USC has seen a glorious, yet tumultuous 20-year period among the college football blue-blood brand.
Most college football fans aren’t aware of a program’s recruiting milestones. These are neither favorite nor top moments, but rather points in time where recruiting managed to impact the casual USC fan.
A Replacement For Reggie
Few, if any players, will ever have the impact on a football program the way Reggie Bush did for USC. Both positively and negatively, there are dozens of events which can be connected back to Bush. In some ways, Bush unknowingly sabotaged the recruitment of a player the USC coaching staff had earmarked as his true heir apparent. Virginia Beach (Va.) wide receiver Percy Harvin was that player. The Trojans were kings of college football and Harvin was the No. 1 player on their board.
USC had set his official visit for a homecoming game against Washington State. Joining him was another potential Bush replacement, Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt running back Lesean McCoy. However, McCoy showed up on campus in crutches from a broken ankle he suffered earlier in the season. He also had some of the worst transcripts that USC staff had ever reviewed. Last week, former Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt implied that McCoy would have ended up at USC if the Trojans weren’t scared off by his injury. That is plainly false. It was McCoy’s grades that caused USC and many other schools to back off of him late in the process. In fact, Wannstedt failed to mention that McCoy arrived at Pitt after attending Milford Academy to get his grades up.
McCoy loved his visit to Los Angeles, but Harvin’s trip didn't go as smoothly. Reggie Bush was Harvin's host for the weekend. The problem was, after the game, Bush left the team hotel to go hang out with Lloyd Lake at a club in Los Angeles. Bush often referred to Lake as his cousin, but he was an acquaintance of Bush’s stepfather, Lamar Griffin.
When USC running back’s coach Todd McNair called Harvin to check in on him, the Trojans No. 1 recruit was still at the team hotel by himself. That didn’t sit well with McNair, who immediately called Bush. However, Bush had given McNair several numbers to reach him. In addition to Bush’s regular cell phone number, which he did not answer, McNair called another number. That number happened to be Lake’s phone, who Reggie was with at the time. In a cruel twist of fate, the NCAA used this call log to accuse McNair of consorting with Lake in their investigation of USC. Phone records show that was the only time McNair called Lake's number.
While the old adage around college football is that USC recruits itself, strategy has been implemented in every top class the Trojans have signed. A strategy that many schools use is referred to in coaching circles as “dirty pool.” Some coaches see negative recruiting in general as dirty pool, but in most instances, it’s more subtle.
Dirty pool adheres to the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” USC has been on both sides of the eight ball in this regard. In 2007, USC recruited Long Beach (Calif.) Poly cornerback Donovan Warren.
Warren was thought to be destined for USC from the moment he was offered a scholarship by Pete Carroll. Those assumptions were reinforced when Warren told several recruits already committed to USC that he would be joining them at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. But talk is cheap in recruiting and Warren went through the process ultimately narrowing down his choices to Cal, USC, UCLA and Michigan. As stated, USC was the clear favorite to land Warren’s signature throughout the recruiting process and every other school recruiting him knew that.
UCLA defensive coordinator Dwayne Walker had an especially close relationship with Warren, but with the Bruins football program going nowhere, their chances of landing the five-star cornerback diminished quickly. Michigan, however, was still in play for Warren. Ron English, now at San Jose State, was the defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator for the Wolverines under Lloyd Carr. Walker and English were friends, having both coached at Mt. San Antonio College.
With UCLA on the outside looking-in on Warren’s recruitment, sources say Walker and English teamed up against USC. As a coach involved in his recruitment at the time said, “UCLA went from recruiting Donovan to recruiting against USC. That happens. Probably for a month or two, UCLA was out of it, so in a way, they basically started recruiting for Michigan.” Warren made his choice to go to Michigan just days before his announcement.
Of course, dirty pool isn’t a strategy exclusive to schools recruiting against USC. Exhibit A; River Ridge (La.) running back Joe McKnight. Considered by some to be the heir apparent to Reggie Bush, McKnight was an extremely sought after recruit in 2007. McKnight actually spent time in Southern California with family the spring before his senior year and attended the NIKE Camp at USC.
From that point on, McKnight had a strong connection to Los Angeles. However, LSU would not make it easy, and local pressure mounted to stay in Louisiana as the process drew to a close. The Trojans coaching staff decided to team up with Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron to undermine the Tigers recruiting efforts. The two staffs shared intel, and while Ole Miss definitely wanted to land McKnight, they wanted to push him away from LSU just as much. In other words, his recruitment was a win, win for Ole Miss.
Exactly when McKnight became a silent commitment to USC is hard to say, but once he sat down with running backs coach Todd McNair on his official visit, the five-star tailback was a done deal for the Trojans. Comically, most national media outlets were surprised by McKnight’s signing day announcement, but those following USCFootball.com expected him to commit to the Trojans.
Paddling His Own Canoe
Possibly the most infamous, difficult recruitment for USC fans to look back on was that of Laie (Hawaii) linebacker Manti Te’o. Another supposed “lock” for the Trojans, Te’o grew up a USC fan and was a top-rated linebacker in a class when USC needed linebackers. With Brian Cushing, Rey Maulauga, Clay Matthews and Kaluka Maiava all becoming seniors in 2008, Te’o was looked at as the next in line to carry on the USC tradition at linebacker wearing No. 55.
That didn’t happen. Despite officially visiting Notre Dame for a game when the Irish managed to lose to Syracuse and have the home crowd throw snowballs onto the field, Te’o decided to make South Bend (Ind.) his home for the next four years. Granted, Te’o didn’t watch the second half of the game against Syracuse, opting to stay in the warmer confines of the Fighting Irish locker room. Who says facilities don’t matter in recruiting?
Notre Dame’s struggles that season aside, USC knew that not everything about Te’o was genuine from the start. Te’o was always very vocal about his faith. Being Mormon, he spoke with reverence about his plans to take a mission before college. Yet, behind the scenes, sources chuckled at those comments. They were adamant that Te’o had no intensions of choosing a mission over football.
Several sources would later connect that thinking with Te’o having his scholarship offer pulled by BYU. With that said, USC was confident Te’o would be a Trojan up until the morning of signing day. On his way to an announcement ceremony in Honolulu, Te’o called Pete Carroll and revealed he would not be going to USC. The news stunned the coaching staff, to which Carroll asked to speak to Teo’s father, Brian, to no avail. Te’o, who was in tears for much of the ceremony, would sign a letter of intent for Notre Dame.
Under suspicious circumstances, Te’o’s best friend and teammate would also end up signing with Notre Dame at the ceremony. To that point, there is no evidence that Toma had a scholarship from Notre Dame. Toma claimed to have received the scholarship offer three weeks prior, but made no mention of it publicly. Toma was committed to UCLA just hours earlier, but it remains disputed as to whether UCLA pulled his scholarship offer when Te’o committed to Notre Dame or he just chose the Irish over the Bruins. Stories with disputed facts would follow Te’o to South Bend.
Seantrel and Sanctions
June, 2010 was not the first time the NCAA attempted to cripple USC recruiting. The cloud of sanctions hurt USC recruiting for the better part of two years prior to any sanctions being handed down. Minneapolis (Minn.) offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson verbally committed to USC on signing day, but did not fax in his letter of intent until April. With coaches from others schools warning him that USC would be hit hard by NCAA sanctions, Henderson went ahead and signed anyway. By June, Henderson would be granted a release from USC and would enroll at Miami as the NCAA levied harsh sanctions on the football program. It would be the first blow, but not the last USC would take in recruiting because of sanctions.
Out Of Nowhere
Very few storylines in recruiting have been pleasant surprises. The commitment of Dallas (Texas) linebacker Michael Morgan was an exception. Morgan’s recruitment foreshadowed how the process would work with top prospects in future classes. He attended no camps, did very few interviews and most of the information about his recruitment was second and third hand information.
While his brother went to UCLA, most considered Morgan a long shot to leave the Big XII. Oklahoma and Texas were early favorites, but as Morgan began taking official visits, Texas A&M and Florida State became his two frontrunners. In fact, just a week before setting an announcement date, Morgan was quoted as being down to Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Florida State. So when Morgan donned a white USC hat on KDFW Channel 4 in Dallas live, it was quite the surprise. This epitomized how powerful USC's brand was nationally. As with Joe McKnight, Michael Morgan’s recruitment was headed by Ken Norton Jr.
When Pete Carroll first arrived at USC, the Trojans main summer camp was a four day long event in June. But Carroll wanted to brand a special event which recruits from all over the nation would attend. Thus, the Rising Stars Camp was born as the premiere college football camp in America. Countless four-star and five-star prospects would attend over the years, but one particular prospect still stands out as the best overall athlete of the bunch.
Pompano Beach (Fla.) Ely cornerback Patrick Johnson, who would change his name to Patrick Peterson, was pound-for-pound the best athlete to ever attend the two-day camp. Johnson actually only participated in the second day of the camp, but his dominance in every aspect of drills was dumbfounding. At 6-foot-1, 195-pounds, Johnson was bigger, faster and more explosive than any skill player on the field. Moreno Valley (Calif.) Rancho Verde offensive tackle Tyron Smith would have been the only physical specimen on his level as a lineman.
But Johnson a.k.a. Peterson wasn’t a part of the camp’s best defense. In 2010, the Rising Stars Camp played host to one of the best groups of talent to ever be assembled at one time. The camp consisted of players like Dillon Baxter, D.J. Morgan, Ronald Powell, Jackson Jeffcoat, George Uko, Josh Shaw, Dietrich Riley, Tony Jefferson, Dion Bailey, Demetrius Wright, Anthony Brown and Josh Shirley. At that point in time, there wasn’t a camp that hosted more star players.
Eleventh Hour Lenny
One of the best players USC has signed in the past 20 years has been Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland defensive tackle Leonard Williams. Of course, as a recruit, Williams was a mid-level four-star. He did have scholarship offers from all three major Florida programs, but USC got out ahead of his hometown suitors by getting him out to the Rising Stars Camp the year before. Williams spent some of his childhood living in Southern California and his mother still had family in Los Angeles.
With that said, the Florida Gators were a constant fixture in his recruitment and came on very strong with his fourth and final official visit of the recruiting process. On signing day, Williams was ready to announce for the Gators. Publicly, Williams said he decided to commit to USC the day before signing day, but a source involved with his recruitment at the time says he wavered on that decision Wednesday morning. However, USC had a secret weapon: Mainland assistant coach Keynodo Hudson had already been pegged by USC recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron as a potential graduate assistant for the Trojans. That meant USC had a direct line into Williams come crunch time.
Williams was the last of 17 Mainland athletes signing letters of intent that day. With Williams arriving at the ceremony late and the media waiting, he disappeared in a back room for about 15-20 minutes. No one knows for sure what happened during this time, although one source had Williams calling Orgeron to let him know he was going to Florida. But instead of taking the bad news on the chin, Orgeron and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin gave Williams one last sales pitch. Whatever was or wasn’t said, it worked. Williams' impact for USC was tremendous, but an overlooked facet of that recruitment was the addition of Keynodo Hudson to the USC coaching staff. Over the past few years, Hudson has helped USC land several top recruits such as Quinton Powell, Jamel Cook, Keyshawn Young, Stevie Tui'kolovatu and others.
Who Did DAT?
January 30, 2011, rumors begin to fly that De’Anthony Thomas was officially visiting Oregon. The rumors stopped being rumors when a photo of Thomas and Diamond Bar (Calif.) freshman wide receiver Cordell Broadus, son of Snoop Dogg, hit the Internet. The Trojans top rated prospect took a secret trip to Eugene (Ore.) less than a week out from signing day. USC didn’t know about the visit until that weekend, which said plenty about where Thomas was headed.
Lane Kiffin scrambled to gather intel and to somehow get into contact with Thomas. But with the dead period in play, it became a game of phone tag with his high school coaches. Somewhere along the line, USC had slipped up and Oregon made their move to checkmate. Soon, the rumors went from if Thomas was committing to Oregon to why Thomas was going to Oregon. Well before signing day, stories began to surface about Thomas fleeing Los Angeles because he was the witness of a murder. It was clear something changed in his mind about USC late in the recruiting process.
While there was never substance to the rumors of Thomas fleeing L.A. for his safety, the photo of he and Broadus decked out in Ducks gear after returning from Eugene did resonate. At the time, Snoop Dogg was looking for an apparel sponsorship for his youth football program. Thomas’ connection to Snoop went further than his son as well. Snoop helped raise money to get youth football in Crenshaw off the ground and the individuals involved in that project help mentor Thomas throughout the process. Thomas himself played in Snoop’s youth league. By the time Thomas announced his decision to go to Oregon, it was a foregone conclusion for USC fans following on USCFootball.com.
Nico Falah out to lunch
Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco offensive lineman Nico Falah was supposed to be a Bruin. His father went to UCLA, so of course, Falah was a Bruin lock from conception. As it turned out, Falah would commit to USC over the summer of his senior year. He would stay committed to USC throughout the recruiting process despite a month of wavering between Washington and the Trojans in January.
Driving a bus down Market Street in San Antonio (Texas) in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian wasn’t pulling any punches when it came to making a splash at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Of course, Sarkisian wasn’t actually at the hotel himself.
Instead Washington had assistant coaches Johnny Nansen, Tosh Lupoi and Demetrice Martin representing the Huskies. With head coaches not allowed on the road for the event, assistant coaches used to descend on San Antonio by the hundreds. Ed Orgeron, a veteran of the Grand Hyatt elevators, was upstairs in a suit hosting recruits for USC. Kennedy Polamalu was more wily. With Washington working on Falah all night, the Husky party needed overwatch.
With a few Washington coaches running misdirection, Falah emerged from the elevators and made his way to the bus. However, as he turned the corner, there was Polamalu sitting in a chair by the exit. “Hey Nico, good to see you,” said Polamalu with a smile. Falah sheepishly waved and made his way to see the bus.
Just as USC thought they had put Washington away for Falah, the Bruins made a last minute play for the Army All-American. It seemed that Falah was as in love with recruiting as he was USC. The morning of signing day, Falah spoke with UCLA offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Suddenly, Klemm had Falah doubting his USC commitment and ready to sign with the Bruins. Hearing the news, sources say head coach Jim Mora literally sprinted out of his office to find the admissions papers to get Falah into the Bruins’ 2013 class.
As Mora tried to get the proper paperwork together, Falah decided to head off campus at St. John Bosco and have lunch with his father. Being a Bruin alum, that sounded like bad news for the Trojans. However, upon returning back from lunch and preparing to go live on FoxSports with his decision, Falah made the call to solidify his commitment to USC one last time. That, understandably, did not sit well with Mora. After being jerked around once too many times on signing day, sources say Mora had some choice words for Falah and St. John Bosco head coach Jason Negro.
The Big Three
Signing Day 2014 was a memorable one for USC. The Trojans closed with their latest No. 1 rated class. It was a class that came together on the signing day commitments of Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco offensive lineman Damien Mama, Long Beach (Calif.) Poly athlete Juju Smith and Gardena (Calif.) Serra athlete Adoree Jackson. Of the three, Mama was the only prospect USC was fairly certain would don the cardinal and gold. Smith had flirted enough with Oregon throughout the process to leave the coaching staff cautiously optimistic about his decision. Jackson, however, was a bit of a wildcard.
There was reason for USC to feel confident Jackson was signing. Serra was sending several of its top players to USC annually, including Jackson’s teammate Jalen Greene. But Jackson played the recruiting game well, and kept colleges on their toes. With his parents still living in Illinois and Jackson living mostly with his sister in Los Angeles, the Trojans didn’t have a classic hometown advantage.
Jackson’s father also had ties to the Tennessee basketball A.D., which the Vols exercised to become a family favorite. But that only went so far with Jackson, who unofficially visited USC more than dozen times over the course of his junior and senior seasons. It was very much a case of actions speaking louder than words and Jackson’s actions spoke of someone very comfortable with the USC coaching staff. Compare that with De’Anthony Thomas, who despite being committed to the Trojans for months, rarely showed up on campus at USC.
Although Jackson developed somewhat of a cult following from Tennessee fans, he ultimately eliminated them from consideration well before signing day. However, UCLA was involved with Jackson late in the process. Sending half its staff down to Serra High School two weeks before signing day, the Bruins made one last ditch effort to get a legitimate look from Jackson. It worked, and Jackson took a brief visit to Westwood with his mother the final weekend of recruiting.
But UCLA wanted Jackson to stick around for the full 48 hour experience. The Bruins had P Diddy in town and had set up a live concert for the recruits on campus. Tweets went out about the concert by several recruits, including Jackson. Based on social media, it appeared Jackson was spending the final weekend of recruiting hanging out in Westwood. The message boards went ablaze, as USC fans panicked over the possibility that the Bruins could steal their prized recruit at the eleventh hour. The revolution was real, on Twitter.
However, Jackson’s tweets about the concert in Westwood were a smokescreen. As reported then by USCFootball.com, Jackson was actually at USC with the Trojans coaching staff when those tweets went out. It was clear then that USC would get the last word in his recruitment. And while Tennessee did attempt to convince his family to hold off on signing Jackson’s letter of intent, there would be no second guessing his decision to commit to USC.
USCFootball.com has been covering USC Trojans football and recruiting for 20 years. Our expert team with Gerard Martinez, Dan Weber, Shotgun Spratling, Keely Eure and publisher Ryan Abraham keep you up to speed on everything Trojan football.
Gerard Martinez has been covering USC recruiting for USCFootball.com for over a decade. You can follow him on Twitter at @gmartlive.