Published August 17, 2013
LOS ANGELES – This Hollywood sports tale has a familiar script.
Two schools separated by 12 miles are enmeshed in a decades-long rivalry that tests friendships, consumes their fan bases and even weaves itself into divided families. One school has been dominant in recent years, racking up a string of wins and gaining national prominence while its rival struggles in the cold shadow.
The other school attempts to change its fortunes by bringing a longtime NFL coach to a city where college football rules. The new coach, who definitely wasn't his school's first choice, is greeted by raised eyebrows and little fanfare — until he wins early and often.
The new coach then punctuates his debut season with a viciously one-sided victory in the rivalry game, shaking the city's pigskin hegemony with one dynamic flourish.
That's what happened after Pete Carroll arrived at Southern California in 2001, and it's what happened 11 years later when Jim Mora arrived at UCLA. USC dominated the next decade, and the Bruins are hoping they can do the same.
L.A. is back in play, and the Bruins are on top — for now.
"The city is different now," said UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, who punctuated his remarkable redshirt freshman season by leading the Bruins to their second win over USC in the last 14 years. "Just walking around, everybody knows you for that game. You hear, 'Oh, you're the quarterback that beat SC. You beat SC.' It's so cool."
For the first time in a decade, the decorated, dominant Trojans might not even be the most glamorous program in their own city, let alone the West Coast or the nation. After winning the Pac-12 South last year, UCLA begins this fall ranked above USC in most every poll, with the Bruins picked to win their division again while the Trojans sort out a quarterback competition and patch holes on a roster thinned by NCAA sanctions.
So are the Bruins the best team in town? Hundley says: "Oh yeah."
"But it's not like I never haven't felt like that," he added with the confidence expected from any starting quarterback. "My first year here, we lost 50-0 (to USC), and this was the first year we've beaten them in a while. What we learned was when we finally start working together and bonding as a team, we can beat anybody we want. Last year was when we really showed it, and it started paying dividends."
So much has changed since USC began last fall as the nation's No. 1 team, still riding the final waves from their storm of success in Carroll's tenure. While the Trojans plummeted to their first six-loss season in a decade, the Bruins rose back to national prominence under Mora, whose indefatigable enthusiasm has thoroughly revived a foundering program — with all of those striking similarities to the way Carroll revitalized the Trojans.
"I'm new to this rivalry, but I know it's great for the city and for the programs," Mora said. "Football, especially college football, is more fun when people care about the matchups and the rivalries, and we've got a great one in Los Angeles. I think it's good for the whole city."
While UCLA spends much of August sweating at training camp in steamy San Bernardino, the Trojans are back in the city they share, trying to get back on top. News of the Bruins' stellar recruiting class and preseason poll dominance are greeted with stony silence by players who grew up watching their chosen school rule over UCLA for the past decade.
"Whenever I go down the street at USC this year, it's different," Trojans linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "How can I say it nicely? Everybody wants to see us bounce back from (losing to UCLA). We're still going to have that feeling in the back of our heads all year. We've got to use it as fuel to keep this train moving."
That's the nature of this crosstown rivalry, according to the players and coaches currently charged with hashing out decades of bad feelings on the fields of the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl. Anything good that happens to one school reflects negatively on the other, while any setback for a rival is cause for rejoicing at the other school.
The rivalry exists all year long, but it culminates in the schools' annual meeting for the Victory Bell. The past two seasons' results are awfully stark: USC thrashed UCLA 50-0 in 2011, a result that led to Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel's firing, Mora's arrival and eventually UCLA's 38-28 victory last fall in the rainy Rose Bowl.
Whatever the previous season's half-a-hundred-point loss meant to both schools was utterly reversed from the moment Matt Barkley threw an interception on USC's first offensive play last year. The Bruins, who never even led in the previous three editions of the rivalry game, pounded the Trojans while building a 24-0 lead, and the defense harassed Barkley into a rough game before Anthony Barr ended the college career of the most prolific passer in conference history, crushing Barkley on a blind-side sack with 2:21 to play.
"We're going to remember that feeling for a long time, hopefully," Pullard said.
The Bruins' win over USC was cathartic, but raising the Victory Bell left the rest of the season feeling a bit anti-climactic — and it showed in the results. UCLA didn't win another game, losing twice to Stanford in the regular-season finale and the Pac-12 title game before getting upset by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl.
After a few months away, the Bruins are eager to show they weren't a one-season wonder, starting in their season opener Aug. 31 against Nevada. The Trojans, who have an easier schedule on paper than the Bruins, begin their season two days earlier at Hawaii.
But both schools always have an eye on the crosstown showdown, scheduled for Nov. 30 at the Coliseum. Even if UCLA isn't as good as expected, even if USC revives its fortunes in what sure looks like a rebuilding year, that one result means the most in a city that loves happy endings.
"I learned that — to be honest, all for naught, if you beat SC, your season is a win," Hundley said. "You can win the Rose Bowl and lose to USC, and you still had a bad season. That's just how it is here."