Self-Belief of Champions: The 1978 USC Trojans

January 1, 1979; The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California


“As I slowly walked down the tunnel with my USC Trojan football teammates, I could feel the adrenaline pulsating around me. We were ready to play,” stated former Trojan All-American quarterback, Paul McDonald in his book Thru the Tunnel.   

McDonald and his USC teammate were moments away from playing in the most iconic game in all of college football, the Rose Bowl. They were squared up against the Michigan Wolverines and the eyes of the nation would certainly be glued to the television for the clash of these two powerhouse teams. There was a lot at stake. USC was ranked 3rd in the country and Michigan was number 5 with national championship possibilities available to the winning team. 

McDonald said, “This is what you sign up for when you play at a school like USC, the opportunity to come through the tunnel with everything on the line.” 

You can see a similar scene in the tunnel before every game of the football season. A team gets pumped up and then roars out of the tunnel for the start of the game. McDonald had the opportunity to do that in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys, but he said that his favorite trips through the tunnel were on Saturdays with his Trojan USC teammates. 

McDonald recalled the strong self-belief that his team had in the tunnel before every game. “To a man, everyone was locked in. It was not arrogance or machismo, it was a confidence, a belief, a knowing that we were going to win today. The amazing thing is we had this look, this feeling, for every game.”

Fear of failure and performance anxiety are commonplace in sports, but that level of apprehension did not exist with these Trojan players. The team was loaded with major stars on both sides of the line, but McDonald claimed that wasn’t the reason for the belief. So why such belief?  He explained, “Our players believed in each other because they held each other accountable every single day – and that started with the leaders on the team. If you saw a future NFL player busting his butt every day, you would surely follow.”  

The journey down the Rose Bowl tunnel started nearly a year earlier in the weight room.  The preparation for stepping onto the field began in the offseason – lifting weights, watching the film, running, throwing, catching, blocking, and tackling. 

This is where the path to the tunnel begins. The confidence that you get on gameday comes from countless hours of practice that you put in beforehand to be prepared for the big moments. “This isn’t just football, it’s life. You know you’re going to ace that test — or make the sale — or get a great evaluation — you know, because you did the work,” said McDonald.  

Oh, and the game? USC won 17-10 and was crowned national champions in the Coaches’ Poll. 

The belief was real. 

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