"One last bit about the Rose Bowl and then we can turn toward Tampa and hoops. But I can't move on without mentioning it:
Penn State fans, you got the true Big Ten Pasadena experience this time in all its gory Technicolor detail. By that, I mean you were initiated into the conference brotherhood of heartbreak at the hands of USC.
It's a birthright for anyone at Michigan or Ohio State, losing an excruciating game to the Trojans at the world's most enchanting athletic venue. There is no more bittersweet experience in sports than attending a Rose Bowl, gazing agape at the vividness of the beauty all around you. The colors all seem richer even when it's cloudy, the air like velvet even when it's chilly.
Then your team makes a valiant effort, you think victory is at hand and at the very end it's snatched away by the Evil Empire in cardinal and gold. Ask anyone in Ann Arbor or Columbus. This is a rerun they've lived through over and over.
As a kid back in the 1960s and '70s, I watched Woody Hayes take four different teams into the Rose Bowl to meet USC. Two of those ended in just such a painful manner. Then, when I was an OSU undergrad, yet another narrow defeat at the very end in the post-1979 game. Michigan folks can tick off the Pasadena losses to USC: 1969, 1976, 1978, 1989, 2003, 2005.
Northwestern (1995) fans of a certain age know the feeling, too. And though they never play at the Rose Bowl, Notre Dame folks know all about it.
Like some of the OSU and Michigan defeats, I don't think Penn State's post-2008 loss qualifies because it was never in doubt. Which is sort of a prerequisite for real agony and the unique pain yet to come.
And what's that nadir moment? The sound of the Trojan band in their war-helmeted outfits piping up when their triumph is clear. And I don't mean the little ditty they play the whole game like Florida State's tomahawk chop tune. Or the Fight On song they strike up after touchdowns (both in the video below).
I mean their victory march. Just hearing it brings on dark memories from my childhood, recollections I keep in the back of the mind's bottom drawer with moving days and dying pets. It's the dirge from a recurring nightmare.
USC's band only plays the song when they know they've won. It's called Conquest and the reason it sounds like the soundtrack out of a 20th Century Fox epic from the '40s is that's exactly where it came from. It's their version of Red Auerbach's victory cigar and the I Believe chant begun by Navy midshipmen.
It's worse, though. Because it drips with a special arrogance. And as much as you hate it, you know it's a great piece of music.
The conductor uses as his baton a gilded gladius, the stubby sword of ancient Greek and Roman foot soldiers, stabbing it in the air with the marching cadence. In the back of your mind you know this is the band that played Tusk behind Fleetwood Mac. It's the band that crossed over into the record industry and show business.
All the while the damn horse is prancing around. He's not just a horse, of course. He has to be white. Like Dr. Evil's cat.
But you know what the very worst part is? You take in the whole scene in despondence, the USC fans mimicking the trumpet flourishes with their "Oh-oo-oh-ooooo" and the incomparable Song Girls in their white sweaters calmly punching the air with a V for victory in all their confident perfection. And you allow yourself the fleeting thought:
If you'd been born into their tribe and their golden land, you'd love being one of them.
That's the worst part! That's the part that drives you nuts. Because you'll have to think about this loss for nine months. You're flying home the next day. Winter has only begun.
Meanwhile, they'll be in California. And they'll probably forget about it tomorrow when they leave work early for the beach.