It was 2008 in Los Angeles, and Pete Carroll was running up the score on Charlie Weis. Again. When it was over, and USC had beaten Notre Dame 38-3, Carroll went out to midfield, cool silver hair billowing, to shake Weis' hand. Weis was hobbling, jealous of Carroll's Hollywood star power and, as usual, with that disgusting white stuff at the corner of his mouth.
It was such a shocking disparity between programs, not just the score, but moreso the scene, the picture, the image. And it all happened in front of so many recruits using that image to help decide where to go to college.
If you would have looked ahead that day, you'd have figured that those recruits would be the key players in 2012 for this Saturday night's game. A game like that, a scene like that -- following the 38-0 USC win the year before -- should have solidified USC's spot in the rivalry and scared off Notre Dame's recruits. There is no draft in college football, where the worst teams get the best players. These scenes just build on themselves. And the truth is, those recruits four years ago might or might not be here now. But look how fast everything has turned.
Two different coaches, two different directions. Just four years later. Brian Kelly has Notre Dame relevant again, undefeated, No. 1, and one victory away from playing in the BCS National Championship Game. Meanwhile, USC is a joke, with Carroll running out to avoid cleaning up his mess, and Lane Kiffin, his replacement, acting like a buffoon and a clown, on the verge of being run out of yet another job.
For Notre Dame, this isn't about change, though. In fact, it's about things remaining the same. After Lou Holtz left, they bounced from failed coach to failed coach. Bob Davie, (Do we count George O'Leary?), Ty Willingham, Weis. And the prevailing theory was that the game had passed Notre Dame by. Others just blamed the coaches.
The Southern schools, and USC, had all the speed, and Notre Dame was still plodding along in the 1940s. Eight years ago, Paul Hornung embarrassingly called for the Irish to soften its schedule, reduce its academic requirements, and this: "We gotta get the black athlete.''
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has stayed away from the fad of conference realignments, and remained an independent in football, though it's a little easier when you have your own TV network.
But even this year, Notre Dame radio analyst Allen Pinkett said on a Chicago radio station that the Irish need to have "a few bad citizens'' and "criminals'' on the roster. He was suspended for saying that.
Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988, or a Heisman Trophy since 1987. Honestly, I don't think the Irish are going to win the championship this time, either, but instead lose in the title game. And while I believe linebacker Manti Te'o should be a lock for the Heisman, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel seems to be the new favorite.
But Saturday is the crowning moment for Kelly, assuming Notre Dame beats USC.
It looks like Notre Dame has finally gotten the right guy with Kelly, but you still can't be sure. You can't blame Notre Dame fans for believing again. But don't forget that Kelly had his own issues. His reaction seemed cold a few years ago when student Declan Sullivan died while videotaping a practice atop a lift in high winds. Kelly also needed to tone down his tantrums on the sidelines.
The Irish celebrated having the right guy through Willingham's first year, then later claimed they knew right away he wasn't organized. They were so thrilled with Weis' first-year non-blowout loss to USC -- yes, loss - that they KNEW they had the right guy and gave him a 10-year contract.
But Kelly is focusing on something Weis never bothered with: player development. And the team has speed, but still looks a little old fashioned, defined by defense, with big offensive linemen, but no star quarterback.
It has been a victory for midwest football in general. But the truth is that the Irish's opponents have not turned out to be as good as expected.
Kelly needed to win this year. Going into the season, Rick Reilly memorably ripped into the program for ESPN.com. And Pinkett's calls for criminals, remember, came only a few months ago.
In the preseason, USC was ranked No. 1 and Trojans' quarterback Matt Barkley was the Heisman favorite. And just last year Kelly strangely didn't use his timeouts as USC ran out the clock. Afterward, a handful of USC players said that Notre Dame had quit, and even Kiffin was openly surprised.
"That's what Notre Dame is all about,'' USC linebacker Chris Galippo said after the game. "They're nothing like `SC.''
True enough, they haven't been for several years. Now, they still aren't, but in the opposite way.
Barkley has supposedly been ruled out of Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, but Kelly apparently has prepared for him anyway. You never know what Kiffin is doing, or playing at.
This year has been such a mess because of him. He had to recruit through the probation Carroll landed the team on. Kiffin did continue to recruit well, but it's not particularly tough to recruit there. The Trojans are now 7-4, and committing all sorts of personal fouls. They look uncoached. Kiffin walked off on a press conference in anger when he didn't like questions. And a team manager was caught for letting air of the ball to try to find an edge against Oregon.
It didn't work. And Kiffin said he had nothing to do with that little trick. But it's representative of his program.
The picture of this rivalry figures to change Saturday for a new set of recruits. For now, USC's program is the one with disgusting white stuff on the corner of its mouth.