My former boss was a Bruin. I know. But I was young, and I needed the work.
He wasn’t just a Bruin either; he was a star football player for the Bruins. He told me once that he didn’t really understand why people cared so much about the outcome of NFL and major-college football games. He seemed to care relatively little; I think we can agree that is a pretty reasonable self-defense mechanism if you’re a Bruin, knowing what the powder blues regularly put on the field. Apathy really is the best policy in Westwood.
But I’ve thought about that conversation on occasion over the years. It probably is strange to love USC football the way I do. After all, I don’t know any of the current players. A player like Talanoa Hufanga seems like a really solid kid, a credit to his family and his school, the kind of guy I’m happy to root for. But I don’t know him. There are undoubtedly other players at other programs that are just as bright, humble, and hard-working. I could just as easily root for some of them. Or not root at all.
Nor do I root for USC because of the coaches. I don’t know them. I’ve met some USC coaches over the years. Some I liked; some I didn’t. With some of USC’s coaches, it was apparent at the time that they should probably be former USC coaches rather than current USC coaches, and I have on occasion ventured opinions to that effect. But I still rooted for USC football every Saturday.
Maybe it shouldn’t matter so much what the Trojans do on Saturdays. But it does to me, and to many of you. A lot. Probably more than it should as a matter of pure logic.
I have at least a partial answer. To me, USC football is more than just football. It’s part of my family.
ESPN.com ran an article on Father’s Day about a reporter’s discussion with Nick Saban. The reporter told Saban that he grew up near Blacksburg and would, whenever possible, attend Virginia Tech games with his father. It was an important part of their relationship, something they bonded around.
Saban said he had the same experience growing up in West Virginia, going to Mountaineer games with his father. Saban, one of the great coaches of all time, known for his laser-like focus on the field (a great story about that in the article, by the way), said he doesn’t even remember the games. He just remembers being with his dad.
My family moved back to Southern California from Kansas when I was 10. I knew about USC football before moving; my dad would watch them on TV when possible — it was harder to get college games on television back then — and I would sometimes watch too. But things changed for me when we moved to OC. At the time, the Ralph’s chain of grocery stores had a promotion where, after spending a certain amount of money, you could get free or discounted tickets to the bench seats near the Peristyle. Through Ralph’s, we got tickets to the LSU game in 1984.
It was my first trip to the Coliseum. It was a bloodbath; LSU destroyed us. The LSU halfback, Dalton Hilliard, ran all over the USC defense that day (no I didn’t have to look that up; I’ve remembered that names for 35 years), and the USC offense looked like it was coordinated by a triumvirate of Neil Callaway, an almost-passed-out Sark, and Paul Dee.
And I was in love. From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of USC football. And over the years, it has become a major part of my relationship with my dad. My dad is a good man who has taught me a great deal; we would have had a good relationship even apart from USC football. But USC football is a big part of what we talk about, a common interest that is a major bridge connecting us. That’s why USC football, to me, is not just watching Marinovich hit Morton for the win at the Rose Bowl; it’s sitting by my dad and cheering together when Marinovich hit Morton for the win. It’s giving a high five to my dad when Aaron Rodgers’s 4th down pass fell incomplete. It’s sharing a look with my father of both joy and bewilderment when the Trojans ran off the field at halftime up 38-10 over OU.
And the ties forged over USC football have extended throughout my close relationships. For me, USC football is Bush Push. But it’s also trying to escape from ND Stadium with my best friend after that 2005 game when the thousands of Irish fans around us turned into a pack of angry, wild beasts and wondering whether the guy sitting in front of us — who was itching to fight — would be joined by some of the tens of thousands of angry Domers surrounding us. It’s watching my wife’s (then-fiancee’s) eyes fill with tears when Cusano batted down Powlus’s pass on 4th down to break that cursed streak against the Irish. It’s holding my two-month-old daughter in my arms as Pete Carroll sent an unmistakable message to UCLA and the rest of the conference with a 27-0 thrashing as Cody, Patterson, and Udeze humiliated UCLA’s front and toyed with the Bruin QB like lions playing with an injured antelope. It’s traveling to Arkansas with my mom to watch the Trojans curb stomp the Razorbacks for the second straight year. These aren’t just games to me; they’re iconic memories with the people I love most in this world.
I remember leaving the Horseshoe with my dad after our true freshman QB had completed a comeback win against a highly ranked Buckeyes squad at their place. We were marveling at the amazing run that Pete Carroll had given a fan base that had suffered for a very long time before he arrived. I remember telling him that I knew the magic would have to end eventually and that I just hoped it would last long enough for my son (then three years of age) to witness and enjoy history too. I didn’t know then that the magic had almost run its course, that by the end of the season we would be wondering what had happened both to Pete’s defense and his aura of invincibility, and that shortly after that we’d then be wondering what the program would do without him. As it turned out, it would take a huge hit from the NCAA and deliver some gruesome, self-inflicted wounds with bad personnel decisions. My son wouldn’t see the magical run that we had witnessed. It would be gone before he would be old enough to remember it. I’m still a little bummed about that.
He’s not, not really. He roots for the Trojans — did he really have a choice? — but my son doesn’t love USC football the way I do. And that’s okay, even good, because my obsession with USC football probably isn’t healthy. If you said that I could pick only two — oxygen, water, or USC football — I’d probably at least ask for a night to sleep on the decision. My son has a healthier perspective.
But even so, come October, he and I will drive in from Chicago, wearing cardinal and gold in a sea of blue and gold, hating that damn Leprechaun, and praying that somehow we will put on a better show than we did the last time we were there. For him, it’s probably less about what happens on the field and more about what we build around the game — the airplane, the hotel, the museum, Ditka’s. When the game goes well, he cheers. When it goes bad, he complains — just like I do. But the pain will stick with me longer than it will with him. What will stick with him, I hope, is the memories from these trips with dad, trips to the Coliseum, trips to South Bend, trips to spend one more weekend together that he’ll probably remember for a long time and which I’ll remember forever.
No, it doesn’t make sense to love USC football the way I do, the way a lot of you do. But USC football is a part of my family, a bridge that connects all of us, the setting for many of our fondest memories.
I could have bonded with the people I love over something else. It didn’t have to be USC football. But it wasn’t something else. It was this. And when I look back to the beginning, to the start of this life-long passion, it was all a gift from my dad. Thanks, dad, and happy Father’s Day.