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Crosstown Rivals 

When USC and UCLA put on their academic game faces, nothing less than the future of the city is at stake

Wednesday, Nov 29 2006

For nine hours, the college students seated across from each other at the Cal State Long Beach auditorium have been answering some rather obscure questions. Questions about American presidents, Babylonian mythology and particle physics. Questions that have left their shoulders slumped, their faces slack, their synapses exhausted and the contestants themselves looking less like the chipper players who showed up at 7 this morning than passengers on a delayed international flight.

College Bowl may be the most underrated rivalry in college sports, and with the April finals still two months away, this regional tournament is sparsely attended. Most of those allowed to go home already have. The tournament is now down to three final teams, two more rounds, and one slot at the nationals. USC and Pomona are about to duke it out onstage, while UCLA watches from the loge. The only question for the Bruins is whether they would prefer Pomona or USC as their final-round opponent. Not much of a question, really.

“Beating SC isn’t a matter of life and death,” football coach Red Sanders told his beloved Bruins a half century ago. “It’s more important than that.”

click to flip through (5) (illustration by Deanna Staffo)
  • (illustration by Deanna Staffo)

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Exhausted though they are, the Bruins watch raptly as the tournament moderator tears open a small envelope at the podium and hoarsely reads the first question.

“The comedies of this knighted 20th-century author are variations on the irreconcilable tensions between individual experience and deadening social conventions. For 10 points, name this Brit wit —”

A red light goes off on Pomona’s table, thwarting SC. “Noël Coward,” offers Pomona’s captain.

“Correct,” the moderator says.

Pomona 10, USC 0.

“Identify this five-letter word that was the code name for the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa —”

“TORCH,” Pomona’s captain again interjects.

“That’s good for 30 points,” the moderator notes.

Pomona 40, USC 0. The match isn’t over yet, but the definition the Bruins have posted on their Web site seems more and more justified:

USC (n.) 1. A glorified summer camp where each year, five affluent Stanford rejects and five dyslexic Saudi princes assemble to convince themselves that their next four years will be spent in pursuit of a valuable education.

The moderator reads the next question aloud. “Not until 2005 did scientists manage to photograph this species in its native habitat, 3,000 feet below the ocean’s surface.” This time, both teams are stumped. The moderator continues with a series of political questions, and USC rallies.

Pomona 40, USC 40. It’s going to be a nail biter. But if the Trojans slip past, the Bruins will have to wallop them next round. UCLA still hasn’t forgiven the Trojans for stealing their place at the nationals back in 2000. Something mysterious started happening that year. USC’s incoming-freshman SAT scores approached, equaled, then passed UCLA’s. Time named USC “College of the Year.” USC became more selective in its admissions than its crosstown rival.

But on this particular day, the Trojans are losing the battle. Pomona is up by more than a hundred points, according to the rapid scribbling of the scorekeepers. You can see defeat on the face of USC team captain Mik Larsen, a quiet, pony-tailed history major who is well aware of the stereotypes that still dog his school.

“They think they’re better,” he told me at lunch, sniffing at how the UCLA team recently accused his team of cheating, and of writing terrible practice questions. “And maybe they are, but that’s changing.”

It isn’t changing fast enough for Larsen, however. His team loses momentum after the judges reject the Trojans’ answer to a difficult math question. The round finishes, and Larsen waves over the moderator to dispute the judges’ call. The moderator announces that USC’s answer to the math question was indeed correct, but adds hastily, “It wouldn’t have affected the outcome in any case.”

It doesn’t. USC loses to Pomona, who then loses to UCLA, who then flies off to the nationals in Connecticut a few months later. After eliminating other well-ranked schools like Northwestern, UCLA crushes the University of Illinois, taking back the national title. The Bruins can now rest on their laurels.

Or could, anyway, until the much dreaded U.S. News & World Report rankings were released in August. Controversial as it is, the U.S. News guide is considered by many to be the most influential and reviled arbiter of institutional standing in higher education. Fistfights and administrative beheadings have resulted from its oracular judgments. Just six years ago, as USC began to climb the rankings ladder, UCLA placed 25th among the nation’s universities and USC was far behind at number 42. This year?

UCLA 26, USC 27.

In the fall of 2005, top African-American studies scholar Robin D.G. Kelley took a weekend tour of USC and glimpsed a holy relic: the piano that had once belonged to his hero, Thelonious Monk. While writing a biography of the jazz great, Kelley had become accustomed to handling rarely seen historical documents possessed by the Monk estate. But he’d never seen the instrument Monk had poured his soul into during the last years of his life, let alone been given the opportunity his hosts presented to him that afternoon.

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