The John Baxter Experience

How the special teams coach has helped USC embrace unconventional improvement on and off the field.

Ask John Baxter about the labeling, and he will, at first, chuckle. Question him about the reasoning behind adding a name tag to nearly everything he owns, and he will explain.

“I don’t want my stuff to get lost,” he says matter-of-factly, as he sits down on a black leather couch inside the John McKay Center on the USC campus. The special teams coach with more than 30 years of experience pulls a pair of brown-rimmed glasses off his face. With his index finger, he points to the side of them, where a small, white rectangle is taped. It reads: John Baxter.

“There’s a lot of people in this place and I need to keep track of all my things,” he says of why he labels everything to keep track of it, all while constantly clicking the pen he held in his hand.

In the comfort of his own home, Baxter’s obsession with labeling takes on a whole new level. Pots and pans are labeled, as well as where they should be placed. Light switches are also labeled because, “How do you know what turns on what?” His clothes? Color-coded with a specific packing list taped right by them. That way, packing for trips only takes five minutes.

His daughter Kelly recalls how even the toaster in their home was labeled many times over. Every time her mom, Baxter’s wife, went to remove what, in their mind, was a nonsensical label, she would find more stuck underneath it. All with the word “Toaster” on them.

“I’m a little OCD about everything,” Baxter admits with a smile.

It’s this extreme attention to detail that spreads to every area of his life—his glasses, his play sheets, his clothes and, especially, his football. From making sure a lineman is lined up either an extra inch left or an extra inch right, to screaming as he demands a kick returner to cut upfield at the exact angle he desires, no detail ever goes unnoticed. Combined with his tenacity for teaching and his embrace for the unconventional, this ‘Baxter Effect’ has been strong enough to impact every player, every unit and every part of the USC football team.

“The very first words out of my mouth in the first team meeting were: ‘If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change,’” Baxter said.

Players immediately bought in. Bring up Baxter to any of them? - special teams or not - and they will either gush with praise or become speechless in trying to explain his effect.

“My favorite coach of all time,” said sophomore running back Dominic Davis.

“A genius,” Adoree Jackson called him.

“He’s the best coach I’ve had,” wide receiver Darreus Rogers exclaimed.

“He can visualize it his way and teach it in a way everyone on the team can understand,” tight end Tyler Petite said. “It’s almost like, easy.”

It all began with a phone call. From Los Angeles, head coach Clay Helton dialed up a 734 area code number in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Baxter, who had coached special teams at USC from 2010 to 2013, was coaching the same unit for the Michigan Wolverines. Helton had decided to lure him back into cardinal and gold.

“That was one of the hardest calls I’ve ever made in my life, to call Jim Harbaugh,” Helton admitted. “I know how valuable he was up there, and it’s like stealing a good man away from another guy…But it was definitely worth it.”

Even though the team under Harbaugh looked to be bound for greatness, Baxter opted for a return to the West Coast.

“He knows how special this place is,” Helton said. “He told me ‘I think there’s some unfinished business to do.’”

This season, Baxter has made as much a statistical impact as an intangible one.

USC has jumped nearly 60 spots up in ESPN’s special teams efficiency from 2015, and per Football Outsiders’ formula, they have the 7th-highest special teams efficiency in the nation. The team has also turned improvements in their punt and kickoff return games into Top-25 spots in those stats. Opponents are also returning fewer than 19 yards per kickoff and fewer than five yards per punt against them. The latter is good for 29th in the country, a stark contrast from their 119th-place finish in 2015.

“That guy has transformed our special teams,” Helton reiterated. “He’s a special guy and he’s a special teacher.”

Off the field and in the meeting rooms, Baxter has introduced his peculiar style and added unseen value through concepts that are not typical of the sport, but rather byproducts of his other interests and experiences.

“Once we were talking about controlling your hips in the punt return game,” linebacker Cameron Smith recalled. “He showed a video of a guy wrestling a bull and bringing his horns down and just how his feet completely stopped once his shoulders gave out. So it was a great way of showing us how, if you control their shoulders, a guy can’t run anymore.”

If Baxter lives and breathes football, the horses and the rodeo are his vacation, an external respite from his actual, everyday work.

When he first arrived to the West Coast via plane from Michigan after being re-hired by USC, he didn’t make the usual stop at the nearby LAX In-N-Out like many others do.

“I went to ride my horse for three hours,” he said. “First thing I did.”

Though he only gets to ride his horses three months a year, or as Baxter puts it, “Until after the bowl game,” his coaching approach — one that he has previously identified as “radically different” — incorporates what he’s learned from his hobby.

“He’s a funny guy. In the film room, he shows us videos of him doing his rodeo from time to time," said wide receiver Steven Mitchell, Jr..

“It’s all about the hips,” Baxter says of how he relates the rodeo to special teams. “If you watch how people steer and rope cattle, the hips are the most important part.”

On the field, Baxter’s abnormal tutelage is put into application.

During a typical practice, USC hits on various drills and scenarios. It may change from week to week and day to day, but one of the few staples is the roughly 25 minutes when Baxter takes over and monopolizes the field, for better or for worse. With his large cowboy hat in tow, his loud voice can be heard throughout Howard Jones Field as the team practices punts, kickoffs, field goals as part of the unique drills that Baxter has developed himself over 30 years.

A penchant for perfection, a stickler for correct techniques and a devotee of day-by-day improvement, Baxter also catalogs everything the unit does in a personal journal, something he has been doing since 1992.

One thing that hasn’t improved over the years, however, is his mood.

“I’m really never happy and that is a problem,” he admits. “My wife always says to me, ‘What are the players ever going to do that’s ever going to satisfy you?’ I know no matter what we do, there’s always more meat on the bone.” Abraham

There is one thing that truly makes Baxter happy: Winning.  

“Individual awards and accolades are nice,” he says when asked about his 2011 Special Teams Coach of the Year honor. “But to me, they’re like peeing your pants in a dark suit. Gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling all over, but nobody can really see it and nobody really cares.”

Winning. Not just on the football field, but everywhere else too.

“If I went out to the street and played you in pickup basketball, the message would be the same. I would try to beat you into submission,” he says with his eyes fully focused, as if this were an actual imminent challenge.

“I don’t care if we’re playing lawn darts, I’m going to try to win.”

Yet in the midst of the hyper-competitive environment that is college football, Baxter has somehow found the perfect balance between prioritizing success and showing a humanizing affinity for his players’ lives. Some have said he has taught them invaluable life lessons. Others say he’s showed them how to be a man, or how to treat the academic part of their college careers with utmost importance.

“I believe that we’re given access to these young people in ways that almost no other faculty member gets access to them. We get access to them in the morning, in the evening, at nighttime, on weekends and on holidays, they become part of our families,” he explains. “And if the only thing we ever talk about is football, then we’ve had a really shallow relationship.”

Baxter likes to say that he doesn’t care about special teams. He cares about football and football players. From the moment he pulled on his gray USC T-shirt, cargo shorts and cowboy hat, Baxter has been building those type of caring relationships with players. He makes sure every day he meets with them, it involves the whole team. He makes a concerted effort to celebrate players when they have success and support them when they don’t.

“I don’t believe in quality of time over quantity of time, because quantity of time is quality of time,” he says.

Baxter is a typical coach in that he doesn’t abide by anything but perfection on the field, but he’s an atypical one in that he expects nothing less of himself than to motivate players’ personal progress off the field. It’s all part of the formula he has been tinkering with for more than three decades, one that has led him to write a book about teaching and start an education company. It’s a formula that combines demands with kindness, one that thrives on coaching as much as it does teaching and one that decries participation trophies and champions ultimate success.

“When they put the losers ahead of the winners,” he says. “That’s what I’ll strive for.”

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Paolo Uggetti is a senior attending USC and covering USC Football for He is also part of a USC sports podcast, Sound of Troy. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaoloUggetti.

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