|PETE CARROLL Fourth Rose Bowl in five years|
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - As always this time of year, the buzz in LA is about college football. More specifically, the front-page news is about this city's "other" program, UCLA, and its new celebrity coach, Rick Neuheisel.
The Rose Bowl and Southern California - they've been shuffled to the back, both locally and nationally, thanks to Neuheisel and a few other reasons:
1) USC seems to play in this game pretty much every year.
2) The Trojans (10-2), despite always making the Rose Bowl their No. 1 goal, are in Pasadena for the second straight season after squandering a decent chance to play for the national title.
3) Their opponent, Illinois, is arguably the freshest story going on here this week. But the
It's hard to remember the Granddaddy of 'em All ever looking like this much of an undercard.
Can anyone say "playoff?"
"I know there's other games out there, and now and then, you get a chance to go," said USC coach Pete Carroll, who is taking the Trojans to their fourth Rose Bowl in the last five seasons and the 32d overall. "But to come back here again is a great thrill, and it's really the target of our program."
Apparently not the target of many a USC fan out there.
Trojan boosters are a hard-core group, and lots of them have money. Fans spent thousands to fly to Miami to watch USC in the Orange Bowl a few years ago. And $1,000 wasn't enough to even get them in the stadium two years ago to see the Trojans against Texas in the Rose Bowl, when that was the national title game.
But they're not paying much for this matchup. Over the weekend, tickets on the 50-yard line were going for around $350.
The 13th-ranked Illini (9-3) appear to be overmatched in this game and made it because the Big Ten champion, Ohio State, is slated for the BCS title game. (And because Rose Bowl officials were insistent on a traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup.)
Still, this trip is nothing less than the culmination of an impossible dream for both coach Ron Zook and the program.
Illinois averaged slightly more than four wins a year for the last decade. Zook went 2-19 after taking the job in Champaign following his choppy three-year tenure at Florida.
"I've always been depressed" come New Year's Day, said senior safety Kevin Mitchell. "I always came into the season thinking we'd be somewhere, but we never were. You didn't really want to watch any of the games on TV. You just kind of waited for it to all be over."
This time, though, Mitchell and Illinois are America's New Year's Day entertainment.
At least they hope they can be.