They Set the Tone for the Rivalry

They have broken each other's noses. They have trashed each other's steps.

They have taunted each other, turned their backs on each other, and ultimately, for their own safety, high-stepped far away from each other.

Like their football peers, they played a game every November.

But, unlike their peers, this game was canceled because it was too nasty.

Searching for the most honest, old-fashioned part of the rivalry between USC and UCLA?

Show up Saturday afternoon.

At halftime.

Nothing is as dissonant as the tuba-sized rift between the marching bands.

Meet Damien Graham, a USC band teaching assistant: "It seems like in the past few years, the Bruin band has been intimidated by us."

Meet Laura Montoya, a UCLA drum major: "The Trojan band is so rude."

Meet Monique Ramirez, manager of the USC band: "We have the better band, definitely."

Meet Mike Froeberg, UCLA's other drum major: "Only on rare occasions does the Trojan band sound good."

Talk about your band saw.

The high-pitched whirring that goes on between musicians is much more abrasive than anything that happens between the football teams.

While the players and coaches are usually either too polite or too close to talk trash, the bands do it incessantly.

Said USC's Graham, a former trumpet player: "There is no interaction. There are no friendships. We don't like them."

Said UCLA's Froeberg: "We try to be recognized as a classy group of students. That's something they don't do over there."

While the teams play hard, the bands sometimes allegedly play dirty.

Three years ago, their annual flag football game -- aptly called the Blood Bowl -- was canceled after the UCLA band accused the USC band of stealing $30,000 worth of instruments from the UCLA truck and writing a hate message on a saxophone case. No arrests were made.

Said the Bruins' Montoya: "What happened was a felony, yet they were so uncooperative, they made it really tough on us."

Said the Trojans' Graham: "Their 'classy' program left their truck wide open on the busiest street on campus, unlocked. They brought it on themselves."

UCLA claims it leads in the series, 25-13.

USC claims that UCLA altered the trophy to award itself more victories.

UCLA doesn't have the trophy.

USC is keeping it locked and hidden.

"I can't tell you where it is," Graham said. "If the Bruins find out, I have no doubt they will try to get it."

Back and forth they have gone, for several decades, reflecting feelings that are often hidden by others in an effort to keep the cross-town rivalry civil.

While the rivalry can do without some of this foolishness, the bands are clearly keepers of the flame.

The USC band reminds its fans throughout the season that this is the only game that really matters.

One of its most famous songs -- "Tusk" -- is altered to include a chant that rips the Bruins.

And the UCLA band reminds its fans of the same idea, only more elaborately.

Last week, at halftime of the Oregon game, the Bruin band reenacted, in its own special way, the fall of Troy.

"It is what it is," said Gordon Henderson, director of the UCLA band. "We try to keep it as reasonable as possible, but for us, it is an intense rivalry."

Indeed, in an era when cross-town football players might leave the game in a group hug, the bands won't go anywhere near each other.

"We can't trust these bands to be in the same vicinity," Froeberg said. "For any period of time."

When they played football against each other, there were broken noses and torn knees.

While the two flag teams battled, the remaining band members stood on either side of the field, trying to outplay each other.

There was once a hit on a player who was so far out of bounds, he was knocked into the winner's trophy, smashing it.

Said Tony Fox, USC's associate band director: "We finally said, 'No more.' It was a little too much."

Said UCLA's Henderson: "We didn't want to cancel it, and we would be happy to play again, whenever they're ready."

The heart of the band conflict appropriately speaks to the heart of every conflict between the schools.

The UCLA band thinks the USC band is flash without substance.

The USC band thinks the UCLA band is haughty and dull.

While the football teams publicly applaud each other's style, the bands do not hide their disdain.

The Bruins employ a glide style that is mocked by the Trojans.

"It's not really good for college band, where you're supposed to entertain," USC's Ramirez said.

The Trojan band uses a style that makes the Bruins cringe.

"Their step takes away from their sound, it hurts their tone quality," the Bruins' Froeberg said.

Not that they will be watching each other Saturday.

When the Bruin band takes the field, the Trojan band's 250 members will turn their collective backs.

"But you don't need to see them, you just hear them to know something is wrong," Graham said.

When the Trojan band takes the field, some of the 250-member Bruin band will make fun of its leader.

"Their drum major prances around in a skirt with a sword," Froeberg said. "He's there for show. Our drum majors are there as conductors."

Which band is better? Who knows? Who cares? Both are among the best in the nation when they finally put instruments to lips.

Not that rivalry music requires instruments.

Tired of hearing Pete Carroll praise the Bruin toughness, weary of listening to Karl Dorrell compliment the Trojan speed?

Focus those binoculars at halftime Saturday, down to a field where there is no point spread, political correctness or phony praise.

Said the Bruins' Froeberg: "From a music and marching perspective, we're a much finer group of musicians."

Said the Trojans' Graham: "We'll bury them."


Bill Plaschke can be reached at

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