Most programs that have been successful over the long term have at least one (and usually only one) great rival. ND-USC is the obvious example, but Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State and (of somewhat more recent vintage) Florida-Florida State have often represented epic struggles for supremacy. Even older rivalries that are now nostalgic such as Army-Navy and Yale-Harvard were once battles for the top of the heap in college football.
So ND and USC have needed each other over the years. And even though ND owns a significant historical advantage (42-29-5), the series has been even enough to produce unforgettable games and weird twists of fate.
Now, I have no personal affection for Pete Carroll, who – you may recall – ran a fake punt in the fourth quarter of last year's game, any more than I have affection for former Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, who continued to call pass plays in Gerry Faust's humiliating swan song that ended in a 58-7 loss to the Canes.
But "boo-hiss" characters like Johnson and Carroll have been a necessity in pushing ND football out of periods of doldrums. Without the 58-7 loss to Miami the 31-30 victory in 1988 would not have been as sweet. And the 93 points worth of beatings that Carroll's Trojans have administered over the last three years will help to make the next victory sweeter.
Let's consider where ND football might be without Carroll. One significant line on Tyrone Willingham's coaching c.v. was how well his Stanford teams had fared against USC. Willingham was 4-3 against USC, but even that didn't tell the whole story. In 1995 Willingham's Stanford team came within one desperation pass to Keyshawn Johnson of knocking Robinson's team out of the Rose Bowl (USC won the Stanford game 31-30). Willingham beat Robinson's team the next year in a season-ending run that finished with Willingham's only bowl win, a 38-0 demolition of Saban's MSU team. In 1999, Willingham's Rose Bowl team won 35-31 in Los Angeles over Hackett's squad, the next year Stanford rallied from 10 points down in the last eight minutes to beat Hackett's team again, 32-30, and then in 2001 Willingham beat Carroll's first team 21-16 in Los Angeles.
Suppose for a moment that instead of the weak USC coaching Willingham faced while at Stanford, he had faced the quality coaching of the kind that USC has had over the past three years. Even if you grant Willingham the win in Carroll's first year (recall Bob Davie's 5-6 team beat Carroll that year, too) 1-6 seems like more likely scenario and Willingham almost certainly would not have gotten the ND job. (Consider as well what Willingham's fate would have been had California hired a coach of Tedford's abilities earlier; certainly Willingham would not have gone 7-0 against Cal.)
Or to alter history one more time, suppose that instead of being replaced by Carroll, Hackett had continued or USC had replaced him with a coach of similar quality. If Willingham managed a winning record against USC with Stanford's personnel, it's hardly a stretch to think that he would've gone 3-0 against USC over the last three years. Had he done so he would've been 24-12 at the end of the third regular season and would still be ND's coach. The underlying reality would not be any better for ND, but it would have been masked to the point where no change would have been made.
Over time, the performance of ND and USC coaches against each other has done more to define their careers than almost any other factor. Joe Kuharich was the only ND coach to have a losing record, but the 25-0 loss to John McKay's USC team in his fourth year undoubtedly helped to usher him out the door. In fact, it might have been Kuharich's 3-0 record to that point that helped him keep his job even through his 12-18 performance over his first three seasons.
Kuharich's exit helped to pave the way for Ara Parseghian and his titanic struggles with McKay. Although Ara was only 3-6-2 against McKay, nearly every year the game helped to define the season for at least one team. In 1964, 1970 and 1974 season-ending losses to USC killed national championship dreams for the Irish. Victories by ND in 1966 and 1973 meant national championships. Wins by otherwise unremarkable USC teams in 1970 and 1971 helped McKay keep the critics at bay while he was rebuilding for a USC national championship in 1972 and a split title in 1974.
The pattern continued with Devine and Robinson. Devine suffered close losses to McKay's last team and Robinson's first in 1975 and 1976, but then the 49-19 demolition of the Trojans in the famous "green jersey" game in 1977 set the stage for ND's national championship that year. Without that game, Devine would not have a place in ND's hall of great coaches, but with it he does.
The next year's game in 1978 also defined the season. Down apparently hopelessly in Los Angeles, Devine's team led by Joe Montana rallied improbably to take a 25-24 lead. USC's desperation drive appeared foiled by an obvious fumble that was recovered by ND, but the play was called an incomplete pass, and USC kept the ball and kicked a field goal and claimed another split national championship.
Devine's departure at the beginning of the 1980 season was probably hastened by a convincing 42-23 win by the Trojans in 1979 at Notre Dame. That game and another excellent season for USC (11-0-1 and a Rose Bowl win) made clear that there was a widening talent gap between the two programs.
This brought Gerry Faust to Notre Dame, who was chosen in large part because of his ebullient personality that was thought to be a recruiting advantage that ND lacked with the taciturn and odd Devine. Faust actually did recruit well at some positions, but now the rivalry entered a dangerous phase with both programs now lacking in leadership
Hit by probation in 1980, Robinson's teams were never the same. Although he beat Faust in 1981 and 1982 both games were extremely close, and the 1982 win depended upon USC being given a touchdown on a play where the ball was clearly fumbled at about the 2 yard line.
USC turned to Ted Tollner and suddenly Faust looked a lot better. Faust's 1983 team drilled Tollner's 27-6. In 1984 Faust's team again beat Tollner's team (which this year actually won the Rose Bowl) and then in Faust's final 5-6 year he improbably whipped Tollner's team 37-3.
Faust, then, was one of ND's mediocre coaches who was not done in by USC because Southern Cal itself had mediocre coaching. Rather it was Faust's overall inept performance (capped by the 58-7 Miami game) that sealed his fate. But suppose that Faust had not beaten USC convincingly in 1983. Would Fr. Hesburgh have insisted so strongly on Faust getting another two years? Holtz probably would have been hired two years earlier (he was the runner-up to Faust in 1980) and with fewer holes to plug might have turned things around even more quickly.
Now enter in 1986 Lou Holtz on ND's side, who would actively assist Trojan coaching changes. Holtz's snakebit 1986 team entered the USC contest at 4-6 and facing a USC team that was once 6-2 and had already accepted a bid to the Citrus Bowl. Down 37-20 in the fourth quarter, fate stood still as Tollner decided to go for it on fourth down to put the game away. ND's beleaguered defense held and the Irish rallied bravely to win the game, 38-37, in a contest that would do as much to define Holtz's career as any other. (Try finding another game shown repeatedly by ESPN Classic where the participants were a combined 12-11 that year.) And, by the way, Tollner was finished at USC.
USC turned to the more capable Larry Smith. Smith was a reasonable coach: his career record was 143-126-1, and that included stops at places where it isn't always easy to win--Tulane, Arizona and Missouri. He was 44-25-1 at USC. But he . . just . . . couldn't . . . beat . . . Holtz.
Smith actually took USC to the Rose Bowl his first year, but he lost convincingly in South Bend. In his second year (1988) his team was undefeated and ranked No. 2 behind No. 1 ND. If there were a moment again where fate stood still it again turned its smile to Holtz. The game looked as though it might be competitive until late in the first half when USC QB Rodney Peete threw an interception and then was leveled on a block on the return by ND defensive end Frank Stams. ND returned the interception for a touchdown, Peete wobbled back to the locker room and ND exited with a 27-10 win and a national championship awaited.
Smith's last really good USC team led ND 17-7 at the half the next year in South Bend. After USC players mocked the ND fight song as the teams broke for halftime, ND returned with manic energy in the second half and won 28-24. (Trojan fans, by the way, complain with some justification about a spot that took away a first down in the second half and killed a Southern California drive.) Smith came close in his last three years at ND (losing 10-6, 24-20 and 31-23) but his 0-6 mark against ND sealed his fate.
USC returned to Robinson in 1993 in large part because he actually had a track record of beating ND. He fared somewhat better than had Smith. Holtz won convincingly 31-13 in 1993 (without starting QB Kevin McDougal), the teams tied 17-17 in 1994, USC got whipped 38-10 in 1995, and then broke through improbably with a 27-20 overtime win in 1996.
ND, still relatively fresh off unparalleled success against USC, made the uninspired hire of Bob Davie. Perhaps had ND been pushed harder by USC, the Irish would have turned to a more established and successful coach. But ND's leadership exhibited no particular urgency in the coaching search. The programs then entered another dangerous phase with both headed by mediocre coaches.
Robinson was again in decline but still had enough in the tank to beat ND 20-17 in Davie's first year. Perhaps lulled by the wins over ND, USC then made a lackluster hire in Paul Hackett (whose prior head coaching experience consisted of a13-20-1 stint at Pitt). The two weak coaches produced close games that helped mask each others' deficiencies.
In 1998 Davie appeared to have the upper hand with a team that was 9-1, but he stupidly allowed starting QB Jarious Jackson to take a hit in the end zone on a safety at the end of the LSU game, and ND entered the USC game with essentially no quarterback. Only freshman Arnaz Battle was able to move the team at all and the Irish lost 10-0 and USC managed to salvage its regular season at 8-4.
In 1999 ND benefited from an unbelievable twist of fate. Down 24-6 on a windy, rainy afternoon, ND took advantage of the wind in the third quarter to close the gap. Then somehow the wind switched and the Irish also had the wind in the final period and ND escaped with a 25-24 win. ND finished the season 5-7, but might Davie's fate perhaps been sealed had ND lost to USC and finished 4-8? Certainly had USC been capably coached, wind or no wind, the Irish would not have won that game.
His career perhaps saved by Hackett, in 2000 Davie benefited from a favorable schedule to get the Irish to the cusp of a BCS game at 8-2 and heading to Los Angeles against USC. Hackett, though he had beaten UCLA the week before, stood on the sidelines with the sword of Damocles over his head. After Davie's Irish dominated to win 38-20, Hackett was done and Davie had a new contract.
Then enter Pete Carroll on USC's sideline. Carroll was left something of a mismatched set by Hackett and his team struggled in the early going in 2001 and started 1-4. Davie actually handed Carroll the largest defeat of that year (of his college coaching career, for that matter), 27-16, but it wasn't enough to save Davie's job. Because of USC's lackluster performance, Davie lasted perhaps two years longer than he would have.
The last three years, well, that brings us back to the starting point: where would we be without Pete Carroll? Here's my guess: Willingham would still be coaching ND and Weis would be working his wizardry with the Miami Dolphins.
So, while I'm not ready to say "Fight on," I will say "Right on." Each university is better off in the long run when the other makes a good coaching hire. So keep Carroll as long as you can. Replace him with somebody good when he goes.
And bring your "A" game Trojans; you're going to need it.
Pete Carroll's Contribution to ND Football
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