Notre Dame fans often speak in terms of “rivals” and “big games”. Often younger fans are influenced by games that have been important recently, such as Miami in the eighties. Some fans are influenced to call teams they dislike intensely “rivals”, such as Michigan. Others focus on teams that may have had recent success against us, such as Michigan State. In my opinion, there is only one team worthy of being called Notre Dame’s greatest rival, and it is the Trojans of USC. They have earned it.
It is a fact that no team has beaten Notre Dame more than USC and it is a fact that no team has beaten USC more than Notre Dame. This alone would make each school consider the other the prime rival. But it is also a fact that the nature of the wins and losses has been something to behold. No team has had more memorable and — from our perspective — devastating wins over Notre Dame than USC and probably vice versa. USC’s largest loss? 51-0 to Notre Dame in 1966. Worst loss in ND history? In my opinion, 55-24 in 1974. Undefeated seasons lost in the last game of the year? SC did it to ND in 1964, 1970 and 1980 — thats a lot of heartbreak. ND did it to SC in 1952 and 1988.
Heisman winners who have played in the game? 14 – more than in any other rivalry. National Championship teams among the two schools – just counting AP and UP champs 14 – more than in any other rivalry. ND and USC games count for five of the ten most-watched college football games in television history.
But one thing above all of this makes ND-SC the greatest rivalry in college football and that it that it is an “unrequired” rivalry. The schools are not in the same conference, nor are they two schools in the same state who must play each other like Georgia/Georgia Tech or Florida/Florida State. Notre Dame and USC don’t have to play each other and it would be easier if they did not. No regional or conference prerogatives compel the rivalry. What does is an unquenchable desire by each program to take on the best. And that is what puts this game a step up in prestige and glamor from intense “civil wars” and regional slugfests between “tech” and “state”.
In playing this game each year, the schools have caused the rivalry to transcend the regional nature of college football. Auburn/Alabama probably causes more intense hatred within a small area. Michigan/Ohio State is the end of the world for the people from those states. But Notre Dame/USC transcends such games by creating the one and only “national” college football rivalry. Each school brings a particular type of glamour to the game: Southern California cool and midwestern grit. Hollywood/SC glitz versus ND Catholic Irish mystique. It is a rivalry that is just so different from the others that it cannot help but stand out.
Moreover, unlike many who could be considered “rivals” of Notre Dame, USC has never ducked the game, never minimized it and never treated ND as anything other than a valued rival. USC has never alibied that their “conference schedule” is more important and has never tried to pull out of the series during periods when it wasnt going well. If Michigan lost to ND eleven straight years as SC did in the 80s and 90s, does anyone doubt the game would be scotched? Likewise, if Michigan could only beat ND twice in sixteen years as ND was only able to beat SC twice between 1967 and 1982, it is a given that Michigan would retreat to “conference scheduling requirements” as an out. But neither ND nor SC have ever sought out of this game, when the other was riding high. Nor, despite a heated and tough rivalry, has ND/SC ever been characterized by religious, ethnic or off-field squabbles as has been the case with other opponents. Indeed, despite fan remonstrations, this rivalry has been characterized by a remarkable level of respect and bonhomie between the two schools.
Indeed, it was USC that sought out Notre Dame because it was looking for a tough rival to play. This at the same time that Big Ten schools were looking to not play Notre Dame.
A brief review of the rivalry and the way its combatants have conducted themselves explains its special nature. At the conclusion of the very first game in 1926 — a heartbreaker lost by SC by a point — USC coach Howard Jones went to the Notre Dame lockerroom and said “Well, we almost did it. Congratulaions, Knute.” Rockne replied with thanks and said “It was the greatest game I ever saw.”
This spirit of sportsmanship has carried through to today as with Charlie Weis’s visit to the SC lockerroom in 2005, telling them he hoped they would win out and later chastizing ND fans complaining about the Bush push, saying “I would hope one of our players would be smart enough to do that in the same situation.” Pete Carroll, not prone to praise directed at others, called the atmosphere at ND Stadium “the epitome of college football” and “a celebration of our sport.” You will hold your breath a long time before Joe Paterno could pry a single compliment for ND out of himself.
As noted, one thing that characterizes the rivalry is that both schools have been good sports when things have not gone their way. In the 1940s Michigan Coach Fritz Crisler attempted to organize Big Ten schools to boycott ND and dropped the Irish for thirty-five years after a 35-12 loss in 1943. As Coach Frank Leahy recalled. “In 1944 I asked Fritz Crisler directly if we could resume the series. He looked me straight in the eyes and said that Michigan was willing to meet Notre Dame any place, any time and any Saturday. I believed him. I repeatedly asked him for a date that we could meet and he never could make room on his schedule for Notre Dame.”
Compare this to Leahy’s remembrance of a letter he received from USC’s coach in response to the calls to drop Notre Dame coming from the Big Ten: “You know that I still have with me a letter from Jeff Cravath, the former coach at the University of Southern California. When I was being savagely attacked for causing Notre Dame’s scheduling problems, he wrote to me and said, ‘There never will be a time when USC drops Notre Dame from its schedule. The Irish play football the way it was meant to be played and it is a distinct privilege to coach against Frank Leahy. Lets preserve the classic USC-Notre Dame game for our grandchildren. The Trojans are proud to play Notre Dame. Never would I criticize boys who fight with all their hearts and sould for their school. Hopefully, that is the same spirit we have at USC.'”
In 1948 after a tie between the teams, “When Coach Leahy tried to enter to congratulate his opponents, the students hoisted him on their shoulders and even gave him three cheers. ‘This is the first time in my coaching career that I have been so highly honored by the student body of an opposing school,’ said the surprised Leahy.” “Notre Dame vs USC, The Glamor Game” Cromarte, Brown Rutledge Hill Press 1989
The feeling of respect between the schools was best exemplified by John McKay. No coach from another school has imposed more painful and significant losses on ND than McKay. Yet my feeling towards McKay — and that of many ND fans — is one of warmth and respect. That is because he was a man of respect, who, while wanting to beat ND treated his rival with class and dignity in the best spirit of competition. McKay noted, “When I grew up as a Catholic in West Virginia, I loved Notre Dame and its football team. The Fighting Irish were the first team in any sport I cheered for. I think they’ve always had that fascination for young Catholic kids, and today I still cheer for them – except when they play USC. . . Notre Dame has alwa
ys lent a lot of dignity and tradition to college football. The enthusiasm of their student body is tremendous, their fight song is inspiring and I get goose bumps when I go back to South Bend and see the leaves falling and the golden dome shining in the sunlight. . .
It amuses me that coaches say they like to play Notre Dame, but when its time to schedule them, few teams stand in line. . .In 1971 before the game in South Bend, I told my players ‘We’re back here together in the greatest hotbed of football, Notre Dame, and this is the game that typifies college football. This is what its all about. This is what I’ve believed in since I was a little kid. And I still believe in it.’ Notre Dame-USC is the greatest in college football.” John McKay, 1976, in “The Game is On – Notre Dame vs. USC”
Imagine such sentiments ever being expressed by Bo of Ann Arbor, whose last statement about ND in the press was “To hell with Notre Dame”. Also note that McKay, with his large-hearted view of his rival won had much greater success than Bo against ND and won multiple national championships compared to Bo’s zero. It is a truism, in my opinion, that big people do big things and I think McKay was a big person.
John Robinson echoed the feeling: “Notre Dame USC is one of those elite games that is second to none, with great nationwide interest. The entire coaching staff has that feeling at USC. . . Its such an honor to have either of these jobs, head coach at USC or Notre Dame, its an honor to be in the position. Nothing better can happen to you than to be involved in this great series.”
Former USC athletic director Jess Hill summed up the USC approach to this game: “The Notre Dame series has proven to be very outstanding in every respect, because our philosophy has been in scheduling, that you play the best in the country and when you play Notre Dame – you are playing the best. . . There’s no disgrace in ever losing to Notre Dame but there’s a great deal to be gained by defeating Notre Dame.
One of the greatest moves that the two institutions ever made was establishing this intersectional rivalry in football – this competition. Its always very competitive, very tough, and very aggressive. At times we had some minor disagreements, but nothing has ever imperiled the continuity of the competition between USC and Notre Dame. I sincerely hope that the USC Notre Dame series will continue forever, and I think it will.
It has been a privilege and pleasure for me as a coach and athletic director to have the opportunity of meeting the wonderful people from Notre Dame. They are dedicated to excellence.”
Notre Dame has returned the respect. When asked recently who the greatest college football coaches in history were, Ara Parseghian listed Bear Bryant and John McKay. A great coach in his own right, a lesser man would have a hard time crediting such a bitter rival. Lou Holtz, who was 9-1-1 versus USC always treated the rivalry with the utmost respect, requiring his players to take a quiz on the history of the game the week before its playing. Charlie Weis — recipient of a bitter loss to SC — went out of his way throughout 2005 to explain that there was no question who deserved the Heisman – Reggie Bush.
I think that the reason USC has had such great success against Notre Dame is that they have the attitude of winners. They take on all comers and seldom look for out-of-conference patsies. During the McKay/Robinson period — when certain teams said it was not wise to schedule Notre Dame because it distracted away from conference games — USC played Notre Dame every year and won eight Rose Bowls and shares of five national championships. USC has succeeded in large part because it shares Notre Dame’s philosophy of playing the best and not backing away from a challenge.
So, while Pete Carroll’s Hollywood persona is not really my cup of tea and I get a good laugh out of Matt Leinart’s dance class and I find the B-list celebs on the SC sideline a bit much, the fact is that there is no team we play that has earned our respect more than SC. There is no rival who has been fairer or more steadfast in its partnership with ND. There is no rival over whom a win is more valuable.
I hope we kill them this year. Fight on.