Nate Fikse was stumped. Recruited by both USC and UCLA, he didn’t know which school to sign with during his senior year at Anaheim Esperanza High.
“To me, it was even,” he said.
His father was a UCLA fan; his best friend’s father was a USC fan. “We had a joke that USC is the dark side, and he wanted me to come to the dark side,” said Fikse, a kicker.
To break the deadlock, Fikse attended the 1998 USC-UCLA game at the Rose Bowl, having decided that he would accept the scholarship offer of whichever team won. UCLA was the winner, 34-17, so Fikse joined the Bruins, and became an All-Pacific 10 Conference punter.
However, Fikse’s method of choice is rare among the top recruits in Southern California. Prospects don’t usually make final choices based on one game. More important are trends, perceptions and personalities in the USC-UCLA rivalry.
When UCLA won eight consecutive games in the series from 1991 to ’98, USC’s recruiting suffered. Now that USC is ranked No. 3 in the nation by the bowl championship series and has won four consecutive games over the Bruins, times have changed.
“Lately, we’ve won many of the battles,” USC recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron said. On the field, and on the recruiting trail.
USC’s recruiting class last season was considered the best in the nation by many experts. Pete Carroll’s hiring as coach three years ago helped turn around the Trojans’ fortunes, but so did the perception that USC was building a strong defense and UCLA wasn’t.
Before his final season at USC, former coach Paul Hackett out-dueled UCLA for the top defensive player in Southern California, safety Matt Grootegoed of Santa Ana Mater Dei. Then the energetic Carroll came away the next season with the top defensive lineman in Southern California, Shaun Cody of Hacienda Heights Los Altos. Trends and perceptions had merged.
Now Karl Dorrell, in his first season as Bruin coach, is in the precarious position of trying to reverse the recruiting cycle, and the USC-UCLA game is a key event.
The home school for the game controls the recruiting tickets, and USC will have more than 100 prospects at the Coliseum Saturday.
Potential recruits receive free tickets to the game and can bring along family members or a friend. They are on the sideline for pregame warmups. After the game, they are invited into the locker room.
“It’s a pretty good deal,” Orgeron said.
Since both coaching staffs know many of the same recruits, the pregame warmups can produce some awkward moments, with coaches waving or winking across the field.
Orgeron remembers feeling uncomfortable seeing Cody on the sideline on a UCLA recruiting ticket at the 2000 game at the Rose Bowl. “It was killing me not being able to talk to him,” he said.
The winning school usually tries to take advantage of the joyous atmosphere by attempting to convince undecided prospects to make a decision right then and there. That’s what happened to Wesley Walker when he was a senior linebacker at La Puente Bishop Amat in 2001.
He went to the Coliseum on a USC recruiting ticket, watched the Trojans win, 27-0, and came close to committing.
“It was a little weird since I was considering both schools,” Walker said. “You don’t pick a school because of one game. I wasn’t a bandwagon recruit. I didn’t hop on. My uncle played at USC and he tried to use the game as a temptation.”
Walker ended up signing with UCLA, and he was glad he got to experience the rivalry as a high school recruit.
“You get a little bit of special treatment,” he said. “Your tickets are free while people are spending $400 on EBay.”
USC’s philosophy is that they continue to recruit players until the February signing day -- even those who have orally committed to other schools. Therefore, several Bruin recruits could end up attending the game courtesy of the Trojans.
Two years ago, tight end Marcedes Lewis of Long Beach Poly had committed to UCLA, but the Trojans offered him recruiting tickets to the game.
After consulting with his parents, Lewis said, “We decided it wouldn’t be smart to go to the Coliseum when I had already decided on my school.”
Carroll’s inclination to play freshmen if they are ready has aided USC’s recruiting surge. Cody, receiver Mike Williams, strong safety Darnell Bing, offensive tackle Winston Justice and running backs LenDale White and Reggie Bush all became impact players in their rookie seasons, sending a message to high school prospects that playing time can be immediate.
One of the strangest sights at a USC-UCLA game is watching the reaction of prospects in the stands. Surrounded by fans rooting vigorously for their teams, the recruiting section is usually the lone nonpartisan area in the sold-out stadium.
“Watch their faces,” UCLA freshman offensive lineman Kevin Brown said of the recruits. “There’s no expression. You don’t want anybody to know where your head is.”
High school seniors aren’t the only prospects who can attend the game as recruits. Juniors and even sophomores can be invited, and winning the game helps establish allegiances that are not easily broken.
“You have two schools you want to go to,” Grootegoed said. “Whomever wins that game kind of helps you decide.”
Thomas Herring, a senior All-City lineman from Los Angeles Fremont, said he is undecided about his college choice even though he has been hanging out in the locker room all season at USC and UCLA games. He will attend Saturday’s game with the intention of closely watching the defensive line play.
“It’s going to be very interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing how both defensive lines do,” he said. “I’ve established good relations with both teams and will be cheering for my favorites on both defensive lines.”
And how will Herring decide on a school?
“I think I’ll put it in God’s hands,” he said.
As for Fikse, his UCLA teams went 0-4 against USC from 1999 to 2002, but he says he has no regrets about his college decision -- except that his best friend’s father continues to have bragging rights.