Oct. 16, 2015
By Todd Burlage
A silent flight home from Los Angeles spoke louder than any coach could after a 20-17 upset loss to the Trojans knocked the undefeated Irish off their national title course. But no coach or player involved could’ve imagined how one single game would turn this annual cross-country meeting into one of the most recognizable and influential rivalries in sports.
The date was Nov. 28, 1964, and Parseghian’s Mighty Irish were four quarters away from completing one of the most amazing single-season turnarounds in the history of college football.
All that stood in front of the top-ranked Irish (9-0) from capping a perfect season, securing their eighth national championship, and re-awaking the echoes after a 2-7 record the previous year, was to stay the course and beat a schizophrenic and unranked USC team that had lost three of its previous seven games before this meeting. With a seemingly unbeatable lineup that had won all nine of its regular-season games by an average score of 30-6, Parseghian, in his first year at the Irish helm – brought to Los Angeles a dominating team prepared to put the epilogue on this rags-to-riches story.
So armed with Heisman Trophy winning quarterback John Huarte, a complementary collection of multiple all-Americans, 16 starters that would eventually play professional football, and plenty of confidence after outscoring its previous six opponents by a combined score of 171-28, nothing could stop Notre Dame from engraving their national title trophy.
“We got to California and we figured we’d just roll over USC,” Huarte recalls. “That’s what we had done with pretty much everybody else.”
Huarte’s confidence and assessment seemed reasonable before the game and through the first half when the Irish jumped to a 17-0 lead at the break.
But a confluence of forces – a Notre Dame letdown, some clutch plays from Trojan quarterback Craig Fertig, and a couple of critical Irish penalties – allowed USC to score 20 straight points and steal a 20-17 win in one of the most shocking upsets in college football history, a game that added spontaneous combustion to this simmering rivalry.
USC scored its game-winning touchdown on a 19-yard scoring pass from Fertig to Rod Sherman on a fourth-and-eight play.
“It still bothers me, obviously, it was a great disappointment,” Parseghian says. “But the very fact that we accomplished so much over the course of the year, turning games around from the year before with basically the same players. They were hungry to win and they sacrificed so much during the season. It would have been the most dramatic season comeback in the history of college football.”
Parseghian pledged after this loss to USC to never pin the outcome on a handful of controversial penalty calls that even the local Los Angeles media questioned after the game.
But time opens all wounds and Parseghian now speaks freely about one infamous call that changed the course of the game, and perhaps cost the Irish a national title.
With Notre Dame leading 17-7 early in the fourth quarter and situated first and goal on the USC one-inch line, Irish fullback Joe Kantor powered into the end zone with what was thought to bring both a 24-7 Notre Dame lead and the likely a game-winning touchdown.
Instead, a referee from a across the field threw a late flag for holding on Irish left tackle Bob Meeker. The penalty negated the touchdown and Notre Dame subsequently failed to score on the possession, keeping the Trojans involved and leaving Parseghian as fumed today at 92-years old as he was then at 41.
“It’s very clear, the guy he was blocking veered away from him, [Meeker] never touched him, and it was a delayed call,” Parseghian says. “I don’t want to be a crybaby and I understand calls are missed, but if you go back and study it, which I have many times, you’ll know it was a very questionable call.”
“Meeker didn’t hold,” Huarte adds. “He didn’t even touch anybody. He just kind of fell down.”
Conspiracy or not, this single game, the final outcome and one penalty helped to raise the heat and steer the course of a rivalry that dates back to 1926 and has run uninterrupted every season since 1946.
Seventh-ranked Notre Dame unleashed its pent-up frustrations the following year at Notre Dame Stadium in a 28-7 thrashing of No. 4 USC, but that victory over the Trojans came a season too late and served as little consolation for the Irish.
Beyond the obvious reasons, part of what enhanced Parseghian’s sting after this loss to USC in 1964 was the dominance Notre Dame had previously enjoyed in this series against the Trojans.
USC had beaten the Irish only four times in the previous 21 tries before derailing Notre Dame’s national championship run in 1964. Even during the five difficult transition seasons between Irish coach Terry Brennan’s departure in 1958 and Parseghian’s arrival in 1964, Notre Dame still had won four out of five games against the Trojans.
But this 1964 matchup changed everything, infusing intensity into this series as these proud programs were becoming two of the best in nation.
With Parseghian at Notre Dame and John McCay at USC, these two legendary coaches faced off 11 times with arguably the two best programs of the era, while unwittingly building one of the most notable coaching rivalries of all time.
Both of their teams were ranked top 25 in eight of the 11 meetings, including seven games when both were situated in the top 10.
Adding to the notoriety of this game, coverage guidelines during this era limited schools to one national television appearance per season.
These two marquee programs, however, were meeting regularly with national title implications – often in the regular-season finale in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving weekend – so TV networks adopted a “wild card” rule to add an extra game, and Notre Dame and USC became the usual coverage choice.
“This was almost always closer to a national championship game than it was a regular-season game,” Parseghian says. “Our games against Big Ten teams were considered rivalries. But I think nationally, the USC game ranks at the top for Notre Dame fans. There was always so much on the line.”
Winning this rivalry game became the catapult to winning everything. Parseghian only beat McKay three times in 11 tries but parlayed two of those wins (1966 and 1973) into national championship seasons. For McKay, wins over Parseghian in 1967, 1972 and 1974 also turned into title seasons for his Trojans.
“They knocked us out of the box a number of times, and vice versa,” Parseghian says.
Parseghian’s signature win against USC came in the last regular-season game of 1966 when his No.1 Irish throttled No. 10 USC 51-0 in Los Angeles to cap an unbeaten season and secure the first of his two national championships as Notre Dame coach.
In a 2013 story for the Los Angeles Times, McKay’s son, J.K., explained how import the Notre Dame rivalry was to his late father, his entire family and even Kris Kringle.
“Christmas was a big deal at our house,” J.K. said. “And it was especially important for us when the [Notre Dame] game was in Los Angeles because it was often around Dec. 1. If we won, we had a great Christmas. If we lost, we’d hardly get any presents. The year Notre Dame beat us 51-0, we didn’t a get a tree.
“My dad had a favorite saying. It was, ‘There is nothing worse than losing to UCLA and nothing better than beating Notre Dame.'”
This proud rivalry would build and proceed for many years after Parseghian left his post at Notre Dame in 1974 and McKay left his at USC in 1975.
Both teams were ranked in each of the next six meetings between 1975 and 1980, including twice together in the top 10.
And while Parseghian struggled to beat USC, former Irish coach Lou Holtz had his way against the Trojans, winning nine times in 11 tries from 1986 through 1996, with six wins coming against USC teams that were ranked in the top 25.
Today will mark the 87th meeting between a couple of rivals that have ceremoniously spoiled each other’s potential championship seasons at least 12 times in their rocky 89-year relationship.
It’s an affair that spans back to the Knute Rockne coaching era and hit its stride when Parseghian returned Notre Dame to program glory in 1964.
In an excerpt from the book, “Resurrection: The Season That Saved Notre Dame,” author Jim Dent sums up best the feelings of ND Nation in terms of a program, coach, game and rivalry that helped to define college football.
“All Notre needed was someone to remind them of just how great they could be. That someone was Ara Parseghian. The 1964 season was not for today, but for days to come. Even in defeat, the Irish showed the world what they were made of. Championships were coming again. Notre Dame football was back.”