After enjoying 111,000 of our closest friends at the Big House in Ann Arbor, we had the pleasure of the company of 90,000 screaming fans in the place you could drop the Big House into: The LA Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans. The Coliseum was build for USC football in the 1920s, and improved for the 1932 Olympics, and recently the 1984 Olympics (noteworthy for turning a profit). It has been used for pro football, pro baseball, and a variety of events in between. Sitting on the 50-yard line, with waitress service - ok, it is still only for hot dogs, popcorn and peanuts - is quite the experience. It is a hall of champions, and a new one was borne on a Saturday in October.
The stadium's history is a reflection of the University itself. LA lost both its pro football teams for lack of a modern arena. The Coliseum can hold the fans but lacks the luxury boxes, the closeness to the field, and the selection of concessions for the modern fan. Forget the hot dogs - where is the Thai Chicken Pizza, the Sushi boats, the Fajitas - the bratwurst of the modern pro stadium? The stadium is due to be rebuilt,a $500M project that may be coupled with LA bidding for yet another Olympics. But what they really want is a pro football team.
Similarly, the University has needed an upgrade, and began the process 10 years ago. No longer the University of Spoiled Children, it now ranks in the Top 20 of US Universities. It raised a remarkable $6B in a recent capital campaign. It is deeply tied into The Business - the entertainment industry that swirls through the LA basin and out to the world. It's alumni are very loyal. As they say, when you join the Trojan Family, you are a Trojan for life, whereas you are a Bruin (the local rival, UCLA) for only 4 years, or make that 5 or 6, until you graduate. Being part of the Trojan Family via two daughters at USC, we see what they mean! It even includes invites to the President's Box on the 50-yard line.
The renaissance of USC came with a brave decision, to stay at the current location. They had the opportunity to pull up and move to a suburb, taking over a failing college. USC's campus sits near downtown LA just above Watts, a notorious ghetto ripped apart with riots in the '60s. Viewing themselves as more than an Ivory Tower, but integral to the surrounding community, they stayed. A decision worthy of a home for champions.
For parents with two daughters, how do we feel? It turns out that USC is one of the safer Universities on the West Coast. Knowing their position is at risk, they take steps to police the campus and surrounds. It helps as well that the massive Coliseum sits between the campus and Watts, creating a natural if somewhat porous barrier. Like the rebirth of NYC in the '90s, USC takes the role of uplifting the neighborhood, as well as supporting The Business in LA.
The game we saw was a wayspot on USC's march to an unprecedented third national football championship in a row. Their quarterback, Matt Leinhart, won the highest honor last year (the Heisman Trophy for best college football player) and could have gone pro, but stayed one more year to make history with the "Threepeat". The team was looking past that game to the big showdown that happened yesterday, with Notre Dame. The 'line' in Vegas was that USC would win by five touchdowns. (For those who don't know the line, it reflects were the bets balance, based on point spread between winner and loser. Usually it is accurate, although sometimes a big-city team has excessive biased enthusiasts on their side, so you take the other way.) That game felt closer than it turned out - USC only won by three touchdowns. The game with Notre Dame was a whole different matter.
We could have gone to yesterday's Notre Dame-USC game, in South Bend Indiana, the home of the College Football Hall of Fame. Perhaps we should have - it was a spectacular contest. It was back and forth most of the game. USC drove down and scored, taking the lead with around 5 minutes left. Notre Dame came back and went ahead with 2 minutes left, and seemed poised to pull off one of the biggest upsets in years. (Notre Dame has a tradition of upending a #1 team.) They had USC on a fourth and 9 from deep in their own territory. The crowd was so loud it pummeled the players with a wall of sound.
There are times which test a true champion. Teddy Roosevelt said that the "highest form of success ... comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph." The champion wants to be in the ring, in the contest. Teddy said it even more emphatically later: "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." Matt Leinhart was very much in the arena, and this was his moment.
He called an audible, despite the roar of the crowd, changing the play at the line. He threw the perfect pass, bypassing the perfect defense, for a 60 yard gain. A few plays later he was poised to score. He ran it in, but got stopped at the goal line. The seconds ticked off the clock. Out of timeouts, USC could not stop the clock. The undefeated season sank as the clock ticked to zero. The crowd went wild, and ran onto the field. Notre Dame had pulled the upset! The #1 Team was toppled! Pandemonium! But wait, but wait ... it turns out that when he got stopped, the defender had hit the ball and it had flown out of bounds. An automatic stoppage of the clock! A second chance! What luck! With 7 seconds left, they lined up again. With a spike of the ball, they could set up a field goal and tie the game, going into overtime. The coach signaled spike. The QB told his team to be ready for the spike. What would a champion do?
What a marvelous game is college football! Every game, every moment, can create a new hero, test a new champion. The night before the USC game, Notre Dame brought out the big guns - champions and heroes from the past. Joe Montana, with four SuperBowl rings. The green jerseys, worn the last time USC was upset by a Notre Dame team. And the original Rudi of the movie "Rudi", an improbable hero who won his mettle on the practice squad, and for one glorious moment got to play in a game. Heroes all.
The championship moment happens at levels of play. When we last left Michigan, it had lost to Notre Dame and fallen from the top teams in the country. On this day that tested Matt Leinhart, the Michigan QB, Chad Henne, had his Championship Moment. Playing the spoiler to Penn State, one of the few undefeated teams left, Chad stood on the 10 yard line, fourth down, with a mere second left on the clock. In another improbable College Football Moment, he threw a touchdown and won the game.
What would a champion do? Take the safe path, or risk it all on one throw of the dice? Matt had his second Championship Moment. He crossed his Rubicon. In another improbable ending, instead of spiking the ball, he slipped off the left side and rumbled & stumbled into the endzone. USC won. The season saved. The Threepeat still ahead. History awaits the champion.
It was one of those games that no one lost, but one team had to win. It happens every Saturday.