Years ago, a Minnesota couple was in a restaurant on the Florida Keys. There was a TV with the volume turned down above the bar. There was a college football game on the screen and several patrons took an interest in the belief that they were watching Southern Cal.

Eventually, the game reached halftime and the score came on the screen, indicating this was a battle between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

First, there was puzzlement among the viewers, then laughter as one well-oiled gent hooted: "Gophers? What school would call itself the Gophers?''

The color scheme -- USC's cardinal and gold, Minnesota's maroon and gold -- has been the only confusion to be found with these two football programs in the decades the Trojans served as a scourge to proud Big Ten champions.

There was not a more dramatic entrance in sports -- with the charge, Traveler, and with the sun ricocheting off those helmets the color of dried blood -- than USC's a few minutes before a Rose Bowl kickoff.

We are largely naïve to this in Minnesota, for the Gophers, along with Iowa, are the two Big Ten teams never to face the Trojans in a Rose Bowl. Even Indiana, with its one trip to Pasadena, had the misfortune of running into USC and losing 14-3 in the game of 1968.

The Rose Bowl in its grandest form has become a victim of the Bowl Championship Series. For six years, the Rose Bowl resisted the BCS predecessors and stuck with the attraction in place since right after World War II: Representatives of the Big Ten and the Pac-10, kicking off at midafternoon on New Year's, in a magnificent stadium inside a magnificent valley.

Finally, the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten and the Pac-10 saw there was too much money to be had and became full BCS partners.

The Big Ten and Pac-10 were shut out in the first three BCS title games, so the conference rivalry continued through the game of 2001. It was January 2002, when Pasadena played host to Miami and Nebraska for the national title game, that the Midwest vs. West Coast tradition took its first blow.

The Big Ten and Pac-10 had been a match for 55 consecutive Rose Bowls from the game of 1947 through 2001. What made it a sensational event for 52 of those football seasons was that this was the Holy Grail, the ultimate, that could be reached for any team from either conference.

A decade into this official New Year's matchup, Jim Murray was building his reputation as a great Los Angeles sports columnist. And a Murray staple became columns reminding the locals that Midwesterners had arrived to kick the stuffing out of another group of West Coast weaklings.

The Big Ten went 12-1 against the Pac-10 from 1947 through 1959. Southern Cal had the lone victory, 7-0 over Wisconsin in 1953, but also lost 49-0 to Michigan in 1948 and 20-7 to Ohio State in 1955.

The geography of power started to change in 1960, when Washington won back-to-back against Wisconsin and Minnesota (a Gophers team that already had been voted national champion by the Associated Press).

The Gophers had a second chance in 1962, when the Ohio State faculty voted against sending the Buckeyes to Pasadena. Minnesota beat UCLA 21-3 in the 1962 game, and then the USC Era started in 1963: A 42-37 victory over Wisconsin that revolved around Badgers quarterback Ron VanderKelen.

The Trojans played in 16 of the 34 Rose Bowls between 1963 and 1996. They went 12-4 against the Big Ten reps. They have returned to go 4-0 against the Big Ten in the post-BCS era, including becoming the only team to win three Rose Bowls in a row from 2007 through 2009.

There have been a few asterisks placed on that recent success with Pete Carroll as coach. By all accounts, Smilin' Pete left behind both devastating probation and a nucleus as mediocre as the USC teams from 1996 to 2001 (37-35 overall) when he skedaddled for Seattle.

Still, there's a mystique when you see the Men of Troy make their pregame charge under those trademark helmets -- a sight that Minnesotans will witness this afternoon, although 1,900 miles removed from Pasadena.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. • preusse@startribune.com