LOS ANGELES — Marques Johnson, Bill Walton, Adrian Dantley and Austin Carr on the court. Digger Phelps and John Wooden on the sidelines. In those days, Notre Dame vs. UCLA in basketball was one of the sport’s greatest rivalries.
From 1960-70, UCLA won five matchups in a row by scores of 31, 29, 51, 13 and 31 points.
Still, the Fighting Irish kept coming back.
Carr helped Notre Dame to just its second win in the series in January 1971.
That fall, Phelps took over in South Bend. His over-the-top personality added to the rivalry’s electric atmosphere, even while the Bruins were racking up four wins in a row by an average of 32 points.
Time and circumstance eventually ended the series that began in 1952.
Now it’s back for a new era.
Saturday night’s nationally televised game at Pauley Pavilion will be the 49th in the series, which UCLA leads 28-20.
The schools last met on Dec. 19, 2009, when Notre Dame won at home 84-73.
Former Bruins coach Ben Howland revived the series in 2004 after a nine-year gap.
“I wanted to bring that back because I just remember that as a kid,” said Howland, who grew up in the Santa Barbara area and watched UCLA when the games were shown on tape-delay.
In Howland’s second season, the Bruins won in South Bend in late February, helping propel them into the NCAA Tournament.
“There was really a lot of excitement about it because it’s nostalgic,” said Howland, who went 2-2 against the Irish. “It brings back memories of old, seeing that leprechaun between timeouts on TV.”
From 1966-84, the Irish and Bruins met every year and just twice in that stretch was neither team ranked in the Top 25.
Neither the Fighting Irish (6-2) nor the Bruins (6-2) is ranked this week. The Irish are coming off a two-point loss to Oklahoma in New York while UCLA has won two straight. The schools have five combined Sweet 16 appearances since 2014.
Irish coach Mike Brey wanted to get UCLA back on his team’s schedule in part for guard Rex Pflueger, who played at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. The senior averages 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds.
“We talked about it in the recruiting process to get Rex home for a game,” he said this week. “We want to rotate back to UCLA every couple years.”
The Irish will host the Bruins next season for the 50th meeting.
In seeking a home-and-home series, UCLA coach Steve Alford said Notre Dame makes the most sense.
“It’s a great school, there’s a lot of tradition, a lot of rich history between Notre Dame and UCLA and being in a conference like the ACC, all that’s just going to help you down the road,” he said, alluding to the NCAA Tournament.
The pinnacle of the rivalry was Jan. 19, 1974, when Notre Dame ended UCLA’s men’s record 88-game winning streak in South Bend, a game UCLA center Bill Walton has described as the most painful of his career.
Phelps had his team rehearse cutting down the nets at practice during the week. The Irish’s 71-70 victory, thanks to Dwight Clay’s corner jumper, was also the signature win of Phelps’ 20-year career in South Bend.
UCLA later ended a 60-game Notre Dame winning streak in South Bend.
Alford was familiar with the rivalry from growing up in Indiana. But what held sway with him was Notre Dame’s annual game against Indiana, where Alford starred in college.
“I paid attention to all that stuff. I was a basketball traditionalist of loving all that stuff,” Alford said. “When I played I didn’t have AAU basketball so it was just your state, your area.”
UCLA and Notre Dame played 42 times between 1966 and 1995. For years they played twice a season, home and away. In the early ’70s, the series pitted the fiery Phelps against the crafty Wooden on the sidelines.
“I used to love those when Digger was the coach. He would always create a lot of hoopla around the game with his ability to promote,” said Howland, now coach at Mississippi State after being fired from UCLA in 2013.
Back then players stayed in school for four years, long enough to want bragging rights. The game stood out on national TV at a time when there were three major networks and not a glut of cable sports.
“Times have changed now,” Alford said. “If it doesn’t show up on a video game, they may struggle knowing the history of those things.”
Bruins guard Chris Smith grew up in Chicago watching Notre Dame.
“I wasn’t really aware of the basketball being that good,” he said. “I just knew the football was amazing.”