U.S.C, NOTRE DAME DOMINATE COLLEGE FOOTBALL, SPORTS HISTORY
by Steven Travers
American Reporter Correspondent
Los Angeles, Calif.
LOS ANGELES -- The 2004 college football season starts this month, and all indications are that Pete Carroll and his University of Southern California Trojans are poised to become the greatest collegiate team of all time.
The defending co-National Champions have a dynasty on their hands. They could very possibly win two or three National Championships in a row, possibly even challenge Oklahoma's 57-game winning streak of the 1950s. U.S.C quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 before becoming the NFL's number one draft choice. This season, Matt Leinart is the favorite to win the Heisman, and very likely go number one to the pros in 2005. His top competition for the Heisman and number one selection? All-American wide receiver and teammate Mike Williams, who will soon have his NCAA eligibility reinstated. This is a condition unseen since Army's "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside" - Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis - won back-to-back statues in 1944-45.
In case that is not enough, U.S.C's Matt Grootegooed is competing for the Butkus Award, Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson are both up for the Lombardi Award, kicker Ryan Killeen is a Lou Groza Award candidate, while punter Tom Malone will be a Ray Guy finalist.
Coach of the Year? Last year it was Carroll, and he just may repeat the trick. The 2004 All-American teams are going to look like the Trojans' roster. Next year's draft will be an SC highlight film. But wait, there's more.
SC is Tailback U. again with not one but three of the best running backs in America - LenDale White, Reggie Bush and Hershel Dennis. Out of these horses will emerge All-Americans, more Heisman contenders and first round draft picks. None of them is even a senior yet. Two of them are still underclassmen.
Have I left out the fact that U.S.C's last two recruiting classes were ranked number one in America, and the 2004 crop is thought to be the best in history? Not since the 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers has a team entered the season with so many highlights. Therein lies the problem.
When a team is this good, watch not just for an undefeated season and a National Championship, but watch out for college kids reading their press clippings and being shot at from all sides by a nation of teams out to beat them.
It happened to the Cornhuskers when their dream season was upended by Miami in the 1984 Orange Bowl. It takes very little to knock a team down, just a little bit but enough, from such lofty perches.
In 1979, U.S.C entered the season as the consensus number one. Experts were saying that team, like this year's team, could contend for the title "greatest college football team ever." They were the defending co-National Champions and heralded that season's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles White, along with other stalwarts like Anthony Munoz. Not quite mid-way into the season, they took on Stanford at the Coliseum.
At halftime the Trojans led 21-0 en route to another stomping. In the second half, freshman quarterback John Elway directed the Cardinal to three touchdowns, SC's offense stalled, and that 21-21 tie (before the advent of overtime) was just enough to deny them the national title along with the "greatest ever" label.
Last year, Oklahoma entered the fray with credentials almost as gaudy as this year's Trojans. They lived up to the hype, too, until the Big 12 title game and the Sugar Bowl showed them to be all-too-human.
Unlike the NFL, a single loss (or tie) can upset the apple cart. U.S.C is the hottest ticket in America's hottest town, the toast of Hollywood, the biggest thing in a media hothouse. They set the all-time U.S.C attendance record in 2003 and will likely break that in 2004. For 20-year old student-athletes, this is a major challenge.
Nevertheless, it is fun to talk about, and at SC, a school that went through a long (13 years or 20 years, depending on your standards) down period, it is especially fun. Their fans are about as giddy as the Republicans when Dwight Eisenhower saved that party after 20 years of the New Deal in 1952.
Since Southern California has made such a triumphant return astride the c ollegiate football stage, and in light of the fact that we are still in the early stages of the 20th Century, it is worth taking another look at their historical place in the New Millennium.
Below is the All-Time College Football Top 25 rankings, followed by the Top 20 Greatest Single-Season teams in college football history. I listed the greatest college football teams chronologically; the best team for each decade; the best single-season team each decade, followed by great programs in back-to-back, three-year, five-year, 10/15-year and 20/25-year periods.
Below, I also list the most prominent dynasties and the coaches behind them, and for good measure list the Top 25 Collegiate Athletic Programs of All-Time, the Top College Basketball Programs, and the Top 20 College Baseball Programs ever.
It is subjective and opinionated. It is meant to stir debate, controversy and argument. It is not written in stone. However, it is not the ramblings of somebody who knows not what he talks about. I am a college sports historian and as eligible to compile these lists as anybody else.
Let me say that I have given extra credit to the more modern powers. I believe that Miami's success in the 1980s is more impressive than Cal's "Wonder Teams" after World War I. Oklahoma's current run, in my personal view, is more impressive than the one they accomplished in the 1950s.
The game has changed. Competition, money, television, scholarship limits, NCAA rules, recruiting violations and parity all play a part in this evaluation. To the extent that I believe the so-called "modern era" began, I trace it to 1960, which is subjective, yes, but as good an embarkation point as any. It was in the 1960s when the players starting getting bigger, the equipment up to speed, the coaching techniques improved, and the color of the player's skin became increasingly something other than white.
Based upon history, one is increasingly impressed with U.S.C. Overall, Notre Dame ranks as the greatest college football program of all time. They have the most National Championships, the most Heisman Trophy winners, hold a solid 42-28-5 lead over the Trojans in their inter-sectional rivalry, and trace their glory days back to when Knute Rockne invented the forward pass in time to beat favored Army in 1913.
Notre Dame was the best college team under Rockne in the decade of the 1920s and under Frank Leahy in the 1940s. They had another major "era of Ara" (Parseghian) in the 1960s and '70s, and are listed among the top two-year dynasties (1946-47), 5-year dynasties (1943-47, 1973-77) and have three dynasties that are included among the 10/15-year period.
Furthermore, they are Notre Dame, and all that that stands for: "Win one for the Gipper," the Catholic Church, "Touchdown Jesus," Ronald Reagan, "Rudy," "subway alumni," the Four Horsemen outlined against a blue-gray October sky, "wake up the echoes..."
Notre Dame's fans are the most intense and loyal. They are the team that played in Yankee Stadium, in Soldier Field, at the Coliseum against SC. Their tradition is the best and the oldest. They are number one.
For decades, the number two team was Southern California. This was not a coincidence. No rivalry in sports (or politics or war, probably) has done so much to elevate both sides as the U.S.C-Notre Dame tradition. It put both schools on the national map. It pits, as SC assistant coach Marv Goux put it, "the best of the East vs. the best of the West." It matches the Catholic school with their Midwestern values against the flash 'n' dazzle of Hollywood, and it has never failed to live up to expectations.
Beginning in 1983, however, U.S.C started to go on a downslide. They lost to the Irish every year from 1983-95. They started losing to cross-town rival UCLA in the 1980s and seven more times in a row from 1991-98. The Trojans' historical record began to slip. They lost their spot as the winningest bowl team to Alabama. Their all-time winning percentage slipped. Miami and Florida State ascended to the top. Nebraska left them in the dust.
Notre Dame stayed at or near the top throughout the Lou Holtz era. Programs like Alabama and Oklahoma had, like SC, dropped, but regained their footing. Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and other teams, many in the South, rose in prominence. This was a direct result of integration and its impact has been very positive, but a school like Southern California could no longer lay claim to black athletes that were spurned by the SEC or the Southwestern Conference.
SC also lost major recruits to Pac-10 rivals like UCLA and Washington, not to mention Notre Dame and, in the 1990s, the Florida schools. Their "Tailback U." tradition was a joke, derided by enemies as "Yesterday U." Despite the fact that the greatest high school athletes in the world matriculate in massive numbers within 75 miles of the campus, they no longer had a hold on them.
The school began to win awards and recognition for its academic excellence, and it became an article of faith that this was the trade-off; great football teams and great students are not mutually compatible. All of it was B.S. Pete Carroll proved that.
Five years ago, a Top 25 listing of the Greatest College Football Programs of All-Time would have shown U.S.C to have slipped. However, in light of their National Championship last year and favored status to repeat this year, Troy is now back to its second place status, poised to assault Notre Dame for the top spot in the next 10 to 15 years.
Long dynasties are hard to come by in college football, but as the following lists show, SC has a long history of doing just that. It is for this reason, combined with the glow of being Notre Dame's biggest rival, its great inter-city tradition with UCLA, and a history that goes back farther than almost any program (Michigan and Notre Dame are the only schools that go back as far and are still powers) that Southern California is not just second all-time in football but first among all athletic programs (and first by a wide margin in baseball).
The Greatest College Football Team in history is generally considered to be John McKay's 1972 Trojans. In addition, SC claims the best single-season team in the 1920s (1928) and '30s (1931). They are considered the best team of the decade of the 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and now the 2000s.
Further proof of SC's ability to maintain a tradition is their consistency. The top dynasty period in history was the John McKay/John Robinson era lasting from the early 1960s until the 1980s. The Howard Jones "Thundering Herd" teams of the 1920s and '30s also ranks highly. Among the best three-year periods ever, none is better than SC's run from 1972-74. Among 5/6-year periods, consider three of Troy's eras (1967-72, the best of anybody, followed by 1974-79 and 1928-32).
The best 10/15-year period? U.S.C from 1967 to 1979, but that is not all. Also ranked is the period 1962-72 and 1928-39. Among great long-term dynasties (20/25 years), nobody beats Southern California from 1962-81, when they won five National Championships and four Heisman Trophies. The Trojans easily have the most professionals, the most first round draft picks, the most Hall of Famers, the most Pro Bowlers and the most All-Americans. They are, undisputably, a football factory. The empirical evidence cannot be argued against.
On top of all this, U.S.C counts the most Major League baseball players, the most baseball Hall of Famers, the most All-Stars and various dominant players. Despite not being known for basketball, a disproportianate number of Trojans from the 1940s and '50s are considered hoops pioneers. The "triangle offense" was invented at SC, and such stalwarts as Bill Sharman, Alex Hannum and Tex Winter played together before induction in Springfield. U.S.C also boasts the most Olympians, the most Olympic champions, and if they had been a country in 1976, they would have placed third in total medals at the Montreal Games.
Alabama fans certainly would argue against Trojan hegemony, and they have plenty of ammunition. They were a national power as far back as the 1930s when Don Hutson starred there. However, they slipped until the Bear Bryant era.
Bryant's dominant period, lasting from 1961 to 1979, parallels McKay's and is as impressive as any ever. However, the Tide was all-white until SC's Sam "Bam" Cunningham showed them, in Bear's own words, "what a football player looks like" in 1970. After SC's 42-21 victory at Birmingham, L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray welcomed 'Bama "back into the Union."
The Crimson Tide experienced a down period after Bear departed, regained its place with the 1992 national title, but inexplicably fell from grace for another decade after that. Their recent embarrassment in hiring Mike Price only to fire him for cavorting with strippers is indicative of their malaise.
Oklahoma's teams in the 1950s dominated as thoroughly as any in history, but that is a long time ago. They were not a major power prior to that decade. The Chuck Fairbanks/Barry Switzer teams of the 1970s and '80s were as impressive as any that have ever taken the field, but they became downright mediocre after Brian Bozworth's departure. Bob Stoops, however, has them right back where they were before, and then some.
Miami is number five based purely on unreal dominance in the 1980s and for maintaining an 18-year run from 1983-2001 that approaches SC's 1962-81 dynasty. However, until Howard Schnellenberger, by whatever means he did it, made them a power in '83, they were a college football lightweight.
Ohio State is sixth and could be higher. However, until Woody Hayes came along, Michigan, not Ohio State, was the dominant Big 10 team. Woody's long tenure is very impressive, lasting from his 1954 National Championship (split with UCLA) until Archie Griffin's second Heisman campaign (1975). The 1968 Buckeyes are one of the most storied teams in history, good enough to dominate O.J. Simpson and defending National Champion U.S.C in the Rose Bowl.
But Woody's teams always fell short after that. They would go undefeated, average 40-plus points a game, and make Sports Illustrated covers, but in Pasadena every New Year's Day, it seemed, their "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense was no match for Pat Haden, John Sciarra, or whoever SC or UCLA threw at them.
Penn State (7) has been a consistent national power under Joe Paterno since 1968. Their "weak" East Coast schedule cost them a couple of national titles, but the 1980s were Joe Pa's time. They have fallen precipitously in later years, and while they have played football in Happy Valley a long time (the Lions lost to U.S.C, 24-3, in the first game at the modern Rose Bowl stadium in 1923), they do not have a tradition that goes back like SC or Notre Dame, either.
Nebraska is a relative Johnny-come-lately. Nobody knew much about the Cornhuskers until Bob Devaney's mythical 1971 National Championship squad. The Devaney/Tom Osborne era is unbelievable, but not devoid of criticism. Osborne may be just below Jesus Christ in Nebraska today, but Big Red fans took the Lord's name in vain aplenty when he consistently lost big games in the 1970s and '80s. Still, the 1971 and '95 squads rank as two of the top three teams in history.
Michigan has a hallowed tradition. They were college football's first powerhouse, beating Stanford in the first Rose Bowl, 49-0 in 1902. When the Big 10 started playing the Pacific Coast Conference after World War II, Michigan laid waste to the "soft" West Coast teams, which included pastings of some very good Pappy Waldorf teams from Cal in the Rose Bowl games of the late '40s.
However, the Wolverines lost their place to Woody until Bo Schembechler came along. The Michigan teams of the 1970s mirrored Woody's - often unbeaten with gaudy stats until a pick-your-choice Pac 8 team (Stanford, U.S.C, Washington) would dismantle them in Pasadena. In 1997 they finally won a National Championship and are a program of the first rate, but not number one.
Texas is a bit of a mystery. Darrell Royal's Longhorns won two National Championships (1963 and 1969, the last all-white titlist), but Earl Campbell's team lost to Joe Montana when the Irish stole the 1977 National Championship (going from fifth to first on January 1, 1978). Texas has never repeated despite occasionally being favored, but they usually are slightly disappointing.
Florida State was a girl's school until Burt Reynolds broke the gender barrier in 1952. Tennessee has a great tradition. The Heisman Trophy is named after their coach in the 1930s, and they won the title in 1998. LSU has two titles. Florida made a bid for supremacy under Steve Spurrier but seem to lose the big game more often than not. Michigan State under Duffy Daugherty from 1965-66 broke color barriers and challenged for greatness, but Gary Beban and UCLA beat them in the 1966 Rose Bowl, and they tied Notre Dame in the 1966 "game of the century." Georgia's fans are nuts, and the team is darn good most of the time.
Auburn and UCA are two of a kind. They each have won one National Championship, and have all the advantages - weather, facilities, recruiting, talent - only to labor in the shadow of behomeths (U.S.C over UCLA, Alabama over Auburn).
The Arkansas Razorbacks are always fun. The 1991 Washington Huskies were the 20th best single-season team ever, the Don James era was terrific, but they usually only go so far. Cal is so yesterday. The Brick Muller era died an ugly death when the school became the de facto staging grounds of American Communism circa 1964-70. The Pitt Panthers were great in the 1930s and in Tony Dorsett's 1976 Heisman season. Minnesota is forgotten except for a five-year stretch prior to World War II. The Army Cadets once dominated whenever there was a world war being fought (?), and Stanford has Pop Warner, Ernie Nevers, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Bill Walsh and the "Vow Boys."
1. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
1. 1972 Southern California Trojans
1901 Michigan Wolverines
1900s: 1901 Michigan Wolverines
1900s: Michigan Wolverines
1. Southern California under John McKay and John Robinson (1960s-80s)
1. Oklahoma (1955-56)
1. Southern California (1972-74)
1. Southern California (1967-72)
1. Southern California Trojans (1967-81)
1. Southern California Trojans (1962-81)
1913 Army Cadets, 1938 Duke Blue Devils, 1930s Tennessee, 1947-49 California Golden Bears, 1954 UCLA Bruins, 1966 Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans, 1967-69 Southern California Trojans, 1971 Oklahoma Sooners, 1969-75 Ohio State Buckeyes, 1969-78 Michigan Wolverines, 1979 Southern California Trojans, 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers
1. Southern California Trojans
1. UCLA Bruins
1. Southern California Trojans
Steven Travers, a former standout pitcher for U.S.C, has written for many San Francisco-area publications and is the author of an unauthorized biography of baseball great Barry Bibnds.