"Inside SC" with Kennedy Pola

When a school is called Tailback U the coach of the running backs carries on a proud tradition. Kennedy Pola knows what's involved, he played fullback for the Trojans from 1982-85, and he is known for his passion and pride for USC. Click below to hear Pola's thoughts on a wide range of topics relating to Trojan football and the position he calls "the most exciting at the University of Southern California"...

What's special about playing RB at USC?


"What's special?  It's the history here.  You can go back to guys like Jon Arnett, Mike Garrett, Clarence Davis, OJ, Ricky Bell…the list goes on and on.  Charlie White, Marcus Allen, Ricky Ervins.  To me the running backs are the toughest guys on the football field.  It's also the most exciting position at this University.  History tells you that.  The most exciting position at the University of Southern California is the running back. 


I always tell the guys that if a fan gets up to grab a hot dog while we're on offense then we're not very exciting.  The way it should be for a running back at USC is that if a fan gets a hot dog while we're on offense then he's gonna miss something.  An old coach always said "a good running back can bring you to your feet" and that's what we want to do."


How does that tradition get passed down through the select RB fraternity?


"It's taught.  It's talked about.  There's a standard here, I coach at a certain standard because the torch was passed on to coach the USC running backs to that standard.  I put this uniform on here.  It's a privilege, it's not just given to you, you have to earn it."


Who taught that to you when you were a player?


"It was passed on by the seniors at the time and through the bond between them and the offensive line.  Hudson Houck was the line coach and he just said "we're gonna be the toughest son-of-a-guns out there".  He understood what it took.  He played here, he coached here.  He knew what it took on the practice field to be successful.  We competed to be the best, the competition on the practice field prepared you for how to play the games.  Whoever was playing the running back position knew that if he took the wrong turn by not running hard then someone else was gonna be right in there."


What traits do you look for in recruiting a Trojan running back?


"I think it's character. I really do.  I want a guy that's accountable, someone who is not a flaky person.  Obviously you look for the talent.   He needs to have certain speeds and agilities or else we won't recruit him but when I get to learn the young man it's the character I look for.  I want a young man who is accountable to his teammates and his coaches.  Next on the list is toughness.  I want a tough SOB.  I tough SOB who doesn't know what the word quit is.  You've got to have passion.  I'll take a guy who loves to play the game over a guy who looks pretty anytime."


What did you love about the mindset of playing fullback?


"I loved going out to bust your ass and knock the shit out of somebody.  I was a linebacker when I came to USC and it's the same thing in terms of reading the hole and finding somebody to hit.  I just wanted to instill my will on somebody. 


I remember as a freshman we had played Stanford with John Elway and that was the last time I played defense because the coaches came to me the next day and said "all the fullbacks are banged up and we need you, are you willing to do it?" and I said "sure, as long as I get to go back to linebacker after the season is over".  Well, that was Coach Robinson's last year as well so that's when I learned that things can change for players and coaches too."


What are the memories that you hold dear from playing at USC?


"Some of the memories are my first game on the field as a running back or the last time I put on the Cardinal jersey.  The series with UCLA, that was really important to me.  I remember when we played them in 1982, it was the first year they used the Rose Bowl as their home field, and we were going for a two-point conversion. I was the only back in the backfield as a true freshman and they called timeout so I'm standing there taking a look around just going "Wow, this is why I came here".  I remember the Notre Dame game when Michael Harper went over the top, people can question that call but it looked good to me (laughing).


The camaraderie is special.  The coaches who have coached here, the teachers, I don't know if people realize the fraternity of coaches who have come through the University of Southern California.  It's good to see former teammates doing well.  Seeing Sean Salisbury with his mouth and saying "yeah, I knew he was gonna do something like that" or watching Rodney Peete still playing or Jack Del Rio as a head coach.  It was special when I got a phone call from Jack asking "are you coming with me to Jacksonville?" and saying no to him was hard.  The bond from being a Trojan is just unbelievable."


You also had a TD pass in your career.


"Yep, to Timmie Ware, 65 yards babe.  The thing about it was they had the play in there every year.  I was a quarterback before I got to high school, never lost a game as a QB.  When I got to Mater Dei the coach wanted me to play RB and LB because he just couldn't see a guy who bigger than everybody else playing quarterback.  We called it the first play against Stanford, I remember they had a safety who was saying "they got the big fat guy in the backfield, it's gonna be a run".  Well, they pitched that thing, everybody came up and I hit Timmie on a post corner, it was one of those fun moments."


Were you always a Trojan, did you know this is where you would play?


"I did the typical recruiting deal.  I lived with a guardian, Ray and Barbara Alvarado in Orange County, and he was an attorney who went to USC but his sons went to Stanford and Cal.  I took a trip to Penn State, was recruited for Alabama by Bear Bryant, did that whole deal.  My brother ended up going to Penn State two years later and played on a national championship team.  I flew out in a private jet to Notre Dame, took a trip to Seattle with Coach James. 


That experience helped me too in recruiting for my profession.  I went through it all and I watched how different men approached their profession.  I had Coach Osborne from Nebraska in my home and I remember having to ask him to leave because he was late and Coach John Robinson was coming in for a visit.  The academics, the social environment, the thought of leaving home, I've been through all those emotions that a young man goes through in terms of the recruiting process and I feel I can relate to these young men who are trying to make a decision on where to go to school. 


The hardest part was when I was coaching somewhere else and a kid was deciding between that school and USC.  The kid would come to me and say "Coach, why are you telling me to come to your school when USC is offering?  Why did you go to USC?" and I'd have to try to get around it but now that I'm here it's easier because it's from the heart."


Was coaching something you knew you would do?


"No, it was Coach Tollner who kind of pulled me aside and said "you have this leadership, everybody just listens to you, the linemen, the quarterbacks, they all listen and that kind of leadership would work well in coaching".  The next thing is with football is that I always had fun.  I had fun kicking ass, that's what I had fun doing.  I tell the running backs that I don't accept losing, I really don't.  I get pissed.  I can't stand it, I just can't stand it. 


Now, I also tell these young men not to take anything personal because I'm gonna give them everything I have.  I'll open my home to them, I'll open my office, just leave my hand open to them.  That's the way it's always been because of the people who have done it for me.  I always thought that was the best way of coaching.  Be tough but fair.  Be available.  Follow through.  To me character is everything.  Be honest with them.  If something's not working then be honest instead of just holding on and hoping that it's gonna work itself out because it's not." 


What are the fundamentals you teach to the running backs? 


"Ball security, pass protection and running hard.  Always, every day, we're doing something to teach those things.  What's been good for me is this is the first consecutive years that I've been coaching the running backs, the first time I've had back-to-back years.  When I came in under Hackett we had the spring and then the season but then he was gone and the next spring I was coaching special teams.  It was hard to keep things growing so this spring was the first time we've been able to keep that momentum building through the spring. 


I think one of the best things that happened to me was playing fullback here because you learn to read defenses, to understand alignments, to know who is responsible for what.   As a fullback once you understand the defenses then you understand the line blocking because you learn where to fit and where you have to fit relates to how the back helps you fit.  That's why the coaching of running backs has always been a passion for me."


Describe how the running back and fullback work together.


"The running back has to help the fullback.  A lot of times as a fullback you know you have that linebacker but you can't get to that linebacker by just going straight.  Somebody in the front is going to move to allow you to get there and you have to understand where you fit.  Defenses don't just line up and say "OK, you got that gap, you got that gap, let's go".  No, the linebackers are moving around doing different things so a fullback has to understand all that and a tailback has to understand it as well in order to help him block that guy.  He doesn't take one step toward the hole and then just take off outside. 


It's kind of what we saw from Sultan this year. He didn't understand that if he just pressed it a little more that linebacker or DL would have to come to that gap and that helps his fullback.  You don't just want to try to outrun everybody because then you've got a 5.2 offensive lineman or a 4.8 fullback trying to chase down and block a 4.6 linebacker and that won't work.  It's a process you need to go through because you can get away with it against bad teams but against a good, disciplined defense it won't work.  As coach you say "hey, give him a hand, he got away with it but they'll get you in a big game".  It translates to the guys and when we had our big games this year we played disciplined football and the rewards came.  When we practice against our own guys they're real disciplined and so that helps our backs focus.  Defenses have to play sound defense against us.  We'll break you down if you're not disciplined." 


Talk about the dynamic between the running backs and the offensive line.


"The two are tied together at the hip because the success of a good running back gives an offensive lineman a chance.  I tell my guys that an offensive lineman runs in the 5.0 to 5.2 range while a linebacker is usually 4.6 to 4.8 so if there's a space in there the linebacker is gonna win.  What we need to do as running backs is just press it in there so we force the defense to play their gap defense, bring those linebackers a little tighter, and then our big old linemen can get a hold of them and we can use our quickness to separate from that.  It all ties together.  Pass protection is the same way.  If we release and we see the rib cage of a defensive lineman we're gonna knock him out.  That way we take some fight out of them and by the fourth quarter we're roaring and they're kind of beat up after taking body shots all day."


What does it take to throw your body at the hole on a running play? What kind of mindset does it take to do that over and over?


"Confidence.  You'll see that with young guys who come in, they don't have the confidence.  What we teach here is to see.  How we see is how we communicate.  You have to understand the defense to see it.  We want to teach them how to run hard and in order to run hard you have to see.  You're not just gonna run there because that's where coach told you to go.  We want you to press the linemen and force the defense to play that disciplined gap defense so if they falter at all we make them pay and then the defense is looking at you and saying "damn, we just called our best defense and they still handed it to us, what do we do now?"  To answer the original question of what gets you through that hole, it's confidence.  Confidence in yourself and knowing what's going to be there."


Talk about Hershel Dennis.


"I recruited Hershel even though I wasn't the running backs coach at the time.  I always thought that if you could get both Hershel and Lorenzo Booker in the same year that would be great but if I could only have one it would've been Hershel.  I really thought he had a chance to be good so I put a lot of energy into it.  When I became running back coach again and he was here I was really happy. 


The nice thing has been for Hershel to be here last fall and now here in the spring he's so far ahead.  When he misses a cut he'll tell you why he missed that cut.  He'll say "Coach, I shouldn't have went that way because the free safety was there", you know, he saw it before it happened.  His vision is just tremendous.  Malaefou MacKenzie told me one time, "Coach, I like your coaching because you always taught me to play a play ahead, I saw it before it happened" and that's what Hershel does. 


How special can he be?  With his work ethic and football smarts he can be very special but I think that about all my football players.  If I didn't believe that I wouldn't have the passion for what I do.  I believe every single guy is gonna be special.  I've always believed that trust is the easiest way to motivate.  If they don't trust you it doesn't matter what you say because it's going in one ear and out the other.  I'm not here to make a big name for myself, I'm already fine.  I've got my family, as long as my kids call me Dad, as long as they say I'm a good Dad, I'm happy.  I want my guys to be proud that I'm their coach and to do that I need all of them to be proud."


Give us your thoughts on the fullback position. 


"The fullback spot, I don't like using negative words but we didn't get a chance to improve this spring.  The exception was Lee Webb, he really got the grasp of the offense but with Brandon hurt and Kirtman hurt it really hurt a lot because that was a chance for them to really grow.  With another year under our belt though I think we're gonna be better. 


They're starting to understand the terminology, Brandon is starting to see the play and understand what his options are.  You need to eliminate all other thoughts and focus on the two or three options to say "how am I gonna get this guy into one of those options? If he slants I go here, if he stays out I go there."  Brandon did not grasp that his first year, he will tell you that.  Kirtman does grasp that, he is a very smart football player.  He just needs to get tougher, thicker.  David needs to learn how to go knock the living out of some guy and that's what Lee Webb does.  If Lee knows who to get, he'll go get him.  They're gonna be fine, the fullbacks will be ready. 


I'm excited for them because what happened last year with the role Malaefou played is that I have to be careful to make sure they don't try to be that guy.  It's a whole different package now because Malaefou was always that guy, under both Hackett and Carroll, who was part of all the conversations wondering how to get him on the field.  He was talented at both spots but was he talented enough to be the main guy? No.  Well, if he wasn't #1 then he wasn't playing so you needed to figure out a way to get him out there.  With Hackett they called him the "Rocket" back, a combination fullback/tailback, when I coached special teams they called him "Pony".  We fought it and fought it but last year with the emergence of Fargas and Sultan we said let's just call it base, he's a fullback, and once he accepted that things were fine.  Now these young fullbacks are looking at him and saying "I need to trim down" but I'm telling them that worked for Malaefou.  Brandon was all of a sudden slimming down, he was trying to be a ball catcher, but I told him I want him to be a striker.  I want him to go take some blood out of some guy so that by the fourth quarter the guy's saying "I don't want to be hit anymore by that guy".   That's what these fullbacks need to do.  Obviously they need to be able to catch.  We have three goals for them; you've got to be a blocker, you've got to be a ball-catcher and the last one is a ball-carrier." 


Talk about the incoming freshmen.


"Boy, the most anticipated group of freshmen in all my years of coaching.  They need to play.  I don't know how they're gonna handle that pressure yet.  I've spent more time with Reggie and Chauncey than with Lendale being from out of state.  Lendale did come out and spend four days with us during spring ball and, I'll tell you what, it's exciting.  They all kind of remind me of Hershel.  They all do.  The eagerness to learn.  I mean, Hershel thought he should start last year.  You gotta love him for it, he was next to me the whole time "Coach, Coach, I'm ready.  If you need me, I'm ready".  I had Fargas running up and down the field and Hershel's in my ear going "Coach, I can do that".  I know those guys are gonna be the same way.  Hershel might be the one out there but those guys are gonna be right there letting me know they're ready. 


With Reggie, it's speed.  Speed, hands, vision.  Reggie's tough too. We're gonna have to put some weight back on him after track season.  Lendale is physical, good hands, eager to learn.  Chauncey is gonna be a surprise to everybody.  Our weight room people supervised him on his lifts and they said "boy, he's gonna be a big kid".  They like him.  With Hershel's leadership on setting the tempo for the way you practice and the way you learn these guys are gonna be fine.


The number one thing we need to do is eliminate a lot of the distractions for these guys when they first get in here cause they don't know anything from anything.  You've got to make sure their housing is right, that's important coming from a guy who played as a true freshman.  I go back to being on this campus, coming to Salute to Troy, those guys are gonna have their eyes wide open because that's gonna be bigger than any banquet they ever had in high school.  I remember Marv Goux asking me as a freshman "what's the biggest crowd you ever played in front of?" and I said "15,000 or 20,000". Marv said "How'd you like to play in front of 80,000 screaming people? Wait until you go to Norman or South Bend and they're right on top of you."  As a coach I'm gonna use my experience of going into the Swamp to play the Florida Gators in the opener as a true freshman in the humidity and having my name called on the 2nd play of the game because Jack Del Rio can't feel his shoulder.  Suddenly I'm on the field against an SEC team, I couldn't find my mouthpiece, I didn't know what to do.  I was hanging out with the other freshmen, looking around, having all the people yelling "Gator Bait!"


You had the unique pleasure the past few years of coaching at USC with your nephew Troy Polamalu on the team.  Talk about that.


"It goes way back.  It goes back to my sister getting a divorce and finding a direction for my nephew.  When my mom and dad passed away they told me "take care of your nephews and nieces".  I had the pleasure of having the Alvarado's, of going to college, I was getting my degree and all they were asking me to do was take care of my family.  When Troy was growing up in Oregon my brother would call and tell me he was doing well but the first opportunity I had to bring him to camp was while I was coaching at CU.  It was his junior camp, he came out there and ran a 4.5 on the turf and his vertical was 40".  I had told Neuheisel he would end up offering him a scholarship because I know my family and, boom, he offered right away.  I figured I would be staying at CU, Troy would come there, everything would be fine.   Well, the coaching changed, as I'd experienced as a player, and the recruiting process became available again. 


We started pushing him to the Pac-10 schools, basically we were trying to push him to where there was baseball because Colorado didn't have baseball.  I called some people at SC and just said "hey, this young man is a real talent".  They evaluated him, had a vote and 7 of the 9 coaches said no to offering him a scholarship.  At that point I figured, fine, I was headed to Washington so he would just come with me.  He checked out Oregon State, Oregon, Stanford was meddling around a little because of baseball, see he was a better baseball player than a football player, there were more baseball scouts watching him than college scouts.  He went to Washington State and Illinois and then USC came in late and offered him a trip.  I said to him "if they give you a trip they're gonna give you a scholarship" because I knew once they met the young man they would say yes.  


It was the 2nd to last week of trips and the final week he was scheduled to visit Washington.  I had just been up visiting with Troy and his family in Oregon and was actually on the same flight to Los Angeles with him.  Coach Steve Greatwood comes to pick him up at the airport and he sees me coming off the plane with him and says "man, that's not fair".  I went back to Seattle and that Monday Troy called and said "Uncle, they offered me".  I said "wow, that's great" and he said "would you be really mad if I went to USC?"  I asked why and he said "because I know you want me up at Washington" and I said "heck no, take it".  A year later I go to San Diego State and then end up coaching here.  Before he went to USC though as a freshman he lived with me and trained for six weeks.  I wanted him ready for the college environment.  We made a pact that no alcohol would be involved and he stuck to it.  I had so much fun watching his freshman year whenever I could and he was diving all over the place, the hit he made on Dennis Northcutt, I'm just going "wow".  Then comes his sophomore year and I get to be with him.  It was like having a son here.  Everything he did he earned it, he worked hard at it. 


I'm a lot wealthier now that he's not around (laughing).  He was always borrowing money, he didn't abuse it but he was always knocking on the door.  I miss him, I really do.  I miss his smile, I miss his work ethic, he brings an excitement to everything around him.  When he could not play in that Orange Bowl it hurt so bad. It really was hard.  I talked to him before the game and he told me the hamstring was hurting. I told him not to do anything, to give it his best effort and if he couldn't go we could look at it at halftime.  I find out later that he takes the shot and can't feel anything in his leg.  That's where I failed him as an uncle, not as a coach, as an uncle I should have made sure that never happened.  After the game he came in the room, he was sad but he said "Uncle, let's make a plan.  I want to be ready for the draft, I want to be ready for Pro Day at USC".  We laid it out, his girlfriend took care of his diet, he worked out with Marv Marinovich, he was doing physical therapy with Jim Donahue twice a day.  Pro Day came and he ran a 4.3 with a vertical of 43.5 and I just said "man, that's what I'm talking about".  


It's been nice to be able to go through the draft with him and I can't imagine a team that wouldn't want them on their team, especially once they meet him.  How special was it to coach him?  It was special.  When I saw him on the sideline with his head down I could get into him a little more than other coaches could.  He knows what I want, he knows how I feel it.  It didn't matter what the situation, he would sacrifice his body to do it."


Final Note - Petros Papadakis played RB for Kennedy Pola in 2000 and had the following thoughts on his former coach:


"What made Pola the best RB coach I ever had was the intangibles.  There's something about a coach when you trust him, when you know he cares about you the right way in your development as a player and a person.   He knows how to teach fundamentals and how to do it with passion.  He simplifies things, I learned a lot about how to do that from him.  Even his worst players get better under him because he genuinely cares about you getting better and you don't want to let him down.  He's also the emotional leader because he's crazy. He loves SC in a Goux-like way.  In a day when college football is filled with guys who bounce around from school to school he is loyal and loves his university.  Kennedy Pola is a coach of football players.  God, he's good". 



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