Never before have two small decisions decided so much. Perhaps never again will two short pauses be so enduring.
Who would have thought that after 77 afternoons of leaping at each other from atop the backyard fence, the kids in the USC-UCLA football rivalry would reveal the game’s true meaning by just standing around?
This will happen Saturday, at the Rose Bowl, where both teams have agreed to sacrifice moments of strategy for years of tradition.
At a time in this country’s sports history when the fan is being routinely forgotten, Pete Carroll remembered, and Rick Neuheisel agreed, and is this going to be cool or what?
For the first time in 26 years Saturday, both USC and UCLA will wear their home jerseys in the same game.
Carroll will be penalized one timeout at the start of the game for doing it. Neuheisel has agreed to immediately call a timeout to make it even. A brief pause for them, a historical procession for the rest of us.
Cardinal red. True blue. One field. A melding of our city’s most enduring collegiate sports, a masterpiece of our city’s most enduring colors, spread across a canvas for 90,000 to cheer and embrace and admire.
Some folks reading this column are too young to have any idea of the significance of any of this. Watch this game, kids. You will.
For the first time in 26years, in this country’s best intracity college football rivalry, both teams will look like the home teams that they are.
Both teams will also look like the home fans who will be cheering for them, in their souvenir sweatshirts and scarves and caps; nobody ever buys visiting jerseys, do they?
Both teams will once again look like Los Angeles, colorful, clashing, human pastels brushed across the deepest of green.
“Isn’t that great?” former USC coach John Robinson said when he heard the news. “The home jerseys are what made the rivalry unique. You could see a two-second clip of the game and know exactly what you were watching.”
The tradition began in 1929 when both teams shared the Coliseum, then continued for one game after UCLA moved to the Rose Bowl in 1982.
Yeah, Robinson believed so much in the power of the home jerseys, his team wore them in that first road game.
“Walking into the Rose Bowl that day wearing our home jerseys felt so special,” said Troy West, a linebacker and defensive back on that USC team. “When we all grew up, this is how the rivalry looked, it’s what we believed it should be, there was no other way.”
Ah, but the NCAA found another way, passing a rule that would penalize teams one timeout if they did not wear their proper home and road jerseys. UCLA wore its road whites to the Coliseum in 1983, and the tradition died.
“It was something all of us old guys talked about, how it was something missing from the game, it just wasn’t the same without both teams’ home jerseys,” West said.
When Carroll came to USC eight years ago, one of his first acts was to connect with former players and ask about lost traditions. The first thing those players talked about was the loss of home jerseys in the UCLA game.
“So I’ve been trying to do this since then,” Carroll said.
He considered wearing the home jerseys in his second season in the Rose Bowl, but thought it might appear to be showboating. He then reached out to Karl Dorrell, but no agreement could be reached.
He found a kindred spirit this season in Neuheisel, then dropped the news earlier this week.
At the time, it was believed it would cost him one timeout per half, while Neuheisel had agreed only to take one timeout at the beginning of the game.
Said Carroll on Tuesday afternoon: “I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.”
When the rules interpretation revealed the penalty to be only one timeout, Neuheisel could only smile.
“I think it was genius of him to figure out a way to say he was going to take the timeouts in both halves, and then find a way not to,” he said of Carroll. “That was genius.”
Is this rivalry great or what? Only in this game can the two coaches embrace each other and tease each other in the same sentence.
Initially, I thought Carroll’s offer wasn’t genius, but arrogance. It’s easy to offer to give up as many as two timeouts when you are a gazillion-point favorite. It was as if he were telling UCLA he could beat them with six timeouts tied behind his back.
“It wasn’t arrogance, I’m telling you, I’ve tried to do this for eight years,” he said. “I’m serious about the tradition.”
He sold me. Talking to former USC players Tuesday, they sold me, with West saying Carroll has worked hard to bring back everything from gray facemasks to black tape on cleats.
“This is just part of Pete’s plan,” West said. “He’s been doing this sort of thing since he got here.”
I also wondered whether Neuheisel’s generous offer to match the timeout was real. I mean, this is a guy who could use a dozen timeouts. But it turns out, even during hard times, he remains a good sport.
“Absolutely,” he said of calling the timeout. “That was the deal. I said I would do it, and I will.”
It is rare that both sides in this rivalry agree on anything, but at the start of Saturday’s game, here’s hoping we agree on the classiness of the coaches, the sincerity of the gestures, and the history they carry.
Standing ovation, everyone.