UCLA-USC friction goes beyond football
No matter the playing field, the Bruins and Trojans kick up the heat for their crosstown matchups, where the competition can turn into 'a real zoo.'
Lexus sponsors a trophy recognizing the annual champion in USC-UCLA head-to-head matchups. (Lexus)
Trojans football players, often creeping within five feet of the UCLA service line, cheered in their own special way.
"When our servers would go back, football players would be pulling hairs out of their legs, and there was beer everywhere. The guys were pretty loaded," longtime UCLA Coach Al Scates recalled. "It was a real zoo. We used to have some real battles in that gym. It was probably the most satisfying place to win."
Almost nothing, it seems, can induce fulfillment for a Bruin like a victory over USC, regardless of the sport. People who think that USC-UCLA matters only in football are out of their cardinal-and-gold or powder-blue minds.
The schools' athletic programs recruit from essentially the same pool of high school prospects, many of whom grew up in Southern California competing against one another from childhood. The recruits feed Trojans and Bruins teams that vie for national championships in a variety of sports -- often against each other.
"It's very difficult to live in L.A. and not really feel the rivalry," said Jovan Vavic, the USC men's and women's water polo coach whose women's team lost a national title game to the Bruins in 2006 on a last-second shot. "There's nothing like it, really."
Like all great rivalries, UCLA-USC has been a back-and-forth affair since the schools first met in a major sport in the spring of 1920, when the Bruins -- then known as the Southern Branch Cubs -- knocked off the Trojans in baseball, 7-6, at Exposition Park.
Since 2001, the Trojans and Bruins have split the six Lexus Gauntlet competitions that award points for victories in head-to-head competitions between the schools in all sports. Going back further, UCLA leads in eight of the 15 men's and women's sports for which head-to-head series records are available, but USC leads, 767-747-9, in all-time contests on the strength of its 246-113 advantage in baseball.
Scates and the Bruins have had plenty of success in the rivalry over the years, winning 85 matches and losing only 31. UCLA has defeated USC in the NCAA title match in three of four meetings, but the one loss to the Trojans, in 1980, stung particularly deep. Bruins star Karch Kiraly punted the ball into the klieg lights in frustration and was going for a chair, Scates recalled, when the coach had to restrain him.
"He took it pretty hard," Scates said of Kiraly, who would go on to win three national titles with the Bruins and become possibly the greatest beach volleyball player of all time.
The Bruins and Trojans are among an elite class of programs in many sports. In men's water polo, the schools typically battle Stanford and California for national supremacy. The UCLA and USC men's volleyball teams met in the national title game in 1979, 1980, 1981 and 1987.
Scates estimates that between them, the UCLA and USC men's volleyball programs "put enough players on the Olympic team to get gold medals in 1984 and 1988."
"Usually when we play, both teams are in the top three or four, and that game makes a difference in the rankings," said Vavic, the USC men's and women's water polo coach.
Many USC and UCLA athletes grew up as teammates instead of rivals. Scott Swanson, a sophomore driver on the UCLA men's water polo team, played on a Long Beach Wilson High team that included two future Trojans.
"You're friends after it's all over," Swanson said of his relationship with his former teammates. "Once it's in the water, it's all business."
Keith Wilkinson, a junior on the USC men's basketball team, played alongside and against UCLA players Michael Roll and James Keefe as a teenager in Orange County. That makes it all the more enjoyable for Wilkinson when the Trojans beat the Bruins.
"It's always fun to talk trash against those guys when you win," said Wilkinson, whose Trojans are 1-3 against the Bruins since his arrival. "You kind of have the bragging rights."
Boasting has become easier -- and perhaps more obnoxious -- with the advent of text messaging, but longtime UCLA women's volleyball Coach Andy Banachowski suggested that the new technology may have added congeniality to the rivalry.
"It's as intense as ever, but it's a little more friendly than it used to be with the kids always communicating," Banachowski said.