Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly gestures from the sideline during a game against Toledo in South Bend, Ind., Sept. 11. (AJ Mast / Associated Press)
The idea that Brian Kelly would leave Notre Dame to take the USC football coaching job is like the idea that, say 30 years ago, Tommy Lasorda would leave the Dodgers to manage the Giants.
Or like Aaron Rodgers deciding to quarterback the Bears. (Why would he? He owns them).
The Kelly-to-USC thing is innocent enough and was mostly part of the never-ending chatter and speculation that drives sports media these days. Rick Neuheisel, former UCLA coach, was among a group of experts interviewed recently by The Times about USC job prospects. Neuheisel said that Kelly might be a good choice to pursue because, among other things, he has pretty much accomplished everything he needs to with the Irish, especially when he recently topped Knute Rockne’s record of wins.
Neuheisel’s premise is flawed. Kelly HAS NOT accomplished everything at Notre Dame. Ever hear of a national championship, Rick?
Kelly is not without his detractors among Notre Dame fans. Legend has it that Rockne invented the forward pass. This year, Kelly has invented the quarterback shuffle. He would make Abbott and Costello proud.
Abbott and Costello: Who’s on First. What’s on Second.
Kelly: Why is taking the snaps. What is taking over. When is next.
Notre Dame vs. USC is a great rivalry. To the fans and graduates of each school, there is no comparison. The late, gruff USC assistant coach Marv Goux used to sniff at his team’s rivalry with UCLA and tell his linemen that the real test would be Notre Dame. “Big man against big man,” he would snarl.
Saturday in South Bend won’t be just another football game. Never is. Never will be. It is a rivalry that pretends to encourage hate, but really doesn’t. Call it deep dislike that is kept civil. You hate to lose to USC, but you respect the fact that it is USC and quickly find out the date of next year’s game. Same for USC fans. Losing to Notre Dame starts a quick countdown to next year.
Notre Dame and USC have always attracted wonderful characters. Among them was Lou Holtz, a skinny little guy with a one-liner for every occasion. Plus, he won a lot. Also, Ara Parseghian, who was too genuinely nice and decent to be a college football coach. Plus, he won a lot.
But the Trojans had the best in John McKay, who, sadly like Goux and Parseghian, is no longer with us. McKay was Johnny-Carson quick with a quip. The 1966 game, won by Notre Dame 51-0, brought McKay’s directions to his team in the locker room afterward: “Take a shower, if you need one.” He was also a master at con-job inspiration, telling reporters and his team before the 1964 game against an unbeaten Fighting Irish team, “I have studied the game film and have come to the conclusion that there is no way we can beat Notre Dame.”
USC beat Notre Dame 20-17.
To be part of this annual rivalry, a tug-and-pull of emotions for those millions who care and cherish how much they care, is a testimonial to the narrow difference between sanity and insanity. To switch allegiances would be insanity. Presumably, Kelly knows this.
Once upon a time, a young journalist became sports editor of this paper. His horrible secret was revealed in a short story in the paper about his background. It said he had graduated from Notre Dame. The news was immediately greeted with indignation, angry phone calls and dozens of hand-delivered letters to his desk, all saying basically the same thing: “We hate this and we are watching you.”
Shortly after this Domer kid’s arrival at The Times, Notre Dame was about to play USC at the Coliseum. A lovable and devious man named Mal Florence, who was a Trojan covering the Trojans beat for the paper, hired a portion of the USC band to serenade the newcomer. On a quiet afternoon, they marched the entire length of the newsroom of the staid Times, following some Trojan cheerleaders and playing “Conquest” at full volume, until they reached the new sports editor’s office. There they danced and played and presented him with Trojan-themed gifts. He had been had. It was a perfect, nasty, creative, loving, stick-it-to-the-Irish gesture. He was insulted and flattered.
For reasons still inexplicable, Florence kept his job. The Domer kid survived 35 years at the paper, where he actually started liking some Trojans. But they never stopped watching him.
Normal people remember exactly where they were when they learned that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, or that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down on that hotel balcony. Real Notre Dame fans remember where they were when defensive back Tony Carey slipped and Craig Fertig hit Rod Sherman with the touchdown pass that deprived the Fighting Irish of a national title in ‘64. They remember Michael Harper’s last-second touchdown leap into the end zone for the Trojans that provided a 17-13 victory in the Coliseum in 1982, a victory gained despite the fact that, while Harper made it over the pile and into the end zone, the football never did. It rested nicely, for dozens of photographers to capture, on the ground around the 1-yard line.
Then, of course, there was the Bush Push, Reggie illegally shoving Matt Leinart across the goal line in Notre Dame Stadium to win on the last play of the game in 2005. That’s legal now; wasn’t then.
A revered sportswriter at The Times, who also happened to have matriculated at USC, had a special summary for these occasions. Harley Tinkham would find the first Notre Dame fan he could and say, “Beating you is always so much better when we screw you, too.”
USC fans have their similar list of “we got screwed” moments. It is part of the never-ending love-hate, joy-misery, fun-disgust existence of fans of the Irish and Trojans.
One suspects that, if he is asked about this — and he will be — Kelly will say he is only interested in beating USC, not coaching them. Prominent alumni, while still grumbling about that loss to Cincinnati, see a move to USC as a form of betrayal. Some of their thoughts:
Tim Ryan, longtime network broadcaster soon to be elected into the Hall of Fame: “Kelly in Hollywood? I don’t think so.”
Jim Hayden, Los Angeles playwright and author of the book “The Pluck of the Irish,” cites the words of Parseghian when job rumors circulated about him: “Where is there to go after Notre Dame?”
George Blaha, voice of the Detroit Pistons since 1976 and also longtime voice of Michigan State football: “So, you are telling me that the guy who just broke Rockne’s record might go to the other side of the rivalry? Where do people get this stuff?”
Bill Dwyre is a former sports editor of the Times and a 1966 graduate of Notre Dame.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.