UCLA vs. Notre Dame: A rivalry the way they used to be

Notre Dame plays UCLA in basketball at Pauley Pavilion this morning, and by morning we're talking 10 a.m., followed by a car wash and pancake brunch.

"I didn't know it was back on the schedule, to tell you the truth," Austin Carr, the former Irish star/villain who scorched UCLA for 46 points in 1971, said of the game.

Roger Valdiserri was driving to a round of golf in Scottsdale, Ariz., this week when he answered his cellphone.

Now retired, he once prodigiously presided over athletic public relations at Notre Dame and was the man who suggested that Joe Theismann switch the pronunciation of his name from "Theesman" so that it rhymed with "Heisman."

Valdiserri helped forge the early UCLA-Notre Dame basketball relationship, sat in on the broadcast negotiations and, in the heyday, held a circus seat next to Irish Coach Richard "Digger" Phelps.

Asked about this UCLA-Notre Dame game, Valdiserri wanted to know:

"Is it going to be televised?"

UCLA vs. Notre Dame . . . yes, it's going to be televised.

The difference between the series then and now is the difference between love and a handshake.

Explaining to people what UCLA-Notre Dame was isn't easy. Maybe you had to have come of age between 1970 and 1980.

"There was a mystery about it back then," former UCLA great Marques Johnson said Friday. "There weren't all these summer camps and AAU teams. Adrian Dantley, I had only read about him. We were similar in size, so your mind would conjure up an image of what kind of player he is."

Johnson was a young teenager in 1971 when Carr scored 46 in Notre Dame's upset of UCLA on Jan. 23 of that year in South Bend, Ind.

Johnson was a die-hard UCLA fan, the incarnation of Sidney Wicks, but after that game he went to a local church in Baldwin Hills and destroyed an older kid in a challenge game.

"I became Austin Carr," Johnson said. "It was an 'I am God' basketball mentality. I remember bouncing one shot in off the ground."

Three years later Johnson, as a 17-year-old freshman, was on the Bruins' bench in South Bend when Notre Dame ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

The series used to be a circle-your-calendar event, framed in the stand-alone exclusivity of a world uncluttered by cable glut.

UCLA and Notre Dame played 42 times between 1966 and 1995. For years they played twice a season, home and away.

The schools met first in 1952, in East Lansing, at the Michigan State Classic, and once again in Los Angeles, in 1960.

When the teams hooked up again in the mid-1960s, you wondered how long it would last. Facing John Wooden's UCLA teams in those days was like asking for a punch in the face.

Beginning in 1966, UCLA prevailed in four straight games by the winning margins of 29, 51,13 and 31 points.

The dynamic changed Jan. 23, 1971, when Carr stunned UCLA with a virtuoso performance in an 89-82 victory. Carr scored 15 of Notre Dame's last 17 points.

"The fans were so excited, they actually picked me up on their shoulders to cut the strings [of the net] down," Carr recalled.

What sticks out for Carr is UCLA's switching Wicks to cover him, and Wicks later running over to the bench to tell Wooden, "I told you I couldn't!"

The next three years in the series were magic, with Notre Dame throwing haymakers at UCLA's dynasty.

Did you know that the Bruins' amazing winning streak of 88 games was bookended by defeats at the hands of Notre Dame? And that UCLA broke the record of 60 consecutive victories at South Bend?

Phelps took over from Johnny Dee as Notre Dame coach at the start of the 1971-72 season and brought a megawatt charge to the rivalry.

Valdiserri remembers sitting in meetings with television executive Eddie Einhorn and Phelps jumping at the chance to take on UCLA twice a year.

"Digger would say, 'How do we get on TV?' and Eddie said, 'You've got to schedule blockbusters,' " Valdiserri said.

Was he nuts?

Phelps was taking over a team that would finish 6-20.

His first matchup with UCLA was Dec. 22, 1971. Four nights before, Notre Dame had lost at Indiana, 94-29.

That was followed by a Bruins blindside, 114-56, at Pauley.

Phelps was peeved that Wooden had pressed the Irish long after the outcome was decided.

"Late in the game I was in a crouch in front of our bench and looked down at UCLA's bench," Phelps would later recount in the book, "Tales From the Notre Dame Hardwood." "I caught [assistant coach] Gary Cunningham's eye and I mouthed two words to him. It wasn't thank you . . . but the second word was you."

Phelps said Wooden told him after the game he was working on the press to get ready for conference play, to which Phelps said he replied: "John, you do anything you have to do to beat me, because someday I am going to kick your ass."

Carr's masterpiece was the first game in a memorable Golden Trilogy.

"I still have people today who come up to me who remember that game vividly," said Carr, now the community relations director for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The middle game in the mini-saga belonged to Wooden, at the height of his powers. UCLA's 82-63 win over Notre Dame in South Bend in 1973 was the Bruins' 61st straight, eclipsing the collegiate record of 60 held by the University of San Francisco.

"I wanted to break it," Wooden noted of the record in his book, "My Personal Best." " . . . I was mindful of the fact that it would be a great newspaper story if it was Notre Dame who stopped us from breaking the record."

Wooden said having the 88-game streak snapped by Notre Dame on Jan. 19, 1974, was not devastating. It "stung no more than any other, which is to say, a lot, but not because it ended the streak."

It meant everything to Notre Dame.

Phelps, in fact, had his team practice cutting down the nets at practice during the week. The Irish's 71-70 victory, by the margin of Dwight Clay's corner jumper, was the signature win of Phelps' 20-year Irish career. He said UCLA losing was good for college basketball

UCLA vs. Notre Dame had gravitas. The players stayed in school long enough to develop competitive relationships. There was a David-vs.-Goliath factor to storyboard with the disparate personalities of Wooden and Phelps. The game didn't have to share a stage with the Food Network and "Man vs. Wild."

The series continued for years, with Phelps and Notre Dame getting in plenty of licks on the post-Wooden Bruins.

So what happened?

UCLA and Notre played Dec. 20, 1995, and then took a long television timeout.

The thrill, to paraphrase B.B. King, was gone.

And so was Phelps, who had left the Irish bench after going 12-20 in 1990-91. John MacLeod took over and posted seasons of 18-15, 9-18, 12-17 and 15-12.

Attendance, and interest, started to dwindle.

Marques Johnson: "There was only so much drama you could milk out of that confrontation."

Roger Valdiserri: "I don't know exactly why it faded, but after Digger left, the air sort of went out of the balloon."

Austin Carr: "For me, competing against John Wooden and Sidney and all the guys -- Henry Bibby, Curtis Rowe, Steve Patterson -- it was always a challenge. Seems like those challenges aren't there anymore. Time changes things."

Peter Dalis, UCLA's athletic director at the time, pulled the series plug. There were, frankly, more profitable intersectional games to be negotiated with the likes of Duke and Kentucky.

UCLA also wanted to play Notre Dame in football, but the Irish balked. So Dalis headed in a different basketball direction.

"Pauley fans really demand you get the best you can get," Dalis said.

The schools agreed to meet again someday but only as friends.

Notre Dame reappeared on UCLA's schedule in 2004 and 2005, Ben Howland's first two seasons.

Howland, a basketball purist, grew up in Santa Barbara watching the titanic struggles and seeks to rekindle the relationship.

"It was a very big game back in the day," Howland said this week.

The question now is: Will it ever be again?

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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