- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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They have been going at it for months, in some cases years. Fighting a turf war for the top high school players in America. In living rooms and through text messages, UCLA and USC battle for every inch.
Each time one of the rivals "wins,'' there's about a five-minute period to savor the victory before it hits an Internet scouting service with a generic-sounding quote from a 17-year-old kid.
But the wooing of Norm Chow over the past couple of days has been at a whole different level. Very public, very emotional and very, very personal.
Which explains why UCLA basically did a touchdown dance Thursday morning when Chow gave the Bruins his own sort of verbal commitment that he'd be staying in Westwood, essentially spurning big-money overtures from USC.
"Norm Chow, perhaps the top offensive coordinator in college football, will continue in that role at UCLA, it was announced today,'' the news release proclaimed. It stopped short of gloating, but the message was clear: Score one for the Bruins.
"We are building something special at UCLA and he is certainly a very important part of the package,'' UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel said. "We have unfinished business here at UCLA and our coaches and players are very excited about our future. I'm glad Norm wants to finish what he's started. UCLA is a special place to call home."
The subtext to this is operatic. There's the intra-city rivalry, Chow's history at USC, Chow's history with Kiffin, the rumblings of a slight rift between Chow and Neuheisel, the $340,000 pay cut Chow will be taking at UCLA because his buyout money from the Tennessee Titans is up after this year, Chow's desire for a contract extension with UCLA, etcetera.
All of that played a part in it. But when it came down for Chow to make a decision, it was all about which coach could close the deal.
He said Thursday afternoon on a conference call that he and Neuheisel had talked several times throughout the day Wednesday, basically at every stopover he had on his way home from a vacation in Florida.
And you'd better believe Neuheisel was recruiting. As for Kiffin, Chow said they never actually talked.
"Lane made several phone calls, several attempts,'' Chow said. "I'd gone off to Florida to see some very dear friends. The gal we were with, wasn't feeling too well, and we spent some time in the hospital.
"So between the emergency room and this crazy phone, Lane did try to call. And there were obviously some calls made to my son [Carter Chow, who is his father's agent].
"It's USC and I've known Lane for a long time, and you're flattered when people call, but in the end we realized where we wanted to be.''
Just how hard did Chow think about a return to USC and what could've been a gigantic pay raise?
"There was some thought put to it, sure. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't,'' Chow said.
But in the end, he chose to stay for less money at UCLA. Hmmm ... There are three possible explanations, all of which have merit: Was it loyalty to UCLA? Character? Or simply recruiting?
If Kiffin wanted Chow, he needed to do some fence-mending from the way their relationship ended after the 2004 season. There are all sorts of stories about just how bad the rift was between the two men, even though neither Chow nor Kiffin have ever confirmed or commented directly on them.
In fact, both went out of their way to say nice things about the other in the past two days.
Said Chow: "Lane Kiffin is going to do well at USC, he's going to present a formidable challenge for us all. He's an extremely bright young football coach and he's got knowledge and a tremendous staff that he's putting together.
"There were some awfully fun times when we were at USC and we won a lot of games and sat right there in the box and helped each other out.
"You just leave it at that.''
Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosangeles.com.
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