Baxter helping put the band back together

USC's 2013 season was his most rewarding ever in his coaching career, John Baxter says. He'd like another shot at it.

There's a movie plot from his home town of Chicago that just might describe what's going on with John Baxter and friends back coaching at USC football right now.

You know, where the Blues Brothers put the band back together for a big performance to save the orphanage. Well, isn't that what Clay Helton, Tee Martin, Tommy Robinson, Clancy Pendergast and Baxter are trying to do here? Getting the old 2013 band back together?

"I think you could say that," Baxter says. "Clay is putting together a staff of known quantities."

And for Baxter, the prospect of getting a chance to do it all again at USC without the NCAA sanctions and all the other limitations of his four years here from 2010 through 2013, makes him smile. That last season, after losing head coach Lane Kiffin in midseason, was "my most rewarding year ever in coaching," he says, "and I've been doing this 30 years." Thirty-four years to be exact.

"People can say all the negative things they want about Lane, but he put together a heck of a staff of guys who in spite of him, in lieu of him and without him, did a heck of a job," Baxter says. As to Lane, the coach, "He's a heck of an offensive coordinator. Look what he''s doing at Alabama."

That 2011 season when USC figured out how to get physical with Matt Kalil, Rhett Ellison and Ross Cummings and finished 10-2 was another great moment for him at USC. But then there was last year.

His lone season at Michigan, Baxter says, may be his second-most rewarding considering how Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines, talent-wise, had no business getting themselves within one mishandled punt of playing Ohio State for the right to go to the College Football Playoffs. And no business beating Florida 41-7 in the Citrus Bowl. No way. Maybe 15 good players lined up for Michigan -- tops.

And yes, as the special teams coach, Baxter says that play that cost Michigan the chance to move on to the Big Ten championship game when Michigan State grabbed a bobbled punt snap and missed kick attempt to score the winning touchdown as the clock expired was "my worst memory in coaching. You can ask about it," he says.

But he'll also tell you proudly how Michigan went from 96th in special teams efficiency rankings in 2014 to No. 1 for much of 2015 eventually finishing at No. 12. As for USC, last year the Trojans were No. 91.

If there's any negative tint on his time with the Big Blue, Baxter doesn't show it. His only thought after the Michigan State game, he says, was to make sure his punter, Aussie Blake O'Neill, who had earlier booted one 80 yards, "was going to be all right . . . the kid made an error, like a shortsop missing the ball. That's it."

How well he's bounced back, Baxter says proudly, is the recent news that Harbaugh just hired O'Neill as Michigan's assistant director of football operations.

But as Baxter looks around his old office that's home again, he points out the wires still hanging down down from the ceiling where once attached was his beloved trophy shark. A shark that will soon be back up there, Baxter -- as all his special teams guys call him -- says. "It's in transit from Ann Arbor. That's my shark."

And this is his new team now, as he points at the board where every USC player for this spring is listed by position. "Not many there since I was last here in 2013," Baxter says, ticking off a half-dozen names. But the names that are there draw this response.

"We didn't have players like that," he says of Michigan. "It's one of the reasons I came back."

Yes, there is some "unfinished business," he says quietly using an expression that hasn't been heard at USC since 2012 and it's unfortunate connection to Matt Barkley's senior season.

But this is indeed home. "I've never fallen out of love with USC," Baxter says. He didn't want to leave. None of the coaches did. But after the best year he's ever experienced in coaching -- individually and collectively -- in 2013, he knew they were gone.

"We all did," Baxter says, echoing Robinson from a couple of days earlier. But if Steve Sarkisian didn't do anything for him and his returning coaching mates when it came to keeping them, he did the next best thing.

"Look at that board," says Baxter, who will also be handling tight ends for USC. There are players here. Plenty of them.

The job of a coach, he says, "is to figure out who a kid is and then what it takes to build around him for him to succeed."

And sure, on this morning as Baxter plays and replays the two blocked punts from the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska to figure out what exactly was going on there, he talks about "what I call the pause-button experts." How we can all figure out what to do when you pause the action on the video and realize how Nebraska overloaded one side and the USC blockers and punter, for some reason, went the other way.

"What you want to get them to be able to do is do that when the bullets are flying -- in real time," Baxter says, although he says not to take that as a war reference. "This isn't war. I like to think of it as fighting."

At USC this year, figuring out which players are where isn't going to happen "until at least after the 15 spring practices." The only special teamer who was here when Baxter was coaching in 2013 is long snapper Zach Smith. So there's a definite learning curve for the coaches.

One good thing that's happened since he was last here, Baxter says, is how "when I had our guys kick it on the ground," he says of the rugby-style punting, "they were booing me." Now almost everyone, including USC with Aussie Chris Tilbey in line to step up to the job, seems to be doing it that way.

But the theme of that 2013 season colors much of the way Baxter approaches things now. "We had every reason to surrender," he says, "numbers, injuries, the head coach gone and we know we're gone." But they didn't. He remembers thinking "we're going to treat this team like it's a Volkswagen rent-a-car and push it as hard and as far as it will go and leave it by the side of the road."

Just as last year's Michigan team, after an opening loss to Utah, figured out how to go on and shut out three straight opponents including a Northwestern team that had beaten Stanford.

And now there's another turnaround project in the works. Some of what Baxter brings here he picked up at Fresno State where a Bulldog team that "didn't have a single player that got a recruiting letter from USC," he says, gave the No. 1 Trojans all they wanted and more in 2005 with assistant coaches that moved up and on every couple of years.

"From 1999 through the next decade, the model for player development programs was Fresno State and Boise State." And now USC, without the limits of NCAA sanctions, has no excuses for not doing the same kind of developing of players.

Credit the ability to develop players to a head coach like Fresno State's Pat Hill who understood that the coaching came from his assistant coaches and his job was to make them successful and to coach them up so they could coach the players.

During his time at USC when Oregon ascended to the top of the Pac-12, only two teams managed to beat the high-flying Ducks -- USC and Stanford. How did they do that, Baxter asks, and as he often does, answers his own question: "Mental and physical toughness," he says, echoing new O-line coach Neil Callaway's take on what's important in winning football games.

"It's a game that's still about imposing your will on your opponent," Baxter says. "What wins in November and December is tough, physical football."

And just as USC did in 2011 with Kalil, Ellison and Cummings, you have to find out who your tough guys are, he says. "That's what we did with Matt, Rhett and Ross, we let them express who they were."

You don't make them tough, Baxter says. But you allow their tough inner core to shine through by what you do with them. "We help guys to be the best versions of themselves. Look at that 2013 team. The same guys" the first five games and the last nine but extremely different results.

From Kiffin to Ed Orgeron, things changed -- immediately. "We did the same thing last year at Michigan," Baxter says.

How is that possible? "You either seize the moment or you seize the problem," he says. Those teams did. So must this one. Looking at the 2016 schedule also on his board, he says: "That schedule is murder."

But it helps set the tone for what must happen here. "A relentless pursuit of doing the right thing," Baxter says. "That is the formula and it's what we have to teach them to do."

And in what will be music to many USC fans' ears, Baxter has his own version of that great John McKay quote that you could apply to the previous two USC head coaches who really wanted to be offensive coordinators -- that's our comment, not Baxter's: "It's not about the X's and Os, it's the Jimmy's and Joe's," McKay famously said.

Baxter says it this way: "The answer is not in the plays, it's in the players."

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