The return of John Robinson at Southern California in 1993 did dTC not lack for chutzpah.
It was splashed across the billboard sign that towered over one of Los Angeles' many freeways. The billboard sign that predicted a victory over Notre Dame, even though USC's fabled football program was in disarray at the time and Robinson had just signed on for his second term as coach.
Two years, one loss and one tie later, Robinson still is trying to live it down.
"That was put together by our marketing people," Robinson said this week. "I didn't put that billboard up. When I saw it, I said, 'Oh, my god, what are they doing?' What we intended to do was say Notre Dame plays championship football, and that was the standard we wanted to put ourselves against. It was done with the utmost respect for Notre Dame."
Then, wistfully, he conceded the obvious: "The billboard was not one of the smartest things we did."
Southern Cal's fifth-ranked Trojans (6-0) try to make good on the promise again tomorrow when they tangle with No. 17 Notre Dame (5-2) in South Bend, Ind.
As if their pursuit of the national championship weren't enough, the Trojans bring additional baggage to this storied intersectional rivalry. They have not beaten Notre Dame in the past 12 games -- not since 1982, when Robinson was finishing his first term at USC.
But it's not so much the streak that motivates USC, All-America wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson was saying, as the aura of the opponent.
"That's been my focus this week," Johnson said. "Don't tell anybody I haven't been going to class much this week. . . . I don't think it's the streak, it's just beating Notre Dame."
For Johnson, a big game at Notre Dame Stadium could validate his Heisman Trophy credentials. Although the 6-foot-4, 210-pound senior set an NCAA record this season with his 12th consecutive game with 100 yards or more in receptions, he is not seen on Eastern television as often as, say, Ohio State tailback Eddie George or Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel.
"As far as the Heisman goes, this is a game where I could possibly emerge," Johnson said. "George gets the ball 30 times a game, Wuerffel what, 80 times? If I play the way I've been playing all year long, everyone will respect the fact I'm not a kick returner, and that I've done my job."
Johnson, a one-time ball boy at USC, is fourth in the nation in receiving yards with 120.8 a game. Of his 52 catches, four have gone for touchdowns, 36 for first downs.
"He changes the game just by being out there on the field," said Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz.
Still, USC is not a one-man team. Neither is it a one-quarterback team, for that matter. The Trojans use two.
Junior Brad Otton (982 yards, eight TDs) plays the first and third quarters. Senior Kyle Wachholtz (618 yards, seven TDs) gets the second and fourth. When Otton threw an interception in last week's 26-14 victory over Washington State, it was the first one by either quarterback.
Robinson set up the rotation to have Wachholtz, with the stronger arm, in the game in the fourth quarter for a prospective comeback. But USC has trailed only once this season -- in the second quarter against Cal -- and Wachholtz often has had to sit on the ball.
On defense, the Trojans smother the opposition. Led by 6-foot-4, 320-pound tackle Darrell Russell, they give up only 9.5 points and 81.2 rushing yards a game. Of Russell's 19 tackles, 11 have been for losses.
USC is not without adversity, though. The Trojans are missing three tailbacks -- two to injury and another, Shawn Walters, their leading rusher the last two years, to an NCAA investigation.
Walters is one of three players who've had to sit out while the NCAA investigates alleged improper contact with an agent. The NCAA handed defensive end Israel Ifeanyi a four-game suspension this week. Johnson also was investigated on a similar charge, but Robinson doesn't expect it to stick.
Meanwhile, Holtz calls this the best USC team he's seen in his 10 years at Notre Dame. That's why he discounts the streak in tomorrow's game.
"Other than motivate them and maybe a little confidence for us, I don't think it will affect the game," he said.
Robinson, then, may finally be in position to deliver on that 1993 billboard prediction.
"Two years ago, when I went back there [to Notre Dame], I looked at their team and our team and said, 'Uh, oh, this is a mismatch,' " he said.
"[But] our program has improved since then. Now I think it's an even game. And I think it'll be even, at least for a few years."