College football: USC, UCLA programs rarely elite at the same time
LOS ANGELES -- The schools have trumpeted this year's UCLA-USC gridiron clash as a high-stakes affair.
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There is something considerable on the line with the winner advancing to the Pac-12 championship game, but this type of stage has become increasingly rare.
Rather than both vying for the conference's top prize, much less a national championship, in the same season, recent renditions of the crosstown rivalry have tended to be one-sided, dominated by one school for a stretch of time with the other resigned to play spoiler.
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UCLA reeled off eight consecutive victories over the Trojans in the 1990s, followed by USC winning 12 of 13 games from 1999 to 2011, a run that included win streaks of seven and five games.
At the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, the Bruins vie for their fourth consecutive victory, holding a perfect mark against USC so far under Coach Jim Mora.
"Someone gets on a run," former UCLA quarterback and ESPN radio analyst Tom Ramsey said, "and they catch a wave of momentum."
The recent streakiness stands in contrast to the heyday of the rivalry, considered to be from 1965-82, which saw a combined four national championships, 13 Rose Bowl appearances and five Heisman Trophy winners. During that window, the conference championship was often determined during the final weekend of November, sometimes settling the national landscape.
During that 18-year period, UCLA and USC met 11 times when both were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
By contrast, during the past 25 years, that has occurred only five times, with three of them from 2012-14. This season, only UCLA is ranked (No. 22).
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In the current climate of college football, can both programs reclaim that old magic simultaneously? Or is the rivalry now destined to be dominated by one school at a time?
"There is certainly room for both to be great in town," said Petros Papadakis, a former USC running back who now serves as a college football analyst for Fox. "We haven't had that because of who's coaching. It's purely coincidental. I don't think that's been paralleled. Coincidentally, USC has been a mess in their athletic department during the Jim Mora era. Coincidentally, Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel had a hard time getting it going at UCLA for a myriad of reasons, but that had nothing to do with what was going on at USC."
If there's a consensus for why the Trojans and Bruins so infrequently emerge as top teams together any more, it's because of the men at the top.
"Obviously the rivalry is cyclical, but I think it's been dictated by the stability of the coaching situations," said Steve Bisheff, a former columnist for the Register and the author of "Fight On! The Colorful Story of USC Football."
That has been especially telling lately.
As Mora coaches in his fourth rivalry game Saturday, he will greet a fourth head coach on the opposite sideline. USC interim coach Clay Helton was preceded by Steve Sarkisian in 2014, Ed Orgeron in 2013 and Lane Kiffin in 2012.
"When you have the one coach in a stable situation with a winning program and the other team doesn't and is changing coaches, it's a big difference," Bisheff said. "You go in with a huge advantage."
Similarly, while Pete Carroll won eight games in a nine-year period against UCLA, he faced three different Bruin coaches, Bob Toledo, Dorrell and Neuheisel.
Mora, asked this week about his recent run of success against the Trojans, sidestepped pointing to any commonality.
"I don't think there's any particular thread that runs through the games we've played," Mora said. "We've played, we've gotten some breaks and we've made the most of the opportunity."
But the infectious nature of the coaches does seem to have had an effect.
The upbeat Carroll frequently spoke of a desire to "own the Rose Bowl," pointing to the famed New Year's Day bowl game that takes place in the Bruins' home stadium. UCLA has not played in the Rose Bowl since 1999.
When he was hired in 2012, Mora sought to end the Trojans' stranglehold on the city.
"He brought a very distinct desire to own Los Angeles," said Ramsey, "and he's done that."
Perhaps never more clearly than in the Coliseum tunnel, within a few feet of the USC locker room, after UCLA's 35-21 win in 2013, when he shouted in front of his huddled team, "we own this town."
"The personality of the coach has everything to do with it," Papadakis said.
There are other factors, too.
The NCAA instituted tighter scholarship limits in the 1990s, eventually capped in 1994 at 85, where it remains.
It has long been thought to have adversely affected Los Angeles' two football factories, preventing them from hoarding as much homegrown talent as possible.
The Pac-12 added more teams, expanding to 10 in 1978 with Arizona and Arizona State and 12 in 2011 with the additions of Colorado and Utah. The latest wave included the split into a two-division format.
The conference has added a talented lineup of coaches and most of the programs have made substantial improvements to their facilities, spurred on by a 12-year, $3billion TV deal inked in 2011.
More than anything, the conference's depth has provided more significant hurdles for UCLA and USC to clear in order to meet consistently as elite teams the way they often did. The 2005 game saw an unbeaten, top-ranked USC team square off with a one-loss UCLA team ranked No.11, proof there's a chance they still can peak simultaneously.
"Under the right circumstances, both schools have the resources and the ability to contend for the national championship, but to both do it at the same time, you have to have a little luck," Bisheff said. "Both have to have really dominant coaches, proven outstanding coaches, both have to have a couple good recruiting years and work it along up. ... I think it's tougher now, a lot tougher."
There's always the chance, of course.
Papadakis pointed to the region's deep pool of high school talent, the tradition of the programs and the current stability of UCLA under Mora as reasons the programs could coexist again as top-25 teams, especially if USC sheds its recent baggage.
"USC's always a coach away, one drop of the right chemistry away," Papadakis said.
The odds aren't favorable for a repeat of the 1960s and '70s, when playing for the city championship often meant playing for the conference championship, but it's not inconceivable to foresee the possibility of moments like the 1988 game.
That year, No.2 USC and quarterback Rodney Peete met No.6 UCLA and counterpart Troy Aikman with a Rose Bowl berth at stake. As the story goes, Peete had the measles two days before the game but led the Trojans to a 31-22 victory.
"Once USC stabilizes its situation and if Jim Mora stays at UCLA, with Josh Rosen at quarterback, you have a great chance at some '88 style magic," Papadakis said. "But first thing's first, USC's a wreck. They've got to hire a diligent head coach, get some assistants and an AD who knows how to hire and fire people."
The Trojans have a little catching up to do, but the stakes could be raised again.
This article was written by Joey Kaufman from Orange County Register and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.