2 in 2011? 87,945 in 2012.

You multiply population by program history by "is your team good this year?" by "how many other entertainment options do you have in your area?" and you get your likely base of fan support. The Trojans are historically great, and Los Angeles is enormous, but no city offers more entertainment competition.

The Coliseum has the ninth-largest capacity of any college football venue and the largest west of Austin, Texas. For a top-five (or so) all-time program, that fits. But in 2014, Sarkisian's first year, USC's attendance was lower than that of schools like South Carolina and Wisconsin, schools with far fewer trophies or entertainment options.

This gets you labeled a bandwagon fanbase. There is some truth. But USC's undergraduate population is only around 20,000, smaller than South Carolina's and far smaller than Wisconsin's. USC requires L.A. bandwagonery.

Announced attendance at the Coliseum for USC's 42-24 win over Utah is 73,435. That's pretty good for most college football events, but here it results in 20,000 empty seats.

The pops in the crowd during the best moments -- Cameron Smith's three interceptions, JuJu Smith-Schuster's devastating stiff-arm, the 25-yard touchdown pass from Cody Kessler to Smith-Schuster that put the game on ice -- are a reminder of how loud this place might get with a full house.

The win over Utah reminds you why the bandwagon is never too far away. Smith-Schuster, a former blue-chipper (if a player signed with USC, the odds are good he was a four- or five-star recruit), looks faster than anybody else. He finishes with eight catches for 143 yards.

Adoree' Jackson, star of last year's bowl win, breaks off a nice kick return and almost always requires two players to hem him in. (For this game, he plays receiver. For the next game, he's back to cornerback.) Freshman Ronald Jones II, a 2,000-yard rusher for McKinney (Tex.) North, hints at nuclear acceleration. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler completes three quarters of his passes. USC's athletic defense sacks Utah's Travis Wilson three times and picks him off four times.

The bad signs are there. Be it through depth or talent, USC's lines are outplayed. Kessler is sacked four times in 32 pass attempts, and only four of 17 first-down rushes for the Trojans gain more than four yards.

The trenches were a major issue for USC in its three losses, and while the losses didn't directly cause Sarkisian's dismissal, they increased the rancor and led the national press to assume the job might have come open soon anyway.

Still, this team looks like it's supposed to look. The Trojan empire takes down the upstart Utes, 42-24.

The band doesn't do anything funny. Our friends at the tailgate roll their eyes when talking about how seriously the university takes itself. Lesser programs can worry about humor and creativity and uniform combinations. When it comes to game day, the band plays what it plays, and the team dresses how it dresses (probably). USC does what it has done and will always do.

Tradition is like so many other things in southern California: if you've got it, flaunt it.

If you've survived a USC game experience with any "bad football town" notions intact, they are obliterated by the bacon-wrapped hot dog you are offered outside of the Coliseum. It is a ubiquitous part of a USC student's postgame. While Cher Horowitz's father might have once uttered the falsest statement in the history of Hollywood ("Everywhere in L.A. takes 20 minutes"), from the Coliseum on a Saturday evening, it doesn't feel like any place is too far away.

RoseBowl.png(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

IV.

Five weeks later, quite a bit has changed. USC's win over Utah sparked a sustained run that featured wins over California, Arizona and Colorado. The victory margins (combined: 17 points) weren't spectacular, but USC wasn't losing games it should win. That's something. The Trojans lost in Eugene to a smoking hot Oregon, but on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they were still one step from the Pac-12 South title.

UCLA was, too. The Bruins followed up on their win over Cal with a 35-31 comeback win over Colorado and a shutout of Oregon State in Corvallis. They dominated per-play averages against Washington State but blew chances and lost on a last-second touchdown pass, but a 17-9 win at Utah knocked the Utes from South contention and made USC-UCLA a winner-take-all competition.

It's a USC home game, but in a crowd of 83,602, there are plenty of pops when UCLA does something well. Healthy Bruins back Perkins runs for two touchdowns in the early going, the second of which gives Mora's squad a 21-20 lead midway through the third.

A specific sequence swings the balance. USC goes three-and-out following Perkins' score, but Claude Pelon sacks and strips Rosen on the first play of UCLA's ensuing drive; Rasheem Green scoops up the fumble and rumbles in from 31 yards out to give USC the lead. Five plays later, Iman Marshall picks Rosen off near midfield. A beautiful catch-and-lunge by Darreus Rogers gives USC a suddenly insurmountable 33-21 advantage late in the third. A ground-heavy USC touchdown drive ends in another score and creates the final 40-21 margin.

It also gets Helton a full-time job. On the Monday following the win, Haden does something that is, frankly, rather predictable for Haden: he ends the coaching search and changes Helton's title from interim coach to head coach.

Perhaps it's a move that proves worthwhile. Helton's Trojans did have to overcome injuries and massive depth issues to finish with five wins in six games. And with NCAA sanctions further in the rear view, USC will be running at nearly full scholarship strength in 2016. Six of the leading 11 tacklers on defense are freshmen or sophomores, as are all of the guys on the interior offensive line. Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II are threatening to become an incredible one-two punch at running back, and Smith-Schuster leads an exciting-as-hell receiving corps.

No matter who the coach ended up becoming, we would have talked ourselves into the Trojans in the offseason. It's a summer tradition. We'll find out if Haden's and USC's insular hiring practices catch up to them once again.

UCLA no longer claims a winning streak over its crosstown rivals. Saturday's loss clinches an end to what the Bruins were hoping would become a three-year streak of 10-win seasons. The Bruins had plenty of reasons for taking a brief step backward this year -- freshman quarterback, season-ending injuries to what might be your two best defensive players (Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack), etc. -- but when USC is struggling to any degree (and 8-4 will always be "struggling" by USC's standards), you hate to miss an opportunity.

The American college football experience is transient. It moves to hundreds of towns and cities every Saturday. The experience features the same categories, and only the details and volume change.

Saying Los Angeles isn't a college football town isn't correct. It's just hundreds of other things, too.

At UCLA, you might tailgate next to a sand trap, and you better leave with plenty of hours to spare. At USC, you grill on campus and light an Olympic flame before the fourth quarter.

The categories still apply, and the expectations are still high: USC should always be great, UCLA should always be better, and your school should always beat theirs.

Both football and Los Angeles have grown despite their fault lines. Just as Rosecrans Avenue shows up in rap songs and dumps you off in Manhattan Beach, as Slauson Avenue takes you nearly within eyeshot of both Reginald Denney's beating and the Coliseum, as La Cienega takes you by oil fields on the way to UCLA, college football gives us stories of fathers and sons, head injuries, decades-old traditions, and questionable academics. You can't take in one without the other. You complain, and you fall in love all the same.

The president of the United States helped to change football's rules barely three decades after its invention. Los Angeles went from small town to trend setter in the same amount of time.

The roots still show. Football coaches still draw inspiration from the veer and Wing-T. And if you're driving west on Hollywood Boulevard, you'll find the road interrupted by Laurel Canyon. Wind up through hills and sharp curves with well-worn guard rails, and you find yourself on Mullholland Drive, overlooking valleys of rocks and parched grass. You find yourself romanced not only by all of the world beneath you -- the sports and the shopping and the taco stands and the auditions and the stars at the smoothie shops -- but also by how easy it is to find isolation.

Really, Los Angeles is 100 small towns crammed together around jagged terrain. So maybe it makes sense that college football and it found each other so long ago.

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About the Author

Bill Connelly grew up a fan of the Miami Dolphins (post-1970s glory), Pittsburgh Pirates (ditto), Portland Trailblazers (ditto again) and Missouri Tigers. That he still enjoys sports at all shows both severe loyalty and a potential personality disorder. He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic. See more of his work at Rock M Nation, Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall.

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