They've made it back. Or almost.
Rose Bowl champs. No. 3 in the nation after the 2016 season. The second longest win streak in the nation at nine. No. 5 overall recruiting class for 2017.
Not bad, not bad at all, especially considering where the USC program has come from.
And how it's turned a long, improbable journey into an improbably fast one that's almost there. We say "almost."
We say that because, as both Lynn Swann and Clay Helton have said every single chance they've gotten since before and after the Rose Bowl, USC football is not just about winning the Rose Bowl.
It's about winning "championships" . . . "Pac-12 and national," both of them have specified. And they're right.
USC football isn't about being pretty good. Or better than expected. Or exciting and fun.
It's about more than that. It's about being the best.
Which is not to take a single thing away from what this born-again Trojan program has just pulled off. The season comeback, the Rose Bowl comeback and the recruiting class comeback are all of a kind and say every good thing you can say about this program, its coaches, players, staffers -- and its history. Even its fans, or most of them.
They mostly held off the ledge-jumping until they didn't have to. That speaks to the maturity of a program that understands it will be back. There was something of a trust level -- between players and coaches, players and players -- and finally the program and the people who support the program from fans to administration.
Everybody pretty much hung in there. Nobody completely panicked. It happens.Watch what's going on across town in Westwood or in South Bend or Austin or Eugene to see how others try to figure out whether they can get back or even ever get there for the first time. It's not a given.
Nor in USC's case should it be a matter of saying when it comes to recruiting that we'll dominate west of the Rockies, although that's a great start. And they almost did. Although there's a player or two going to Stanford we'd certainly take.
And we completely understand and agree with USC's "backyard" focus on the western third of the U.S. land mass since September. That six-for-six Signing Day scorecard agrees.
But again, as Lynn and Clay keep saying, this is just a start, the first step, the beginning of the process. And since there are no games to play for seven more months and more than a month to spring ball, there is one place to take those first steps to that next championship place.
You know where that starts. We all do. It's recruiting. USC's recruiting class may be in the same zip code and even ahead of some of the likes of Alabama and Ohio State, Michigan and Clemson, but its recruiting operation is not. Not yet.
The manpower and the money is not there. A decade ago, it wasn't either. But USC had Pete Carroll and Ed Orgeron -- and all that history and LA and a school that just kept getting better.
But none of those programs we mentioned above, and no one else in the then-Pac-10 -- were doing all that much either. You could beat them with Pete and Ed and the Trojan story.
No more. Now that's not to say USC couldn't win it all in 2017. It's not all about money. Clemson can spend $29 million on football against Alabama's $44 million budget and still be good enough at quarterback and skill positions to overcome Alabama's overall strength and athleticism edge.
This 2017 USC team could do so as well.
But it shouldn't have to. Not that USC has to match those programs. This isn't Upstate South Carolina where the stadium is bigger than the town. Or Tuscaloosa, Ann Arbor or South Bend. Nice enough college towns if you like that sort of thing but they're not LA. And as good a school as Michigan is, the best of the lot, it's not better than USC.
So USC goes into any of those head-to-heads . . . ahead. But when it comes to numbers, it's not all that close. You can make all the good judgments you want, get the focus exactly right, but you still have to be able to work it.
Like that recruiting media operation at Clemson that makes use of three dozen student workers in the media operation alone sending out millions of individual pieces of mail, email and every possible social media manifestation.
Or Ohio State and Alabama where the inside recruiting staff is filled with former coaches. At USC, the few student assistants mean that sometimes, an immediate recruiting need takes a back seat to a student's schedule. Right for the student. Wrong for USC's recruiting.
Or how about this. Ohio State and Texas just got into a bidding war over the 19-year-old Ohio State creative/graphics director for recruiting who does these incredibly detailed and original pieces of art directed at Ohio State targets showing them what they would look like at The Horeshoe in a Buckeye uniform. The son of an Ohio State professor, Kenton Stufflebeam, the man they call "Ohio State's secret recruiting weapon" went into Urban Meyer's office recently to say goodbye, as ESPN describes it.
"A ton of money, big-time school," he's quoted of the offer from Tom Herman, the former OSU assistant, now at Texas. "It was a great opportunity. That's basically like a designer's dream." The money was so much, he knew OSU couldn't possibly match it. Only they did.
But not only did Kenton get his salary tripled, he also got a sit-down recruiting pitch from Meyer about how important his ability to craft individualized messages for recruits or general ones for the Buckeyes mattered.
Clay Helton agrees. He was talking the other day about seeing prospects with hundreds of those recruiting letters schools send out sitting there unopened on their desks. But those personal, individualized messages on their phones or laptops, "They always look at those," Clay says.
And with USC losing their recruiting graphics/creative guy to the Tampa Bay Bucs on Signing Day, there's some catching up to do here. One problem, say those close to USC's recruiting operation, is the legacy of a decade ago.
How USC's Carroll teams could rack up those top recruiting classes without spending much or building up any sort of big infrastructure. It was Pete and Ed -- and players like Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush that everyone wanted to be like -- and that was it.
This did not require a big budget item the way it's become for those schools USC should be competing with for national titles. But when a program has had that kind of success without having to put big bucks behind it, it's not easy to convince the folks in charge that it's going to take more money and manpower. Much more.
And that's not to downgrade for a second the impressive work of Gavin Morris, Alex Rios and Eric Ziskin, the inside crew left after Keynodo Hudson's departure to join Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic, who do so much of the ground work. No one out-performed the curve better than they did in pulling this 2017 class off.
Back then, all Pete had to say was "Join us for a championship run." That was it. They got the Florida pipeline going, which got Mike Williams here to get things started and Leonard Williams here to keep things together through the end of sanctions. Imagine the story of USC football these last 15 years without just those two guys.
But Florida was a tougher pull this year. It takes lots of time and manpower identifying and connecting with just the right prospects who will leave SEC country for the West Coast. And Tee Martin has added the offensive coordinator's duties to his wide receiver's coaching duties on top of his lead recruiter work.
Tommie Robinson's Texas time gave USC a connection to Levi Jones, who wanted to come here, and Levi's connection as a linebacker to Clancy Pendergast's defensive philosophy cinched it. That's how you do it. It takes time.
But time is something this recruiting operation maybe didn't quite have enough of as they flawlessly ran to the finish line. We'll cite the one who kinda', sorta' got away -- although that's not exactly the correct way to say it -- on Signing Day -- Georgia star D-lineman Aubrey Solomon.
Michigan and Jim Harbaugh made the connection with Solomon last summer at one of those June clinics down Georgia way that allowed the traveling Harbaughs to discover -- as USC obviously did as well -- that Aubrey was one of those rare big SEC talents willing to leave home and make a difference somewhere else. But only as part of a family atmosphere.
The big part of this was winning over Aubrey's mom. And despite a family atmosphere where Harbaugh is the crazy uncle who lives in the basement, that's exactly what Michigan did.
"There aren't many who will leave home like that," Clay said on Signing Day. "You have to find them." And when you do, those can be the difference-makers.
Despite losing Solomon after a recruiting snafu for a time, Michigan was able to make up for it even though it's a 10-hour travel time round trip -- two-hour flight to Atlanta, three-hour drive -- each time a Michigan coach made the jaunt to Solomon's Lee County home. And that's not counting the time getting to and through the airports.
That's what it takes -- time, money and manpower. Like the way Alabama could invest two full coaches for a weekend to head off to Hawai'i to hold hands with their top-rated quarterback commit and then route them back through San Francisco International Airport on Sunday just in time to bump into their top-rated running back as he returned home to Northern California from his visit to snowy Michigan.
That's how you do it. And for those looking for "faith, family and football" and the best weather on the planet with an unparalleled football history and a private school family atmosphere headed by good guy, straight-shooting Clay with an academic situation that pretty much compares with anyone's, you have to think USC will always have a shot.
But USC has to give itself that shot when it comes to those few special elite guys who are out there and gettable for the Trojan family -- and who take a No. 5 program to No. 1.
Now is the time to do that, for Clay to take the next step, to go the extra mile, to make that extra push for recruiting resources and personnel the way Matt did for Reggie in South Bend. Nothing less will do for USC to get there.
Just as they were at Notre Dame, the Trojans aren't far from the goal line. Not at all. Just one more big push.
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