Keeping track

Lexus sponsors a trophy recognizing the annual champion in USC-UCLA head-to-head matchups. (Lexus)

The old North Gym was rocking. The tiny facility on the USC campus was designed to hold about 600 fans, but it used to be so tightly jammed for men's volleyball matches against UCLA that it seemed at least that many spilled from the bleachers onto the floor.

Trojans football players, often creeping within five feet of the UCLA service line, cheered in their own special way.

"When our servers would go back, football players would be pulling hairs out of their legs, and there was beer everywhere. The guys were pretty loaded," longtime UCLA Coach Al Scates recalled. "It was a real zoo. We used to have some real battles in that gym. It was probably the most satisfying place to win."

Almost nothing, it seems, can induce fulfillment for a Bruin like a victory over USC, regardless of the sport. People who think that USC-UCLA matters only in football are out of their cardinal-and-gold or powder-blue minds.

The schools' athletic programs recruit from essentially the same pool of high school prospects, many of whom grew up in Southern California competing against one another from childhood. The recruits feed Trojans and Bruins teams that vie for national championships in a variety of sports -- often against each other.

"It's very difficult to live in L.A. and not really feel the rivalry," said Jovan Vavic, the USC men's and women's water polo coach whose women's team lost a national title game to the Bruins in 2006 on a last-second shot. "There's nothing like it, really."

Like all great rivalries, UCLA-USC has been a back-and-forth affair since the schools first met in a major sport in the spring of 1920, when the Bruins -- then known as the Southern Branch Cubs -- knocked off the Trojans in baseball, 7-6, at Exposition Park.

Since 2001, the Trojans and Bruins have split the six Lexus Gauntlet competitions that award points for victories in head-to-head competitions between the schools in all sports. Going back further, UCLA leads in eight of the 15 men's and women's sports for which head-to-head series records are available, but USC leads, 767-747-9, in all-time contests on the strength of its 246-113 advantage in baseball.

Scates and the Bruins have had plenty of success in the rivalry over the years, winning 85 matches and losing only 31. UCLA has defeated USC in the NCAA title match in three of four meetings, but the one loss to the Trojans, in 1980, stung particularly deep. Bruins star Karch Kiraly punted the ball into the klieg lights in frustration and was going for a chair, Scates recalled, when the coach had to restrain him.

"He took it pretty hard," Scates said of Kiraly, who would go on to win three national titles with the Bruins and become possibly the greatest beach volleyball player of all time.

The Bruins and Trojans are among an elite class of programs in many sports. In men's water polo, the schools typically battle Stanford and California for national supremacy. The UCLA and USC men's volleyball teams met in the national title game in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1987.

Scates estimates that between them, the UCLA and USC men's volleyball programs "put enough players on the Olympic team to get gold medals in 1984 and 1988."

"Usually when we play, both teams are in the top three or four, and that game makes a difference in the rankings," said Vavic, the USC men's and women's water polo coach.

Many USC and UCLA athletes grew up as teammates instead of rivals. Scott Swanson, a sophomore driver on the UCLA men's water polo team, played on a Long Beach Wilson High team that included two future Trojans.

"You're friends after it's all over," Swanson said of his relationship with his former teammates. "Once it's in the water, it's all business."

Keith Wilkinson, a junior on the USC men's basketball team, played alongside and against UCLA players Michael Roll and James Keefe as a teenager in Orange County. That makes it all the more enjoyable for Wilkinson when the Trojans beat the Bruins.

"It's always fun to talk trash against those guys when you win," said Wilkinson, whose Trojans are 1-3 against the Bruins since his arrival. "You kind of have the bragging rights."

Boasting has become easier -- and perhaps more obnoxious -- with the advent of text messaging, but longtime UCLA women's volleyball Coach Andy Banachowski suggested that the new technology may have added congeniality to the rivalry.

"It's as intense as ever, but it's a little more friendly than it used to be with the kids always communicating," Banachowski said.

"We used to not see each other until the day of the match and we hated them. Now we see each other all the time and we just hate each other during the match."

Robert Fischer, then UCLA's associate athletic director, didn't wait until the opening serve to dish his dislike for the Trojans when the teams met in the 1979 NCAA men's volleyball title match at Pauley Pavilion. Fischer addressed the Bruins in the locker room with what Scates described as "the type of speech you give to a football team."

"He had my guys so fired up that they almost knocked the door to the dressing room down," recalled Scates, whose team won.

That saying that a Bruin's two favorite teams are UCLA and whoever plays USC goes both ways, and it helps fuel highly charged environments whenever the teams meet.

"We've had great crowds and our best crowds whenever we play USC because we'll always get more people out who are just sports fans and not particularly volleyball fans," Banachowski said. "They're USC fans or UCLA fans who just want to cheer against their rival."

Swanson said the Bruins brought in two extra sets of bleachers when the UCLA men's water polo team played the top-ranked Trojans last month at Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. A crowd that was about 10 times beyond what UCLA normally draws lined the stairways and the floor around the pool.

"It was packed to the max with the band there," Swanson said. "I got the chills just warming up."

The Bruins carried the momentum into the game and toppled the previously unbeaten Trojans, 9-5, prompting UCLA players to take a celebratory leap into the pool.

The revelry carried over into the locker room, where the Bruins' players broke into the school's fight song, gleefully aware that their vanquished opponent remained within earshot.

"I'm pretty sure they heard us," said Swanson, a sophomore driver. "It gave me the chills."

ben.bolch@latimes.com