Because chances are if you live in Southern California, you are somehow tied to the gridiron battle between USC and UCLA. Maybe you attended one of the schools. Maybe you married into it. Maybe you just have friends, enemies or coworkers who will not stop talking about it.
And Im not alone-when it comes to their annual matchup, Bruins and Trojans just cant help themselves. But while the rivalry has always been around, its been a while since Ive seen what is happening now: Fans of each school appear to be simultaneously happy and hopeful about their teams football coach.
Rick Neuheisel, 47, is the new head coach at UCLA. Hes popular because hes confident, loaded with personality and, especially, because hes won everywhere he has been. Pete Carroll, 56, is in his eighth year as head coach at USC. People like him because hes, well, Pete Carroll.
Historically, the coach at one of the schools is well liked, while the other sits on the hot seat. Thats just the way its always been. Since the two schools meet at the end of each football season, the coach who loses is the guy in trouble. You can win every game leading up to the rivalry game, but if you lose the big one, youll hear about it every day for the entire next year.
Former Bruins coach Terry Donahue spent 20 years in Westwood but started his career by losing four straight rivalry games. When UCLA defeated USC in 1980 (Donahues first win over the Trojans), he says it saved his job.
It validated me as a coach in this city, Donahue told me long ago. Until I beat USC, nobody took me seriously.
Neu at UCLA Neuheisel is about to find out how that feels. He was named head coach at UCLA last December, returning to the place where he played from 1980 to 1984. He was the starting quarterback in his senior year and named MVP of the 84 Rose Bowl against Illinois. His performance that day-in which he threw four touchdown passes and earned himself a place in the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame-was legendary.
Neuheisels career as a college football head coach has been successful yet tumultuous, and the road back to Westwood has had more than a few bumps. After four years at the University of Colorado, Neuheisel spent four years at the University of Washington, leading its Huskies to the 2001 Rose Bowl title (becoming the first Rose Bowl MVP to later coach a team to victory).
His career came to a crashing halt in 2003. Exactly what happened depends on whom you ask. Officially, Neuheisel was fired after lying about his participation in a college basketball betting pool. He said he had permission from the athletic department to be in the pool and had a memo to prove it. The school fired him anyway.
Neuheisel sued the school and the NCAA and, just before closing arguments, settled for $4.5 million. Still, the whole affair didnt exactly put Neuheisel on anybodys short list to be a college head coach again. He dropped out of sight after being fired, even working as a volunteer assistant coach at a Seattle-area high school for two years while the court case was being resolved.
For the past three years, Neuheisel worked as an assistant coach for the NFLs Baltimore Ravens. When UCLA fired head coach (and his former teammate) Karl Dorrell, Neuheisel made overtures: He knew his record as a college coach (66-30) was solid, and he wanted UCLA to hear his side.
He supplied a reference from an unexpected source, given past circumstances. I encouraged them to talk to all parties involved, specifically the NCAA. Id gotten to know the people during the trial, even though they were on the opposite side of the courtroom. I think they came to realize I deserved a second chance. I also came to realize that they werent as bad of people as I thought they were at the time. Im fortunate that UCLA took the time to talk to them.
That may have been the easy part.
Now that he has the job, Neuheisel knows he has stepped into a battle for the hearts of football fans all over Los Angeles, where, he says, youre always going to be judged by your success against your crosstown rival. It comes down to this city and the bragging rights that go along with that game. Theres no question we have to compete with them and enjoy competing with them, and Im eager to do that. Sometimes I think the people of Los Angeles think this is a lopsided rivalry, but that isnt true. Since I was a freshman in 1979, the series is even 14-14 and one tie.
The King of Troy The record may be even for the long haul, but it has been lopsided in USCs favor since Pete Carroll arrived. Arguably the best college football coach in the country, he has a 6-1 record against UCLA. Unlike Neuheisel, Carroll wasnt a big-name collegiate player. He suited up for Pacific University, where he was a two-time All-Pacific Coast Conference free safety in 1971-72. Carroll never went pro. After graduation, he spent a year trying out for the World Football League and selling roofing materials in the Bay Area. A few years later, he earned his teaching credential and began his career as an assistant coach.
Prior to his arrival at Troy, he had a lukewarm record of 33-31 as an NFL head coach with both the Jets and the Patriots. But something changed when he coached on a college campus. His record at USC is a staggering 76-14. His teams have won at least 11 games in each of his last six seasons, a national and school record. The Trojans won a school-record 34 straight games from 2003 to 2005, producing three Heisman Trophy winners in a four-year span under his leadership. Carroll is often called the best coach in USC historyand Trojan history includes 11 national football championships.
And hes not just phenomenal at coaching; Carroll has done as much for the community off the field as any sports figure in the city. In 2003, he helped develop A Better LA, a nonprofit group dedicated to stopping gang violence.