David White: For Fresno State fans, facing USC a Trojan war

The Fresno BeeDecember 14, 2013 

Fresno State coach Jim Sweeney, with arm upraised, celebrates the win over USC in the 1992 Freedom Bowl.

FRESNO BEE STAFF PHOTO

Brad Bell is the co-chaplain of the Fresno State football team who shares a message of teamwork and a spirit of unity on Saturday nights.

Bell also is the mild-mannered pastor of The Well Community Church who preaches the Gospel of love and a life of compassion on Sunday mornings.

That's all great, until you put the acronym "USC" in juxtaposition with the proper noun "Trojans." With but the slightest whistling of the tune "Fight On," Bell turns from a New Testament minister of peace into someone who wants to exact Old Testament vengeance on the nearest horse named Traveler.

"I will not start the chaplain's fight," Bell said, "but I will finish it."

Bell is joking, mostly, but it leads to a greater point as Fresno State and USC prepare to rub shoulder pads Saturday at the Las Vegas Bowl.

Fresno State fans really, really hate USC, what with their Heisman Trophy collection and national title ring set and their A-list fan base. And USC could not care less about Fresno State, where seemingly all of its maids got their higher education (see Freedom Bowl shirt sales, circa 1992).

When the Trojans drew the Bulldogs in the Las Vegas Bowl, they assigned Interim Coach No. 2 of the year to handle game duties while the real head coach went out sipping mochas and sending scholarship invites to five-star recruits.

Fresno State drew USC, and suddenly, no one around here is talking about missing the Fiesta Bowl anymore. It's as if the dream-crushing loss at San Jose State happened three recruiting classes ago.

The Bulldogs are certifiably obsessed with playing the Trojans, almost to the point of bunny-boiling stalker. They'll take an unranked, four-loss USC team over No. 16 Arizona State or No. 17 UCLA every day of the week and twice on Saturdays.

This isn't about playing a BCS school, because Fresno State never got this excited about playing Nick Saban and Michigan State, or Virginia, or Georgia Tech in past bowl seasons.

This is about the Red Wave's overriding fixation on USC above all others, with but two games of experience to draw from.

Think about it: Most Fresno State fans consider the 1992 Freedom Bowl victory over USC the greatest in school history -- and that came against a 6-5-1 team that fired its coach after the game.

The second greatest victory in Fresno State history? Most consider it the 50-42 loss to the Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush/Pete Carroll version of the top-ranked Trojans in 2005 -- and yes, most regard that superior to any other win.

Both times that they've played, Fresno State made it the game of its century. USC could not muster so much as a collective yawn in response.

Which is maybe why Fresno State fans have such a complex about USC. The Trojans simply can't be bothered enough to reciprocate the hard feelings coming from this side of the Grapevine, and the Red Wave wants to be hated -- just because it means the Trojans care, which they don't.

"We grow up watching them on TV, and there's this arrogance of Southern California where they kind of look down their nose at the Central Valley, like we're less than them," said Bell, who started for Fresno State in the Freedom Bowl.

"We've sort of had a stepbrother mentality for many, many years."

A red-haired one, at that. Maybe it's because, when Bell played, USC players referred to his school as Tractor U. Maybe it's because the Bulldogs are made up of players not deemed recruitable enough by the USC hierarchy.

Whatever the case, USC has no animosity against Fresno State -- their fans can't thank the Bulldogs enough for getting Larry Smith fired in 1992, and for helping Reggie Bush win the Heisman in 2005 (Dwayne Andrews' ankles are still broken, last we checked).

No, Fresno State fans are the only ones with a rabid dog in this fight. But then, it's always been that way -- and the Bulldogs know it.

"They have nothing to gain by playing us," Bell said. "If they win, they're like, 'So what?' If they lose, it's Freedom Bowl revisited."

Whatever the score, you can count on this: Fresno State is about to have a new top-three in the Greatest Games in School History category. Because, when it comes to USC, it always plays out that way in these parts.

The columnist can be reached at bydw@sbcglobal.net or @bydavidwhite on Twitter.

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