A fifteen year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: Los Angeles (Page 1 of 2)

USC vs Notre Dame – Comin’ straight outta Compton…

I’ve been waiting for this game for a decade.

As a lifelong Notre Dame fan, the annual rivalry contest against Southern Cal is easily the biggest date on the calendar.  A historic series dating back to 1926 when the teams used to take week long train journeys to face each other, the Irish enjoy a 44-35 W/L record all time against their most heated adversary.  For over a decade, however, the rivalry has been a lopsided one with the Trojans dominating the series 9-1.  While Notre Dame has shown brief flashes of competitiveness against USC in 2005 and 2010, any Irish fan would be quick to tell you that it’s been a long, painful decade in this storied war.

Despite its status as one of the preeminent destinations in the college game, I’d been avoiding a trip to USC for good reason.  I’ve never wanted to fly across the country to watch the Irish get shellacked in front of 95,000 hostile fans.  At long last, 2012 has been a different story.  Entering the contest at an unblemished 11-0, the Irish were finally fielding a competitive football team again, and, perhaps, one that could finally compete in South Central Los Angeles. This final, giant hurdle stood between the Irish and a date with infamy in Miami for the BCS National Championship.   Sporting a lofty #1 ranking and BCS Title shot on the line, this trip to USC was arguably the most significant game for Notre Dame since Florida State in 1993.   What more appropriate backdrop for my inaugural trip to the Coliseum.

I touch down in LAX airport the Friday after Thanksgiving and the airport is a ghost town.  I make quick work at the rental car counter, and speed a silver Kia rental to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles.   My cohort in this adventure – Dylan, the ever urbanite Manhattan resident, had curiously picked a hotel in downtown Los Angeles despite scores of beachfront options overlooking the postcard sunsets of the Pacific Coast.  Evidently his pasty, Northeast skin had revolted at the thought of staying near sun and sand. Fresh of a week long vacation stint in El Salvador, I’m sporting a glorious tan, but the beaches of Santa Monica would have to make due without my bronze magnificence.  To his credit, however, Dylan has a knack for showing up for the big games.  He was with me for the epic #1 LSU vs #2 Alabama game last year and now found himself along for the ride at the biggest Irish game in a quarter century.

Saturday morning wakes to a typical Southern California morning, sunny and clear with a brilliant blue sky overhead, a welcome respite from the Midwest gloom of late November.  Donning shorts and flip flops after thanksgiving, one could get used to this climate.  We lope the Kia onto Interstate 710 South, skirting the serpentine concrete confines of what little remains of the LA River – a meager brown trickle down the center of a grey, lifeless expanse.  Bored after a season of highway driving, visions of the opening chase scene from Terminator 2 flash through my mind.  I imagine careening the silver rocket off the nearest bridge into the concrete chute below, swerving and splashing through the spray at 100mph, firing shotgun blasts out the sunroof at evil cyborg pursuers.

But we’re headed to Compton, and that’s a gun toting adventure of its own.  We cruise past exits for Rosecrans and Compton Blvd, passing by handfuls of churches and barred window liquor stores on the way to Long Beach Blvd. With the top down and a few hydraulic switches, we’d be in an Ice Cube rap video.  Thus far, I’d even have to say, today was a good day.  Unlike the esteemed rapper, however, I fully intend to eat hog – mountains of BBQ in fact.


Without incident, we arrive at our stop: Bludso’s BBQ.  Started by transplanted Texan, Kevin Bludso, the non descript Compton fixture is rumored to have some of the best cue’ in Southern California.  After surveying the puffing black iron pit in the parking lot, the enticing waft smells promising, and we huddle into the tiny storefront to place our order.  A few minutes later, they push our tray through the sliding glass service windows, and we retreat to a picnic table in the alley for a carnivorous breakfast.  Unwrapping the foil feast, our picnic table is heaped with slabs of pork ribs, beef ribs, fiery red sausages and smoky beef brisket.  While it’s not up to Central Texas standards, it still has the hallmarks of proper BBQ, and we devour the smoky protein before hustling north towards the USC Campus.    

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With the BBQ situation worked out, we jump into the Kia and chirp out.  Streaking onto the highway like a silver comet, our progress is quickly halted by a five mile stretch of infamous LA traffic.  After an exhausting thirty minutes of choking down smog, we limp off the 110 highway and slip into the Department of Motor Vehicles parking lot on Hope Street, an insider tip from my friend Larry.  A haggard looking vagrant taps on the drivers window and informs me it’s $40 to park here.  Wearing no orange vest, uniform, or identification of any kind, I’m confident it’s a complete scam.   But this is South Central Los Angeles after all, and I quickly realize I’m not paying for a parking space.  I’m paying for the privilege of not having my windows smashed.  Ever the negotiator, I offer him twenty dollars for the parking spot, making my donation to his general alcohol fund in exchange for an extorted modicum of security

We walk across the street to the half full parking lot of Mercado La Paloma.  The hot asphalt is shaded with a handful of cardinal and gold tents, and I struggle to fight back my gag reflex.  We’re greeted by my friends Larry and Katie. Both grad school chum from Notre Dame, we’d shared more than a couple of beers together at some rowdy tailgates I’d hosted from the back of my Dodge Ram pickup during our two year stint in South Bend.  With a new baby at home in San Diego, Larry and Katie had made the short drive up the coast for the afternoon to take in the epic Irish contest.

They welcome us to a USC friends’ tailgate, and wearing a bright green shamrock t-shirt, I’m nervous about how these sinister Trojans might respond to an infiltrator recklessly quaffing their beer and grabbing fistfuls of any snacks I can get my hands on.  Despite my preconceived notions of uppity Southern California tailgate spreads consisting of a cornucopia of lettuce wraps, wheatgrass smoothies and hummus – they actually have real food here and, delightfully, fizzy yellow light beer.  What’s more, everyone is actually nice – welcoming in fact.  They must be plotting something.  I survey the parking lot for makeshift weapons should the need arise.  A tent leg, if broken off properly, could make a nice spear.  Dylan will have to fend for himself once they jump us…

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On top of being confoundingly nice, this USC crowd is knowledgeable to boot, which is completely ruining it for me.  I’d always envisioned SC fans as the front running bandwagon types. With the Trojans already sporting a few losses, I’m surprised these guys even bothered to show up.  These USC loyalists are confusing me. Wires are short circuiting in my brain with this sudden influx of new information, politeness and actual fandom.  Or perhaps it’s the 12 pack of Busch light I’ve downed.  Either way.  These vile, gutter trash fans are supposed to represent the axis of evil in my mind, yet here they are shotgunning beers with me.  I still won, of course, but the point is that they’re making it impossible for me to hate them.  Perhaps I should hate them for that instead…

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After a few hours soaking in the parking lot atmosphere, we make our way towards the stadium.  I make one final assault on the cooler before leaving, stuffing my pockets with a few cold ones for the inevitable agonizing walk to the stadium.  The sidewalks are flooded with hordes of slow walkers, all lethargically crawling towards the campus at a break neck, open mouthed, Wal-Mart shopper pace.  But the scene on the Exposition Park lawn outside the stadium is impressive.  The grounds are suffocated with tents and revelers, concession stands, and the usual serpentine port o potty lines of heavy consumption.  From the looks of the ample green shirts and pasty complexions, the Notre Dame fan contingent is well represented here too.  With the Irish in the hunt for a BCS National Title berth, clearly a few old ND hats were dusted off to show up for the historic contest.

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Finding our seats in the cavernous LA Coliseum, the space immediately impresses.  It is an absolutely massive facility; our flimsy plastic chairs in the 50th row are barely halfway up the towering rows of the concrete bowl.  I’ve been to the “Big House” before, and the Coliseum feels even larger than that.  If they were to fill the South end of the stadium with seats, the place could probably hold 120,000 fans.  As it stands the 93,607 fans on this night made it the largest venue on my schedule this season.   While arguably the second most renowned stadium in the LA Metro area, behind the Rose Bowl perhaps, the Coliseum is not without a history of its own.  Featured in countless movies and host to all manner of huge sporting events through the years, it remains the only stadium in the world to host two separate Olympic games, in 1932 and 1984.  In fact, the Olympic Cauldron perched atop the East façade still burns during the fourth quarter of each Trojan home game.

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As we settle into our seats, “Tommy Trojan” – the Roman Centurion garbed USC mascot – prances out onto the field mounted on “Traveler” a pure white Andalusian horse as part of Southern Cal’s ceremonial entrance.  Shortly after, a slick pregame video featuring USC football players posing for the camera flashes across the jumbotron.  The blustering crowd, perhaps up to 20% Irish given the high stakes contest, takes its feet as the football team streaks out of the tunnel.  Players run drills, hooting and hollering at one another across the green fold.  The song girls prance away on the sidelines listlessly in their pleated skirts and classic varsity sweaters, easily most talented group of cheerleaders in College Football.   The Coliseum turns electric in the dry SoCal night.

As the game kicks off, the Irish immediately take charge.  Asserting themselves on the ground, running back Theo Riddick carves up the Trojan defense.  He rushes for the sole Irish touchdown in the first quarter, tallying 146 yards of rushing on the day.  Irish Freshman quarterback Everett Golson plays efficiently, tossing safe sideline routes and converting a few key third down completions.   But the Irish offense is hamstrung in the red zone, routinely stalling inside the 20 yard line and settling for field goals.

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The culprit is a baffling empty backfield offense the Irish employ inside the 20 yard lines, removing the threat of their two talented running backs (Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood).  I scream across the cavernous Coliseum at head coach Brian Kelly in frustration, drawing glares from the detached USC faithful around me.  But the Trojan team is a nefarious bunch, and only touchdowns can satisfy 10 years of pent up frustration and heartache.  I don’t want to merely win, I want their throat.  My cries go unnoticed by the Irish coaching staff, and place kicker Kyle Brindza gets a leg workout as a result, booting five field goals on the night against six attempts. 

My fears come to bear late in the fourth quarter.  Despite handily beating the Trojans on both sides of the ball, the Irish cling to a paltry 9 point lead with six minutes left on the clock.  The game – still nervously in question.  Visions of 2005, Notre Dame’s soul crushing last second defeat to USC, flash through my mind.  The last decade of mediocrity brings out the cynic in me.  With a BCS National Championship berth on the line, visions of an epic meltdown race through my mind.

After a blistering kick return that quite nearly broke for a touchdown, USC starts with the ball near the 40 yard line.  Assuming their offensive set, the Trojans immediately streak another 53 yards down the field on a crisp throw to standout receiver Marquise Lee.  The aloof Southern Cal faithful jolt to their feet in excitement, haughty swagger renewed.  A lump forms in my throat as the rest of the Irish crowd is hushed.  They’ve nearly gone the length of the field in two plays.  After a few penalties and some shuffling, it’s 1st and goal on the Notre Dame one foot line.  The Trojans hav

4 plays to punch in the easy score.

But then it happens.

Boasting the stoutest scoring defense in the country, this is no ordinary Irish squad. This is a band of warriors. Battle hardened, they’d already proven their mettle in a heroic overtime goal line stand against Stanford.  As the home crowd hushes for their team, we scream ourselves hoarse towards the Irish defense stretched across the goal line directly below.  For three straight plays the Trojans run headlong into the teeth of the imposing Notre Dame front seven.  For three straight plays they are rebuffed.  The Irish refuse an inch.  Finally, on fourth down, with the game on the line, the Trojans take to the air.  USC freshman quarterback Max Wittek scrambles, then fires a pass into the endzone that is bobbled for a moment, then dropped by tight end Soma Vainuku into the red turf below.  In a historic goal line stand, the Notre Dame defense holds.  The warriors have become legends.

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The Irish are going to the National Championship.

And with my flights and hotel room already booked nervously before the game, I’ll be joining them…

See you in Miami.

Thanks to my friends Larry & Katie – always great to catch up with you guys, and great to finally see you on the West Coast!

Thanks as always to my friend Dylan for showing up for the big ones.  Let’s see what 2013 has in store for us…

Special thanks to my friend Tyler for helping us out with some tickets to the game – hopefully next time you can get some tailgating in!

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The National Championship Game

In the immortal words of John “Hannibal” Smith: I love it when a plan comes together.

While advanced planning and exhaustive preparation has been the hallmark of our Pigskin Pursuit this fall, never underestimate the power of spontaneity and improvisation.A mere five days before the game, we were lounging around the house watching the Cotton Bowl on TV lamenting the fact that our busy holiday travel schedule had made it difficult to entertain the idea of a bowl game.Bowl games are an integral part of the College Football landscape, and despite my principled opposition to the fumbling ineptitude of the BCS Bowl Committee, not attending a bowl game would be regrettable.Motivated by this grim reality, we quickly set our sights on the crown jewel of them all.

With only a few days left on the season calendar, we decided that a trip to the National Championship game would be the perfect capstone to our College Football Tour:Texas squaring off against Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

With that settled, now all we had to do was scramble a plan together to actually get there in four days.A few quick phone calls and emails later, Mindy had secured tickets to the game (at face value I might add), flight arrangements, a rental car and a place to stay.With this level of planning and quick execution, God help you if she ever decides to pull a bank heist.

The stage for the game would be one of the largest in recent memory. Unlike some of the more recent championship selections, this one was absent any controversy over whom the most deserving teams were.Squaring off were #1 Alabama vs. #2 Texas.Both undefeated at 12-0 and respective champions of their conferences.16 National Championships and 1,658 all time wins between these juggernauts.Two of the most storied programs in the history of the sport, playing in the most storied bowl venue in College Football: The Granddaddy of ‘Em All, The Rose Bowl.

Put simply, it doesn’t get any bigger than this.

The atmosphere surrounding a National Championship game is a bit of a unique situation, and it’s difficult to compare it to a regular season game.While the magnitude surrounding the game is certainly the largest of the season, expectedly it doesn’t have quite the same electric feel as a typical College Football Saturday, largely due to the neutral site.For one thing, the Rose Bowl, while one of the most storied venues in the history of College Athletics, doesn’t actually occupy a college campus.Tailgating, as you can imagine, is also a bit different, since the vast majority of your dedicated tailgaters are probably unwilling to make the 1,400 mile trek to Pasadena to flip a few burgers and hot dogs.While at first glance it may seem tame, bear in mind there are still an abundance of tailgates and the Rose Bowl actually shuts down a golf course for use by tailgaters. It’s an admirable effort for people to put together such elaborate spreads from halfway across the country. We also had the good fortune of meeting up with our favorite Longhorn friends Jared and Kimberly to hoist a couple of ritualistic pre game beverages.

The one ancillary benefit that comes with Bowl Game atmospheres, however, is that tickets are surprisingly easy to find and moderately affordable.We noted a handful of tickets readily available close to face value if you wanted them.This is assuming, of course, you were willing to shell out the $275 face value to witness the spectacle of a National Championship Game.But rest assured, if going to a NC game is on your wish list in the future, finding tickets should be the least of your concerns.

The Rose Bowl itself is simply a spectacular venue.Occupying an “arroyo” (which is a fancy word for valley) in beautiful Pasadena, the Rose Bowl first opened its doors in 1922, a mere ten years after FenwayPark was built.To say that history oozes from every pillar of this structure would be an understatement, there is a reason it’s a National Historic Landmark.The Rose Bowl has two Olympic Games, a World Cup, five Superbowls, three BCS Championships and about 88 “Rose Bowl” Games to its credit. In fact its very name coined the term “Bowl Game” for postseason College Football games.In addition to history, the Rose Bowl is an imposing structure.With a stated capacity of 92,542 it ranks 8th on the list of largest football stadiums in America (all of which are college stadiums by the way). Finally, the backdrop for the stadium is magnificent.There may be no more spectacular panorama in College Football than watching a pale magenta sunset over the noble San Gabriel Mountains, the hazy air thick with anticipation for a National Championship Game kickoff.

Simply put, if you could only visit one College Football stadium in your life, it should be the House that Rock built – Notre Dame Stadium.But if you could visit two, the second should be the Rose Bowl.

The in-stadium atmosphere around gametime is a similarly unique, as are most bowl atmospheres.Despite 94,906 bodies packing the cavernous Rose Bowl, the pomp of a pre-game fireworks show and thunderous flyover, it’s a decidedly quieter stadium than a typical home sellout crowd.Because the bowl is split roughly 50/50 between Texas and Alabama fans, the noise level will simply never be as loud as you would find at a true home game atmosphere where 95% of the fans are all cheering in unison.Furthermore, of those fans at the game, for a game of this magnitude it’s safe to assume that you will have over representation of the “corporate” crowd and other folks that may not have a passionate interest in the outcome.It’s safe to say, however, that the true fans that make it out to the game, and travelled halfway across the country to see their team, are some of the most diehard, dedicated and boisterous individuals you could hope for.And candidly, you shouldn’t need crowd noise to get you amped for a game of this magnitude anyway.

While bowl game atmospheres are decidedly different, the action where it counts – between the white lines, is as intense as it gets.On the field featured the intriguing matchup of the Alabama rushing attack, led by Heisman winner Mark Ingram, squaring off against the gunslinging Colt McCoy led Texas air show.Unfortunately, that matchup would only last a mere five plays into the game when Alabama Defensive End Marcell Dareus drove the Texas QB into the turf injuring his precious right shoulder, and knocking him out for the game.

Despite a couple of Texas field goals, what followed was a second quarter full of Crimson Tide domination.Alabama’s running back duo of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson each scampered for touchdowns.However, neither touchdown was as heartbreaking as the botched Longhorn shovel pass by frosh QB Garrett Gilbert which was returned by Alabama for yet another score as the half expired (returned by Marcell Dareus of course).The situation coming into the second half for the Longhorns was about as bleak as it gets.

Just when the crowd may have started heading for the exits, the Longhorns showed remarkable fight coming into the third and fourth quarters.Their defense stiffened up and shut down the Crimson tide for nearly two full quarters.Surprisingly, the offense came to life as well.Freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert connected for two touchdowns with veteran receiver Jordan Shipley, and demonstrated remarkable poise and confidence.This brought the score to within three points, Alabama 24 – Texas 21.With three minutes left to play Texas had the ball on their own 17 yard line, and barely eighty yards separating them from improbable National Championship glory.

In the end, however, the vaunted Alabama defense came up big when it needed to.They promptly stuffed Gilbert into the ground on the first play of the drive, jarring the ball loose, and diving on top of the fortuitous fumble.A few short plays later Alabama sealed the game when Mark Ingram bulldogged into the endzone for his second touchdown of the night.Trent Richardson would add another ‘Bama touchdown a few minutes later, making the final score appear more lopsided than the contest actually was.

Final Score: Alabama 37 – Texas 21

Congratulations to the Alabama Crimson Tide and their fan base, who were all remarkably friendly and respectful during the game.This was a hard fought victory for them, and I admire the gritty brand of football that they play. Going undefeated in the SEC, bumping off Florida in the SEC Championship game and capping it off with a National Championship victory is an incredible accomplishment, and I salute those athletes.

This was a phenomenal way to conclude our College Football Tour for the season.I had never been to a National Championship Game, and as a frustrated Notre Dame fan I may have to wait some time before I go again.The magnitude of the game is simply unmatched and the electricity among fans is palpable. It’s an experience that any College Football fan should experience at least once in their lifetime.Seeing two unbeaten national powerhouses, playing for the National Championship in the Rose Bowl is the largest possible stage that you could ask for, and it’s an experience that I will always cherish.

Thanks (again) to our friends Jared and Kimberly.It’s always a good time meeting up with them, and we can always count on their attendance and hospitality at any big UT Football game.

Special thanks to our friend Daron for helping us out with some last minute tickets to the game.It was an incredible kind and generous effort to find these tickets for us, and I am incredibly thankful for this once in a lifetime experience.

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Hollyhock House

In addition to the splendor of College Football games this fall and reams of indulgent food along the way, another interesting sub thread to our travels has been the pursuit of great architecture.My architectural passion still burns strong, and with little effort we have been able to experience a few prominent examples of great American works of architecture.L.A. presented us with another such opportunity.

Nestled within the vast sprawl of Los Angeles lies an unassuming architectural jewel seemingly overlooked by many L.A. denizens.While most people looking for great works of architecture in the city would opt for wider publicized landmarks such as Richard Meier’s GettyCenter or Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, a less obtrusive example lies tucked into an old olive grove in East Hollywood.Built in 1921 for Aline Barnsdall is the renowned “Hollyhock House” designed by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright.Hollyhock is easily Wright’s most acclaimed west coast structure, and we obliged for a visit.

Like all Wright houses, Hollyhock has required extensive maintenance and restoration in order to keep it stable.From the beginning the house leaked considerably, and Barnsdall promptly donated the structure to the City of Los Angeles shortly after construction.The restorations continue to this day, but Hollyhock is mostly restored and open for tours.

That said, Hollyhock is still an exquisite showcase of Wright developing his own unique Southern California style, and draws cues from Mayan influence.We see many of the hallmarks of a Wright house at work here, including the sprawling floor plan and tensive connection between indoor and outdoor living separation.The spectacular living room is a breathtaking space highlighted by the moated fireplace, monolithic mantelpiece and replete with original Wright designed furniture.Finally, the inspirational “Hollyhock” stylized pattern permeating the design is an exquisite example of Wright’s excruciating attention to detail, and probably one of his most famous decorations.

One of the unfortunate regulations at the Hollyhock House is that interior photography is prohibited.I have encountered this inane practice before at some other Wright houses, and sadly that same misguided logic is at play here as well.So I apologize for the lack of interior shots, please be sure to write your Congressman.

Special thanks to my sister Rebecca for making the trek up to L.A. and chauffeuring us around for the better part of the weekend.It was great to have you along on a handful of activities and hopefully you’ve recovered from some of the food your brother subjected you to.

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El Tarasco and the hunt for the elusive California Burrito…

Sunday before we left, I had some unfinished business finding some of my favorite Southern California chow.I was on a mission for a California Burrito.A California burrito, for those of you unfamiliar, is a four dollar tortilla conduit pipe full of steak (usually of questionable origin and quality), overflowing with sour cream, cheese, guacamole and finally…..french fries.The french fries are the operative ingredient here, as they displace traditional beans and rice, and make it the unique SoCal delicacy that it is.In my opinion, whatever visionary genius first decided to put French fries in a burrito should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, or at least a complimentary set of Sham-wow’s.

I had discovered this heavenly delight in San Diego between bouts of unsuccessful surfing attempts, and promised myself that any return trips to California would include at least one of these prodigious gut bombs.Despite its namesake and much to my chagrin, however, the concept of a “California Burrito” seems to elude the entire City of Angels.After a handful of puzzled looks from some of our resident L.A. experts when I inquired about it, they pointed us in the direction of a quintessential beach dive Mexican joint called “El Tarasco”.We were assured us that if any place had a California Burrito they would.

They didn’t.

Despite the lack of a California Burrito, they still served up some admirable food.

El Tarasco, which translated means “The Tarasco” is what you would consider classic beach dive Mexican.Located a stones throw from the Pacific Ocean in Manhattan Beach, the colorful restaurant features little more than a kitchen and a handful of countertop seats.The no frills, galley like interior puts you up close and personal with all the action going on at the grill and you are never more than a subtle nod away from the cook/waitstaff.It keeps the service quick and efficient, and I plowed through a couple baskets of homemade tortilla chips before they could serve up my burrito.

The burrito itself is served “wet” style, which means slathered in sauce and designed to be consumed in a high society manner: with a knife and fork.It might not be a Cali Burrito, but it’s messy and mysterious (that’s a good thing), and for six bucks on a Sunday morning it sure eats pretty good.

(Yes I finished it before you ask…)

The drive down the pacific coast a few miles away isn’t too shabby either.

The hunt for the California Burrito will be continued next year….

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