For most of the last six years, those helmeted kids from a basketball school have improbably bullied opponents, wowed fans and impressed voters nationwide.
But now the UCLA football team has done the impossible.
It has won the neighborhood.
When it comes to college football, Los Angeles clearly belongs to the Bruins.
Not USC, not any more, not even close, and not only just this year.
This is a Bruin football town, and has been a Bruin football town, and will continue to be a Bruin football town as long as the Bruins continue running the consistent, directed program so lacking across town.
Certainly, there are some USC alumni who will disagree.
But surely not even that constant digital recording of “Conquest” blaring from their dashboard can distract them from the facts.
The Bruins have the rankings.
In the last four years, UCLA is the only Pacific 10 Conference team to finish in the top 10 twice.
In the last decade, USC is the only Pac-10 team to never finish in the top 10.
The Bruins have the fans.
In three of the last four years, UCLA has outdrawn USC, including holding a nearly 15,000-person edge this season in average attendance.
This disparity became strikingly clear on Oct. 13, when UCLA drew 70,377 against Washington in the afternoon, while USC drew 43,508 later that day against Arizona State.
The Bruins also have the cold statistics.
Remember Nov. 23, 1996, when the Bruins beat the Trojans, 48-41, in the only overtime game in the history of the rivalry?
Since then, including that moment, the Bruins have gone 37-17 while USC is 27-29.
That’s an 11-game difference.
Don’t know if that qualifies as a magic number, but how UCLA reached it has nothing to do with hocus pocus.
Five reasons UCLA has taken the town.
1. The hiring of Bob Toledo.
Remember how he wasn’t even their first choice? Remember how, in the first days of 1996, everyone was talking about that Northwestern coach, Gary whatsizname?
Toledo remembers. He was in the Bay Area with his in-laws when Pete Dalis called to offer him the job.
“Did I say yes right away?” Toledo said. “Heck, I jumped through the phone.”
He was not a former pro coach, he was a no-name offensive coordinator. He didn’t come with a big salary or big reviews.
“Everybody was saying, ‘Who was this Bob Toledo guy?”’ he remembers.
The Bruins soon found out.
He was a guy who felt this might be his only chance to be a head coach at a major program. He was a guy who loved the college game instead of simply enduring it.
He approached the job not with arrogance, but gratitude.
That, and a determined desperation to make it work.
“I said to myself, this could be my last go-around,” Toledo said. “I was going to be like Frank Sinatra. I was going to do it my way.”
His players play like Toledo talks.
When Toledo was wooed by one college and three NFL teams after the 1998 season, the administration made its second-most important move by keeping him.
2. The retaining of Gary Bernardi and hiring of Randy Taylor.
Two background men, one forefront theme.
Thanks to the leadership of Bernardi and Taylor--both of whom were snubbed by USC--the Bruins now get the best academically fit players in Southern California.
They now compete nationally against other academically tough schools such as Michigan and Notre Dame.
While they’ve always had decent luck with running backs like Tustin’s DeShaun Foster, they are now getting big linemen like Corona’s Shane Lehmann, San Diego’s Ken Kocher and Alta Loma’s Kenyon Coleman.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for linemen,” said Taylor, a former Illinois center and the football operations director in charge of recruiting.
Not to mention, they are even recruiting USC legacies.
Ronnie Lott’s son, Ryan Nece, is a UCLA linebacker.
Don Mosebar’s nephew, Matt Mosebar, is a UCLA offensive lineman.
“Ten or 15 years ago, people would think of UCLA as a basketball school, but not anymore,” said Bernardi, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator.
Bernardi, a former local high school star, was once an assistant to Larry Smith at USC. When Smith was fired, Bernardi had three interviews with John Robinson in hopes of being retained. He was not.
A year later, in 1994, he joined Terry Donahue’s staff, then later was one of the first people retained by Toledo.
Taylor was one of the first people hired by Toledo. A former operations worker at Nevada Las Vegas and San Diego State, he had been running his own marketing company for several years when he decided he missed the game.
He dropped a resume at USC, which was once his favorite team.
He later dropped a resume on Toledo’s empty desk when he couldn’t find anybody in the office.
USC never called him. Toledo did.
3. Getting stronger.
When Toledo arrived, he heard stories of a conditioning program run by someone drinking a cup of coffee and asking the players to monitor their own progress.
Today, former UCLA guard Mike Linn runs a staff of five assistants who personally supervise each player in workouts that, in the off-season, begin at 6 a.m.
Linn says the most important weight lifted is that of the longtime stereotype.
“When I played here, we were the gutty little Bruins, and that kind of ticked me off,” he said. “Everyone kept portraying us as David versus Goliath. Well, I thought, why can’t we be Goliath?”
Indeed, today’s UCLA team is winning Pac-10 games with the strength of the Big Ten and the toughness of the SEC.
4. The signing of Cade McNown.
He wasn’t a great pro. He wasn’t even always a great college teammate.
But when the swaggering quarterback chose UCLA on Jan. 13, 1995, Toledo’s vision had a symbol.
Without McNown, UCLA doesn’t win the 20 consecutive games that built Toledo’s foundation.
Without McNown, UCLA doesn’t get the national exposure that has led to the national signings.
“That’s where it began, no question,” Toledo said.
Sources say McNown could be such a jerk in practice, it almost didn’t work. But working overtime, the staff was able to keep peace long enough for McNown to cause opponents trouble.
5. The overtime.
At the end of Toledo’s first season, his first encounter with USC, his team trailed, 38-21, in the fourth quarter.
Then, with 11:06 remaining in the game, Toledo went into a two-minute drill.
Fans had never seen such boldness. They had also never seen such a comeback, with the Bruins tying the game and sending it to overtime, where Skip Hicks’ 25-yard run won it.
Folks suddenly realized that these were not your same old Bruins.
“I need to get my breath,” Toledo said at the time.
“It was nightmarish,” John Robinson said at the time.
Bill Plaschke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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