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Alma Mater Dissonance: Returning to USC, Game Day after Graduation

Back to school? No problem, right? For this USC alumnus, returning to his alma mater wasn't quite what he expected.


Thirteen days. That's all I had.

I got a real, legitimate job offer back in Los Angeles, two months after I received the fake diploma at graduation, which marked my ceremonious ejection from the city. I had less than two weeks to move down to L.A. before my Reuters gig began.

Thirteen days. If you want to experience undue stress, then I urge you to move on such short notice. But I would be back in a comfort zone: L.A., the modern day land of Troy with more Trojans than Kanye can keep track of.

With no place to live I figured that I would bum on friends' couches/extra beds/cars' back seats for two weeks until I found a place (it took five). No problem. My friends lived near USC as they were enrolled in summer school. I knew the area; it was close to work; and my social life was intact and integrated into the surrounding area. Perfect. I embraced the oft-joked "Never Graduate" maxim, continuing the collegiate lifestyle unintentionally and, to some degree, intentionally. I placed myself in the situation. It was bound to happen -- a comfortable, familiar environment breeds comfortable, familiar behavior.

One day after work I went for a run, starting north of campus then deciding to jaunt through its heart. Though the quantity of students was reduced, everything looked the same: It was a perfect low 70s day with a slight breeze. The trees were green and the buildings, in their nouveau retro brick glory, looked vibrant with the late afternoon sun splashing its golden rays on the respective facades. Students sat on McCarthy Quad, relaxing and (probably) discussing which party to hit up that night. Some guys tossed around the ol' pigskin, because every college requires a continuous football, Frisbee and/or soccer sesh to occur on the quad.

The (student) crowd roars with the sound of a 600-horsepower engine, taking in every emotional twist and turn, high and low, inefficiently, unsustainably consuming the positive and negative fuel of the game's events before hitting empty at 00:00.

There isn't a better way to describe it other than this: It was so weird returning to campus for the first time since commencement. My status of an alumnus made me the minority, internally building some feeling of alienation. I surely looked the part -- just under 22 is prime age for an upperclassman. But I felt more like a senior citizen than a recent college senior. No one save my friends knew that I was no longer an enrolled student.

How is this related to football? There's a connection. Trust me.

This is all leads to game day. Aaah, yes. Game day. School never truly started until the first Saturday of college football graced Southland. Game day is an essential part of life at USC. Beer at 7 am? Fifteenth hot dog before noon? In any other context, the biggest group therapy situation would be organized to fix the destructive tendencies exhibited by semi-regular massive alcohol consumption throughout the day. But it's embraced and frankly weird if anyone condemns it. Don't be "that guy/girl" who hates game day culture because it's "not cool" and "lame." Don't ruin fun. Don't be a fun ruiner. You'll lose.

It's been innumerably written, but truly nothing exists like first seeing McCarthy brimming with tailgaters at sunrise before a big game.

The sight stunned you. It stunned me. It stuns everyone.

Having watched games in the Coliseum's student section in addition to U.S. Soccer games with the American Outlaws, the desire to sit with the normal crowd versus the student section is like choosing between a crappy cardboard box-sized Smart Car and a Ferrari. The crowd roars with the sound of a 600-horsepower engine, taking in every emotional twist and turn, high and low, inefficiently, unsustainably consuming the positive and negative fuel of the game's events before hitting empty at 00:00.

The overreactions are humorous, especially when people think when the inevitable "bullshit" chants rise from a very legitimate call (every pass interference penalty against the home side is, obviously, horrendous and "Glasses Ref" just has it out for Lane Kiffin, as does just about everyone else).

For the Hawaii game, I met up with two friends, one of whom was still in school. We watched the game at Traditions, the bar on campus. Even being there, singing "Fight On," rooting for the Cody Kessler and Max Wittek co-era's beginning didn't feel right. The small level of dissonance remained, surrounded by people worried about class the next day. That preoccupation no longer concerned me.

I still don't know if I'll make it back for the home opener against Washington State. I have yet to determine if I'm truly ready to come back to game day as a "grizzled" 22-year-old alum without my finger on the campus' pulse instead of trying to carry on in "college." It just may not work out logistically (I heard a rumor guest tickets for the student section are sold out). If I didn't have the experience over summer, my views may have remained the same, and this revelation probably would not have occurred.

Obviously, I'll make it back to games this season. Marveling at a full-ish Coliseum donned in cardinal and gold is a favorite autumn pastime behind football and more football.

Truly hidden in plain sight during my run, it dawned on me. The campus was no longer mine. I couldn't claim ownership. It sounds obvious. I thought I grasped that even before I moved back to Northern California. But it took seeing the beloved campus inhabited by strangers before it hit me that the school would survive my gigantic (read: miniscule) absence.

But it's not my baby anymore. I've almost fully accepted that truth. And that's perfect.

Will Robinson is the Americas host for Reuters' Global Sports Forum. Follow him here.