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Enemy Lines

The difference between the USC and UCLA football programs is working late.

It’s Monday night, a chilly wind blows across the wet grass, his team has left the practice field, yet he does not.

He is tutoring a player. One player. He stalks around him, shouts at him, laughs with him, pushes him, again and again.

The difference between the USC and UCLA football programs is a three-time Super Bowl champion, a former Pro Bowl linebacker, one of the winningest players in pro football history.

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He played for UCLA

Yet he now coaches at USC.

Because UCLA wouldn’t hire him.

And USC couldn’t wait to hire him.

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His name is Ken Norton Jr., and not even an all-day whipping on Saturday would hurt some Bruin fans as much as the sight of him standing on the Rose Bowl sideline wearing cardinal and gold.

“I’ve already seen it on TV,” said former Bruin Mike Sherrard, “and it’s hard to stomach.”

While Norton has the modest title and duties of a graduate-assistant linebacker coach, this week he is a metaphor as giant as some of the hits he landed in his 13 pro seasons.

What folks have been saying forever, Norton shouts without saying a word.

You are Bruin for four years, but you are a Trojan for life.

Even with former player and current Coach Karl Dorrell promising change, the Bruins are slow to embrace the bright parts of their football legacy, while the Trojans squeeze every ounce out of theirs.

Bruin success is often fleeting and forgotten, as if it were a mistake, while Trojan success is expected and enriched.

Can you imagine USC -- where one bumps into former players in every corner of campus -- allowing someone like Norton to walk to the other side of town?

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Can you believe UCLA did just that?

“Now I really understand how impressive it is over here,” Norton said after Monday’s practice. “They know how people should be treated.”

The last time I spoke to Norton was two winters ago, at the news conference announcing the hiring of Dorrell.

Norton stood proudly in the UCLA Hall of Fame room, shaking hands, giving interviews, giddy at the prospect of the program’s returning to its roots.

When I spoke to him Monday, he wore a USC cap and USC sweats and a look of wonder.

The story is that after Dorrell was hired, Norton offered his services, but Dorrell was looking for more veteran help, and declined the offer.

Showing he was serious about coaching, Norton spent last season serving as an assistant at Hamilton High.

During that time, while working for the NFL Network, Norton was interviewing his former San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll when the topic of careers came up.

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When Carroll discovered Norton was coaching high school football, he quickly found a spot for him as a graduate assistant and offered him a job.

When UCLA heard about this, it also approached Norton with a graduate assistant spot, but it was too late.

“I gave them every opportunity, and they weren’t receptive,” Norton said of UCLA. “I let them know I was available. It was their decision.”

Dorrell said it wasn’t about a decision, but indecision on Norton’s part.

“The opportunity I had was for a full-time position, and I’m not sure what he wanted to to do,” said Dorrell. “I didn’t know whether he wanted to coach or just dabble in it.”

It’s not that Norton is Jimmy Johnson. He had no coaching experience when he told UCLA he was interested in a job. He would not have been able to supply the then-rookie Dorrell with much technical support.

But, goodness, playing on Super Bowl champions for a record three consecutive years, Norton has probably been involved in more big victories than every coach on both staffs combined.

“You would think all those NFL years would count for something,” said Sherrard. “And think of the recruiting aspects. You think he would have an impact on a kid, all that he’s done? How big would that be?”

Carroll, who seemingly hasn’t made a bad hire, obviously saw some value.

“I knew Kenny had been an extremely good leader on a good team, we had an opening ... he jumped on it,” the USC coach said.

Dorrell said he didn’t think the leap was big enough to be a topic of rivalry-countdown conversation.

“I’d hate for the week to become talk about whether he should be coaching here,” he said.

No talk. Just fact. Norton should be coaching there.

UCLA is not big enough to be turning down the services of a decorated alumnus who wants so badly to coach, he will work at a high school.

UCLA is surely big enough to have found a spot for Norton without occupying one of its understandably precious full-time positions.

The current Bruin regime is, finally, bringing back players as honorary captains and reunion participants.

But in Norton, they let one of the biggest ones get away.

“It would have been best, in hindsight, if Karl had hired Ken,” said Sherrard, who is not alone.

Norton said he has talked with many former teammates about the switch.

“When I explain it to them, they all understand,” he said. “But it’s eating them up on the inside.”

USC couldn’t be happier.

With Norton running around the practice field and raising one of the few voices louder than the whistle, the Trojans have ranked second in the nation in rushing defense while UCLA ranks last in the Pac-10.

“It’s awesome having him here,” said senior linebacker Matt Grootegoed, who rarely sounds this excited about anything. “His knowledge and energy are immense.”

He has brought the players to his house, where he has shown them his Super Bowl rings. He has run them around the field, showing them his old moves.

He has done everything one might think a famous old Bruin would do in teaching young Bruins.

Except the ones being taught are Trojans.

The ones getting sick are Bruins.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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