It’s a rivalry ‘game on’ after a Trojan and a Bruin fought on together
The USC athletics boss wanted answers, wanted direction, wanted clarity amid the haze of state and local health restrictions that threatened the Trojans’ football season. Instinct told him to reach out to a trusted ally who could help salvage the situation, giving his team a chance of playing at least a handful of games.
It gave Mike Bohn not a moment’s hesitation to consider that his best bet at fighting on was a Bruin.
“The first call I made was to Martin,” Bohn, the USC athletic director, recalled this week of his late September conversation with his UCLA counterpart, Martin Jarmond, “and said, ‘OK, how are we going to work together?’ ”
Splendidly, it turned out. The Rose Bowl may be empty Saturday afternoon when UCLA (3-2) faces No. 15 USC (4-0), but Bruin and Trojan hearts should be filled because the game will be played barring any more COVID-19 issues, sparing the rivals the possibility of the first interruption in the series since 1935.
Both teams can thank an unlikely alliance between athletic directors who shelved the victory salute and the eight-clap in favor of a shared fist pump after helping each other’s programs. Their collaboration cleared the way for football practices to resume in early October ahead of a season that could end with the Trojans winning the Pac-12 Conference championship and the Bruins posting their first winning record under coach Chip Kelly.
“There was never a sense of, hey, let’s try and get a competitive edge over our partner across town,” Bohn said. “It was instead, hey, let’s ensure that we’re doing everything we can for our collective brands and moving forward.”
California’s landmark Senate Bill 206, which allow college athletes to profit from the use of their name, image and likeness, could go into effect a year earlier.
One of the first calls Jarmond had taken last summer upon his moving to Southern California after landing the UCLA job was from Bohn, himself something of a newbie with the Trojans after his hiring in November 2019.
The men had known each other since Bohn was athletic director at Cincinnati and Jarmond was deputy athletic director at Ohio State, their schools having scheduled games against one another and the Bearcats having hired Luke Fickell as their football coach after he had served as defensive coordinator with the Buckeyes.
When Bohn called Jarmond in July, he wasn’t just welcoming him to Los Angeles, but letting him know that he was there as a resource, whether Jarmond needed a recommendation for a realtor or a barber. Solace was needed in the coming weeks after Jarmond’s mother suffered a stroke that would prove fatal several days after her son arrived at her bedside in North Carolina.
“For me coming in new, never having lived west of Michigan, to have someone like that to set that tone of, I got you, like, we’re rivals but I got you,” Jarmond said, “that’s more important, that shows you the kind of man he is and what he represents and that’s what USC represents to me as far as the class in doing that.”
Jarmond returned the favor over the following months by calling his crosstown counterpart to give him the latest update on any information he had gathered on the imperiled football season. Hey, this is what we heard was often the opening refrain.
None of the news was good when they spoke on a Wednesday in late September. The Big Ten Conference had announced that morning that it was resuming its football season by late October, but there remained no clear path back for the Pac-12 given the state and local health restrictions that barred teams from practicing in California even after the conference had acquired daily testing capabilities for the virus.
Without fans at Rose Bowl, Quentin Lake said UCLA can’t feed off the crowd, but the Bruins should be able to focus more on defeating USC.
Once Bohn got Jarmond on the phone, they quickly hatched a plan and looped in Larry Scott on a three-way call, asking the Pac-12 commissioner to speak with Gov. Gavin Newsom about cutting through the layers of bureaucracy to get teams practicing again.
“We felt the conference should take the lead and Larry Scott should be talking to the governor directly,” Jarmond said. “This was a moment where we felt it’s got to be CEO to CEO.”
By late that afternoon, Newsom announced that the state would not stand in the way of Pac-12 football teams that wanted to practice. Another hurdle, however, remained. Los Angeles County health officials were abiding by restrictions that limited teams to non-contact practices in groups of 12 or fewer, making traditional 11-on-11 practices impossible.
Seeking to sustain their momentum, Bohn and Jarmond pleaded with those health officials on a Zoom call that evening, realizing their shared city had become the epicenter of any efforts to save the conference season.
“During that 48 hours,” Jarmond said, “it was made very apparent to everyone that Los Angeles was a key factor in football being played in the Pac-12.”
Bohn recalled the energy and excitement after the call as well as a sense that the final roadblocks had been pushed aside.
“I just think that was really a launchpad,” Bohn said, “for us to really kind of just keep everybody coming through with a sense of positivity and encouragement.”
Eight days later, the Pac-12 announced that games could start Nov. 7.
As Bohn and Jarmond detailed the alliance that salvaged a seven-game, conference-only season during a Zoom call with The Times this week, they sounded like fraternity brothers reconnecting after years apart.
USC coach Clay Helton is not worried about the offensive line’s slowdown in the second half against Washington State on Sunday.
Bohn teased Jarmond about wearing a Jordan Brand hat after UCLA had recently agreed in principle to a deal with the apparel company, adding that Jarmond would have to hold a garage sale to unload all of the school’s Under Armour gear.
“I’m telling you,” Jarmond replied, “the Salvation Army, Boys Club, we’re going to have us a lot of UCLA fans in L.A. here.”
There’s a devout fan of the Bruins athletic director in Heritage Hall. Bohn said he anticipated the rival administrators would find more opportunities to collaborate based on their mutual respect.
They joined forces in a failed bid to allow family members of players to attend games at the Coliseum and Rose Bowl this season, but remained committed to finding new ways to help one another.
Bohn said he would share an elbow bump with Jarmond before the game involving their football teams on Saturday. It would be the first time they have met in person.
“We’ll probably have a laugh about this interview,” Bohn said, “and then we’ll both begin to recognize that it’s time to play and do everything we can to help our teams.”
Even, in these unlikely times, if it means enlisting a Bruin to help a Trojan.
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