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Why Not Give the Coliseum to USC? : Sports: L.A.'s white elephant needs a landlord that can put it to good use.

Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and writes a regular column

As I write this column, I don’t know whether UCLA or USC will win their annual football game, played Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But it really doesn’t matter because my point is not to promote the friendly rivalry between two major colleges that share the same hometown. This loyal Bruin wants to make a modest proposal to the Trojans.

Take the Coliseum, please!

You’d be doing a service not just to USC’s athletic tradition--which helped to make the Coliseum historic--but to all of Los Angeles. And that would only enhance the growing stature of USC as a university that is far more than a football powerhouse, being a center for research, community activism and even vision for this entire region.

It is clearer than ever that unless some respected local entity steps in to preserve the Coliseum, it will become a drain on the tax coffers of all three government entities that share its maintenance: the city and county of Los Angeles and the state of California.

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Forget about the brave front the nine members of the Coliseum Commission have been putting up since their last professional football tenant, the Raiders, left town for Oakland. It is obvious that pro football will never return. The economics of modern pro sports simply will not allow it. That is why two other pro football teams, which were far more popular in their towns than the Raiders ever were in Los Angeles, have announced in recent weeks that they will move to cities willing to build them new stadiums--the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore and the Houston Oilers to Nashville.

The irony of this harsh economic reality is that the Coliseum is in far better shape today than it has been in years, and is probably stronger and safer than most new stadiums. In the 22 months since the Northridge earthquake, it has been almost completely rebuilt to the most up-to-date engineering standards. As one Coliseum commissioner told me, “When the next big quake hits, it’ll be one of the safest building in the city.”

I remain convinced, as I wrote recently, that the Coliseum has a potentially great future as a soccer stadium, especially for teams from Latin America and Europe that would love to play occasional matches in the world’s entertainment capital. Unfortunately, the Coliseum lost out recently on a good chance to build its reputation as a world-class soccer venue. The owners of the team that will represent Los Angeles in the new North American Soccer League opted to play in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, the site of last year’s World Cup finals.

Conversations with several sources who were close to that decision have persuaded me that part of the problem was the Coliseum Commission’s unwieldy management structure. It includes three Los Angeles County supervisors, three state representatives appointed by the governor and three city officials named by the mayor and City Council.

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In today’s political climate--the less government, the better--a three-headed commission can barely move. And truth be told, most of the commission members I have dealt with over the past decade have privately agreed that the Coliseum would be better off if one entity were in charge.

We can forget about state government. Sacramento is too far away and has too many other budget challenges to run the Coliseum efficiently. The supervisors have their hands full keeping the county from going broke. And the city needs to focus on hiring more cops.

Which leaves the field open for an outsider to run to the rescue, and USC is the logical choice. Its campus sits directly across the street. Its football team would seem out of place playing anywhere but the Coliseum.

USC officials could use the Exposition Park facilities surrounding the Coliseum, like its swimming pool, as part of the university’s efforts to reach out to the poor neighborhoods that surround its campus. Allowing soccer games to be played in the Coliseum, for example, would surely enhance USC’s reputation with the many Latino families living in nearby apartment buildings. (A soccer promoter once told me that there are probably 20,000 hard-core soccer fans living within walking distance of the stadium.)

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“Sometimes I’d just like to just drop the keys to this place on (USC President Steven B.) Sample’s desk,” I was told by one engineer who has been involved with rebuilding the Coliseum. “That would be the simplest, neatest solution.”

I agree, knowing full well it’s quite a concession for someone from UCLA to root for a USC man to play the hero. But some things are more important than college rivalries--like saving a landmark that’s an important symbol to everyone who cares about Los Angeles.


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