The UCLA-USC Crosstown Rivalry: Comparing the Programs' Most Famous Athletes

Derek HartCorrespondent INovember 29, 2010

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 29:  Fans of the UCLA Bruins hold up a flag during game 2 of the men's 2010 NCAA College Baseball World Series against the South Carolina Gamecocks at Rosenblatt Stadium on June 29, 2010 in Omaha, Nebraska.  The Gamecocks defeated the Bruins 2-1 in eleven innings to win the National Championship.   (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For over 80 years, UCLA and the University of Southern California have enjoyed a rivalry that's one of the greatest in college sports.

It's certainly the greatest rivalry in which the schools involved are located in the same city.

Many outstanding athletes have been involved in Los Angeles' crosstown war and have left their mark on sports in general, so many that it would take an entire book to list and discuss them all.

In light of the upcoming football showdown, I thought I'd do a comparison of who I consider the single best athletes that the Bruins and Trojans, respectively, ever produced.

These two men I'm about to mention are true sports legends whose fame should not be disputed.

Let's start with USC...

In 1967 their football program brought in a junior college transfer from San Francisco who, quite frankly, was just what they needed at running back.

With his 1,451 yards and 11 touchdowns, including an epic 64-yard scoring jaunt against UCLA that earned a Rose Bowl berth for the Trojans as well as an eventual national championship, he became the toast of Troy.

He outdid himself the next year, as he ran for 1,709 yards and doubled his touchdown output with 22, adding the Heisman Trophy to his mantle.

His two-time consensus All-American status on the gridiron would've been enough to confirm him as one of the greats, but his world record in the 4x100 relay for USC's track team puts him over the top. No other Trojan athlete did so well in two sports.

His pro numbers were even greater than his college numbers, as it was with the Buffalo Bills that he truly became famous.

He had 2,003 rushing yards in 1973, the first man to reach that mark.

He finished with the second most rushing yards in NFL history when he retired in 1979, and...

He was a five-time All-Pro on his way to being elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.

What made this man famous was his charisma, which is what led him to a career in film and TV; no athlete was better known in the 1970s and 80s, and no black athlete was revered more in mainstream America.

The flaws he had were his arrogance, his pronounced sense of entitlement and the way he treated his spouses.

In what is widely known as the "Trial of the Century" in 1995, this icon was acquitted of murdering his second wife and another guy, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and the widely known fact that he brutally beat the wife he allegedly ended up killing.

His credibility dropped to less than nothing after that, and karma prevailed in 2008 when this former Trojan was convicted of armed robbery, kidnapping, conspiracy and coercion.

As of this writing, O.J. Simpson is serving 33 years in a Nevada prison.

So goes the most famous, and in my view the greatest, USC athlete ever.

As for crosstown rival UCLA, their most famous Bruin athlete ever is also, indisputably, their greatest athlete.

In fact, this legend is considered UCLA's greatest Bruin, athlete or otherwise, for what he did after his days in Westwood and the impact he made both in sports and in society.

Like his Trojan counterpart, this icon transferred from a junior college in Pasadena and had an immediate effect not only in football, but in basketball and track and field as well.

He was one of the leaders of UCLA's first undefeated team in 1939, leading the nation in punt return average, and 1940 saw him lead the gridiron Bruins in everything as he was pretty much the whole team.

While on the Bruin basketball team, he led the Pacific Coast Conference's Southern Division in scoring two years running.

Although he was playing baseball for UCLA in the spring of 1940, he participated in the broad jump for the Bruin track team during his downtime, where he merely won the NCAA title with a leap of 24' 10 1/4".

Speaking of baseball, that was his least successful sport in Westwood, as he went 4-for-4 in his first game and did nothing thereafter, finishing at .097 for the season.

Considering what he would later do in that sport, that is incredibly surprising—but we'll get to that later.

Being the first, and still the only, four-sport letterman in UCLA history, his exploits in Westwood paled greatly to what he did at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York on April 15, 1947.

When he took the field in a Dodgers uniform that day, he did something that hadn't been done in 60 years, and what a lot of people didn't want to see happen: He broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. 

This ex-Bruin went through hell that year, as he faced an intensely pronounced level of racist bigotry by those who wanted to keep baseball white, of which there were many. He endured the abuse without fighting back, which wasn't in his nature; the stress of that burden eventually killed him at the too-soon age of 53.

Winning the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and being named the National League MVP in 1949, he more than succeeded in integrating the game. His .311 lifetime average and six pennants in his 10-year career (with one World Series title in 1955) solidified his legacy as he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, the first black man to achieve that.

All of those accomplishments would have been enough if he did nothing else, but during his post-athletic life he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, going South for marches and tirelessly lobbying for African-American equality while serving on the board of the NAACP.

He also did much to raise the economic status of blacks, doing things like starting banks and building businesses in the inner city.

When one gives it some thought, Jackie Robinson essentially started the Civil Rights Movement in '47, breaking the color line in America's sacred sport.

And when it comes down to it, no one comes close to Robinson as the greatest UCLA Bruin that ever lived, as well as the greatest all-around man in American sports history.

Comparing USC's Simpson and UCLA's Robinson, it's really no contest when asked which one was greater.

One broke a racist color barrier and sparked a movement for the ages, changing history for the better, and the other is an accused murderer and a convicted felon who is currently behind bars.

If nothing else, Bruin fans can use Jackie Robinson as good fodder when arguing with Trojans about their schools...

"Yeah? Well, we have Jackie Robinson. We win! End of conversation!"

With all due respect, no USC athlete can or will ever match the impact that Robinson, a Bruin, had in America, let alone in sports.

And that's just being honest.


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