The proverb "familiarity breeds contempt" wasn't created to describe the USC versus. UCLA rivalry, but it does explain its intensity. The nicknames both school's fans have for each other-FUCLA and the University of Spoiled Children-formed from nearly a century of intense competition.
The USC-UCLA rivalry is special because it takes place within the same city, within the same conference, often for the highest stakes: NCAA championships. Duke and UNC are just over 10 miles apart, but really only compete for NCAA Titles in basketball. Boston College and Boston University are barely 3 miles apart, but their major rivalry takes place in hockey, which is largely ignored outside of New England.
USC and UCLA are under 14 miles apart. A short (or long depending on the time of day) drive west on the Santa Monica Freeway, followed by a quick transfer north on the San Diego Freeway, and you've driven from USC to UCLA. In addition to their proximity, USC and UCLA go at each other in every sport for which they field a varsity team.
You're either a Bruin or a Trojan, you can't be both… but coaches and athletes can be both. Those who have been both a Bruin and a Trojan have had an experience that not many people can equal.
UCLA head baseball Coach John Savage, USC director of track and field Caryl Smith Gilbert and USC assistant track coach Joanna Hayes have all coached for or played for both schools. They understand better than anyone the details that make this rivalry so special.
The rivalry by the numbers
Overall, the flagship sports for each school-football for USC and basketball at UCLA-have racked up the most notable accolades. USC football has won 10 national championships while UCLA basketball has won 11.
UCLA is tied with Stanford for the most NCAA titles won in any sport with 113. USC is right behind with 104.
No single game illustrates the rivalry better than the 1967 football game between USC ranked fourth in the nation, and UCLA ranked first in the nation at the time. In that game, the city championship, Pac-8 championship and a birth into the Rose Bowl, which would likely decide the national champion, was at stake. The game would also likely decide who would win the Heisman Trophy, UCLA's quarterback, Gary Beban or USC's running back, O.J. Simpson. That game is approaching its 50th anniversary.
Both schools also have a strong Olympic legacy. Since 1904, 451 athletes have attended USC, either before, during or after their Olympic appearances: USC's Olympic athletes have accumulated 309 medals, and if USC had been a country competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics, they would have placed eighth in gold medals and 11th overall.
UCLA athletes have earned 261 medals, 133 of which have been gold. Olympic heroes Jackie Joyner-Kersee (track and field) and Karch Kiraly (men's volleyball) competed for UCLA, while recent Olympians Allyson Felix (track and field) and April Ross (women's volleyball) competed for the Trojans.
Academically, UCLA has historically been ranked higher than USC, by the people who compare them professionally. However, in 2016, USC was ranked 23rd in U.S. News and World Report's "Best College Rankings," while UCLA was 24th. This year, in their "Best National University" rankings, the schools are tied at no. 21.
For a rivalry so intense, it's hard to imagine that one person could be a significant part of both schools' histories, but surprisingly it has happened.
Rivalry on the run
As an athlete, Caryl Smith Gilbert had Olympic dreams. She was a promising young sprinter from Denver, when she won the silver medal in the 100 meters at the 1986 World Junior Championships.
Entering UCLA, the Olympic team was within reach.
By the time her college career had ended, however, her hopes had not been realized. Saddled by injuries, Smith Gilbert never reached the Olympics. In an interview with the Orange County Register Smith Gilbert said, "It was a big disappointment, college was, and it didn't go the way I predicted it to go. Like most young people you think you've got your whole life planned out, and if it doesn't go exactly according to that plan, you don't know what to do."
She found her way quickly, as a coach, however, working on the coaching staffs at Penn State, Alabama and Tennessee before eventually leading the track program at the University of Central Florida. In 2013, USC chose her as Director of Track and Field.
For Smith Gilbert, coming back to Los Angeles to lead the program at USC was the logical next step in her career, and returning to the rivalry was a big motivator. She fondly remembers her years competing in the dual meets between USC and UCLA. "It was who owned L.A., who ran L.A. You got bragging rights for the year and the winner gets to run a victory lap on the loser's track." When she returned to Los Angeles to coach at USC, her past as a UCLA athlete did go through her mind. "It was a little strange the first time because I used to be on the other end of the rivalry," Smith Gilbert said.
In addition, the dual meet falls near the end of the track season, when the athletes are in top shape and the stakes are at their highest. This gives them their best chance at qualifying for the NCAA West Region championship.
Another important aspect of the rivalry is recruiting, according to Smith Gilbert. Since UCLA is a public university and USC is private, recruiting against UCLA can be an uphill battle. "It's tough with us because we have 12 scholarships for men and 18 for women, and they are pretty much full scholarships because of the cost of tuition," Smith Gilbert said. "UCLA can break their scholarships up so they have higher numbers than we do."
Athletes at UCLA are eligible for state financial aid. This enables UCLA to devote a lower amount of money set aside for "athletic scholarships" to each track athlete, yet still cover the athlete's tuition because the state financial aid can make up the difference. For USC, the rules are more strict.
"If one of our athletes receives aid from USC like academic scholarship or need-based aid, the whole thing still counts against the athletic scholarships, because it's counted as coming from USC," Smith Gilbert said.
In spite of this difference, USC has maintained a high level of competitiveness against UCLA. The USC women have beaten UCLA every year since Smith Gilbert took over, while the men won in 2015.
For Smith Gilbert, the best part of the rivalry is the tradition. "They are both very decorated programs in track and field, they both care very much about track and field. There are several Olympians, world champions, NCAA champions of track and field on both sides, and it is just kind of like a clash of the Titans," Smith Gilbert said.
In July 2016, Smith Gilbert added another former Bruin to the track and field coaching staff. Joanna Hayes was working as an assistant coach at UCLA when Smith Gilbert hired her to be an assistant at USC. "It was a little weird, because I didn't know what to expect for sure. I spent 20 years having to hate USC, it was engrained in me, I'm a Bruin, we don't do this," said Hayes. It did not take Hayes long to realize that coaching for USC was a great opportunity for her, but she felt welcomed even more by a picture that hung in the USC track offices. That picture brought her back to one of her biggest moments in the rivalry.
During her final dual meet against USC, Hayes was racing her rival, USC sprinter Tasha Danvers, in the 400-meter hurdles. The race came down to the wire. Danvers finished with a time of 56:03 losing out to Hayes who won with a time of 56:02. A picture of Hayes and Danvers during that race hangs right behind the spot where Hayes sits during USC coach's meetings.
"It's funny because all of these years later, I'm here. It's just funny how things work out" said Hayes. "It was just really fun to be part of the other side, so now I can say you know what, I was a Bruin. I ran hard, I coached hard, I won hard as a Bruin and now as I Trojan, same thing. I coach hard, win hard. I love the feeling of being in it."
Hayes and Danvers continued their rivalry outside of college. Hayes won an Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter hurdles at the 2004 Athens Games. Danvers won the bronze medal in the 400 meter hurdles in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Though they never battled in the same Olympics, they did compete in the 2003 World Championships.
Neither athlete had the performance they hoped for. Hayes finishing sixth with a time of 55.35 while Danvers finished only 0.13 seconds behind her. Hayes and Danvers found each other after the race.
"There's this picture of us after the race, and we were just leaning on each other hugging," Hayes said. "The fact that we were on different sides for so long, different schools. We had the rivalry, but when it came down to it, we were just two athletes trying to make it in the sport and we had each other's back."
The view from both dugouts: A coach with a unique resume
UCLA head baseball coach John Savage fondly recalls his earliest experiences with the storied rivalry. The memory of UCLA's offensive abilities back then still amazes him. "They were an offensive juggernaut, really. You had Chase Utley, you had Eric Valent, you had Eric Byrnes, you had Troy Glaus," Savage said. "I had Chase Utley and Garrett Atkins nightmares. Those guys could really hit."
Savage had those nightmares because, at the time, he was USC's pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. In spite of the Bruins offensive abilities, Savage and the USC Trojans were more successful. Thanks to a sturdy pitching staff led by aces Seth Etherton and ace Rik Currier, the Trojans won the 1998 College World Series. During that season, Savage won 1998 assistant coach of the year.
Following the 2000 season, Savage left USC to take the head coaching position at UC Irvine. After a successful stint there, he was hired as head coach of UCLA in 2004. Savage used his experience at USC to learn from legendary head coach Mike Gillespie, "…just his game management ability was something that really stuck out with me. Thinking ahead. Pitches ahead, hitters ahead, innings ahead, it was just a unique talent," Savage said. "It just helped me tremendously being a little bit more well-rounded, both on the offensive side, the defensive side and the pitching side, being around Coach Gillespie." For Savage coaching his first game against USC as the UCLA head coach felt unique, in large part due to the lessons he learned from Coach Gillespie.
(Video created by Mindy Castillo)
Savage says a unique part about the rivalry is the fact that both schools are located in such a baseball-rich area. "It's in the hotbed of baseball. It's in the hotbed of college baseball," Savage said. "Growing up they want to go to USC, they want to go to UCLA. I don't think you get that in very many other places in the country."
The two teams have spun this epic rivalry into a special event held at Dodger Stadium called the Dodgertown Classic. Each year, premier college baseball teams come to Los Angeles to compete in the classic, which culminates in a game between USC and UCLA. "The experience of those kids playing against each other, playing for their schools and you've got both bands playing, you have cheerleaders there, you've got all red and gold and the Bruin blue," said Savage. "It's very special for those players to be able to play at Dodger stadium in their respective uniforms against each other."
When asked about a particular match-up that stands out during his time within the rivalry, Savage looks back to his early years with USC. "I remember the Zito-Utley matchups. Those were epic matchups. Zito was one of the few guys who could get Utley out because he was left-handed and had such a good curveball. But those were epic," Savage said.
The common theme shared by Savage and Smith Gilbert is the tradition in their respective sports. That is perhaps the greatest strength of the rivalry between USC and UCLA. Some rivalries, like the one between Harvard and Yale, may have existed for longer. Others like Michigan and Ohio State might get bigger headlines. However, no other college rivalry has the comprehensive championship tradition and turf wars component like the one between USC and UCLA.