John Baxter is back

The special teams guru heads back to USC after a year at Michigan.

He's back.

"Baxter," as his special teams guys call John Baxter, sat out a season after Steve Sarkisian told him he was no longer needed at the end of 2013 and then headed off to Ann Arbor with Jim Harbaugh last year.

And now he's back after four seasons at USC from 2010 to 2013 where in addition to his special teams duties, he was also associate head coach and added tight ends his final season.

And now he's back to pose his questions. And scheme his schemes. And have some serious fun with an emphasis on both of those words -- serious and fun.

And yes, we know if it were up to Baxter, there would be no media at practices. He liked it that way. The practice field was his classroom, he said. Not a public place.

And of course we disagree. Without the media there, no one would know exactly the way Baxter goes about his business. And maybe Michigan wouldn't have called. And USC wouldn't have called back.

There is a bit of a cult following about the guy. And he's earned it. He's a hoot much of the time. Although if he ever asks, we'd tell him never, ever bring back that two-point option extra point shuffle. Looks good on paper. In practice, using both definitions of the word, it's a no-go.

But that's about it. "Having worked alongside him in the past, I know Coach Baxter as one of the best teachers and skill developers in football today," Clay Helton said of the 34-year coaching veteran in a statement released by USC Thursday.

Baxter's impact at Michigan was immediate. After finishing No. 96 nationally in ESPN's special teams efficiency rankings in 2014, the Wolverines improved to No. 12 -- and that's after ranking No. 1 the first two months of the season. UM was third nationally in kickoff returns, an area where No. 110 USC struggled mightily.

Baxter, 52, was part of that turnaround 2013 Trojan staff that came together so well under Ed Orgeron after the midseason firing of Lane Kiffin, who hired them, for a 6-2 finish. Coaches don't always do that. They're often rightly figuring out their next move.

But those USC coaches didn't do that. They got together and got a USC team, in the teeth of the NCAA sanctions and after its head coach had been sacked, to a 10-4 finish. And with a limited roster that often could call on originally recruited scholarship numbers in the 40s for games.

Despite the sanctions, USC managed a pair of 10-win seasons with Baxter here. And players like Soma Vainuku, Rhett Ellison, Nelson Agholor, Andre Heidari and Kyle Negrete became special teams stars on a Trojans team that blocked seven kicks in two of Baxter's seasons here and six in another.

A graduate of Iowa's Loras College, the Chicago native has coached from Arizona to Maine and from Maryland to Tulane. But his 13 years at Fresno State were his signature moment when he turned the Bulldogs special teams into a West Coast version of Virginia Tech's "Beamer Ball," blocking 84 kicks and punts (including a national-best 49 from 2002 through 2009) while scoring 39 special teams touchdowns.

Back in December of 2013 when it was obvious most of the USC coaches wouldn't be coming back, I wrote this: "I'll miss John Baxter's Socratic style and sayings for every sort of situation, the way he hugs his guys after the game, the ones who call him simply, and lovingly, 'Baxter,' with the T-shirts that say just that. You knew he knew he wasn't coming back."

And now he is.

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