It is the nation's greatest intersectional football rivalry, according to historian Bernie Kish, director of the National College Football Hall of Fame. Since 1926, except for three years during World War II, the Fighting Irish have traveled some 2,000 miles to Los Angeles or the Trojans have traveled a similar distance to the Midwest. Sperber, author of "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football, called the team's train travel west "a pilgrimage. The Fighting Irish train would go south to New Orleans, to Houston, across Arizona, to places with large Catholic populations, and when they came back they would go through San Francisco and Denver and take a long time at each of those stops. They were given parades and parties and it was an amazing journey."
The maturation of the rivalry, in many ways, matched the maturation of this country.
In the 1930s, Sperber said, "Notre Dame really liked going to the coast. They'd be feted by movie stars. Bing Crosby started coming to the games and he would throw a party and it was a great chance for Notre Dame to raise money. There were a lot of Hollywood movies and musicals made where USC and Notre Dame were featured prominently. It became a cultural thing as much as a sports rivalry."
But it's not the cultural significance that will draw 92,000 to the Coliseum Saturday.
It's the hope of seeing history as it happens, of seeing another magical game, a special play, a myth-making performance.
The first game in 1926 drew 74,378, then the most ever to see Notre Dame play. Afterward, Rockne called the 13-12 Irish win "the greatest game I ever saw."
USC got its first win against the Irish in 1928, 27-14, and Rockne wasn't happy. Notre Dame had conducted an open practice in Tucson and then a day later read about his plays in Los Angeles newspapers. "It serves me right to be nice to certain sportswriters," Rockne said after the loss.
USC's first two away games in the series -- at Chicago's Soldier Field in 1927 and 1929 -- drew crowds of 120,000 and 112,912, the largest ever to watch USC play and two of the three largest to watch Notre Dame.
When USC won at South Bend for the first time in 1931, rallying from a 14-0 deficit for a 16-14 win and ending a 26-game Notre Dame winning streak, the national champion Trojans were welcomed home by a parade through the streets of Los Angeles that drew 300,000.
Fertig, one of the heroes of the 1964 game for USC, said his father was so mad at him for taking a recruiting trip to Notre Dame that "he didn't speak to me for three days. He had given me a music box that played [the USC song] 'Fight On.' So after three days, he comes into my room. He didn't say good night or go to hell or anything. He just flipped up the top of that music box and on came 'Fight On.' I understood."
Last year, Fertig was in Chicago on the day before USC played at Notre Dame.
"I'm at lunch," Fertig said, "and two guys come up and say, 'You no good so and so,' and they're holding up a picture from the Los Angeles Times, 1964, and it's of Sherman catching that pass. It turns out they were friends of Carey, the guy who had fallen down. So I invited them to eat lunch with us and told them to call Carey. They did. He wouldn't come."
After each of his six touchdowns in USC's 45-23 win in 1972, Davis had done a little shake and shimmy end-zone dance.
A year later, when USC went to South Bend, Davis said, the deep meaning of the rivalry was obvious. Both teams were undefeated and emotions were high.
"We got off the bus," Davis said, "and I was hanging in effigy.... I saw pictures of me all over campus, taped to the ground, so the students could walk on my face." Notre Dame won the game, 23-14, and its ninth national title. .
But in 1974, in what Joe Doyle, a South Bend Tribune writer and student of Notre Dame history, called the greatest 17 minutes of football he had ever seen, Davis starred as USC scored 55 straight points and turned a 24-0 first-half deficit into a 55-24 win. Doyle, 82, said, "It was amazing football USC played. It wasn't that Notre Dame was turning the ball over or playing badly."
It was after that game that Ara Parseghian, who would soon announce he was quitting as Irish head coach, moaned that he was "damned tired" of seeing Traveler, USC's white steed, high-step it around the stadium track after each USC touchdown. "Could you blame me?" he said.
Doyle, who will be in the Coliseum Saturday, rattles off highlights as if he were reading scores on a newscast.
"In 1966, Notre Dame won 51-0 to win the national title. In 1970, both were good teams and there was a tremendous rainstorm at the Coliseum. It started in the second quarter when USC had a slight lead. But Joe Theismann went out and had a tremendous game. He threw 58 passes, completed 33 for 526 yards. USC won, 38-28, though."