The UCLA & USC Crosstown Rivalry: Explaining the Trojans' Historical Advantage

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The UCLA & USC Crosstown Rivalry: Explaining the Trojans' Historical Advantage
Harry How/Getty Images

This is the time of year when America's second largest city becomes a house divided.

On one side is the University of Southern California, a private school located in a gritty neighborhood just south of downtown Los Angeles whose students, alumni and fans wear cardinal and gold and are fiercely proud of, and extremely fanatic about, their Trojan football team.

On the other side is the University of California, Los Angeles, a public institution that calls Westwood, a tiny area of L.A's Westside, home. The exclusive Bel-Air neighborhood sits on the school's northern borders.

Better known to one and all as UCLA, their blue and gold-clad community is known more for their dedication to basketball, where they've won 11 national championships, but there is still an enthusiastic fan base for the Bruins on the gridiron.

This year marks the 80th meeting of these two colleges, located a mere 12 miles apart, in football. Bonfire rallies will be held on the respective campuses, and bragging rights in Los Angeles will be on the line.

Though there were a few periods where UCLA had the upper hand, this rivalry has generally gone in USC's favor as they lead the all-time series 44 to 28, with seven ties.

The 21st century has been particularly one-sided as the Trojans have won 10-of-11 meetings against the Bruins, most of those wins coming by blowout—with the exception of 2006, when UCLA knocked second ranked USC out of the BCS National Championship Game with an epic 13-9 victory, 'SC has owned the Bruins.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

That was also the case in the early days of the series; the Trojans outscored the Bruins by a combined score of 128-0 the first two times the teams met in 1929 and 1930.

The talent levels of the two squads were so lopsided that they stopped playing each other for seven years after that.

Throughout the rivalry's history, USC has had a natural advantage over UCLA in football, to the point where with a few exceptions, namely the early 1950s, the early 1980s and the 1990s, it has been considered an upset whenever Troy falls to Westwood's Bruins.

There are two significant factors that I feel explain why 'SC's generally been ahead of the Bruins as a football program...

First, the simple fact that USC has had a 31-year head start.

When UCLA first opened its doors as the Southern Branch of the University of California and fielded its first football team in 1919, the Trojans had been playing the gridiron game for 31 years.

That's like swimming the Olympic 100-meter freestyle with Michael Phelps having a 30 meter head start.

The second factor is a significant one, which lies in the cultural and institutional emphasis that football has had at the two schools over the decades and for the most part continues to.

In the 1910s and 1920s, USC's administration decided to make a serious commitment to building the best college football program on the West Coast. Lots of money from prominent boosters went toward that direction, which paid off with the Trojans' first Rose Bowl appearance in 1923.

With its 22 Rose Bowl wins, 11 national championships and six Heisman Trophy winners (it was seven, but we all know what happened with that), USC has more than succeeded in becoming a football power.

More importantly, the "Trojan Family" demands championships from the pigskin; losses are devastating and anything short of the Rose Bowl or the BCS championship game is considered a disappointment at best and an absolute failure by most.

This "win at all costs" mentality is so entrenched that 'SC paid for it with their recent sanctions; I suppose losing 30 scholarships over three years and vacating 25 wins, including the 2004 BCS crown, is worth all the glory to Trojan followers.

In a stark contrast, UCLA does not have that kind of win-by-any-means-necessary mindset toward its football team and never really has despite the fact that they had a couple of good runs on the national scene in the 1950s and 1980s.

The biggest Bruin success has been on the basketball court; with its 11 NCAA titles during the 1960s and 1970s, any emphasis on sports excellence was funneled in that direction.

Harry How/Getty Images

By the late 80s, UCLA's athletic department decided that rather than committing themselves to just having the best football program at the expense of other sports, they wanted to build the best all-around athletic program.

That emphasis came to fruition in the past 15 years, as the Bruins overtook their Trojan counterparts in number of NCAA team championships; as of this writing, UCLA leads the nation with 106 national titles, with USC a distant third.

To put all of this in a nutshell, this level of football emphasis can be summed up this way:

At UCLA, football is seen as one piece of the athletic pie. It's considered an important piece, but it's still one piece nonetheless.

At USC, football is seen as the whole pie, the engine keeping Trojan athletics going. Without the pigskin, sports at 'SC is largely irrelevant to their fans.

As long as the cultural emphasis at the two schools is what it is, UCLA's football program will always be behind USC's; the proverbial blue and gold stepchild.

For the Bruins to even things out, a complete philosophical change needs to happen.

Everyone, from the chancellor to the athletic director on down, needs to commit their energies, and especially their money, to having a championship program instead of a team that has a couple of good years every decade and is mediocre the rest of the time.

Harry How/Getty Images

In essence, the Trojan community has never accepted mediocrity on the football field, and they never will.

Too many UCLA students, alumni and fans have accepted such, and therein lies the problem.

The worst thing about this is the reality that, in my opinion, UCLA will never put up the money, resources and support necessary to have a program that will be in the BCS top 10 every year, like 'SC.

Because of their culture, I don't think the Bruins will ever completely eliminate the historical advantage that USC has over them on the gridiron; as long as they beat the Trojans twice or so every five years and grab a Rose Bowl bid or two every decade, that's the overall mentality in Westwood.

Which is too bad, as rivalries are best when both programs are completely even.

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