Autzen Stadium, hell hole of the Pac Ten, with it's wet, unknown Nexturf, smack talking players and drunken, obnoxious fans. Add to that a coach so insecure with his own identity that he needs to unleash all of that just to make certain the playing environment is as uneven as possible and you realize that you've got a better chance of walking out with half your paycheck from a downtown Vegas casino, then ever getting a win from that place - just ask the twenty-two teams that preceeded us. Considering all that and adding that this is a new SC staff and the team is thin at running back, wide receiver and offensive line, I believe it's admirable the Trojans got out of their with their wallets in hand. Now, looking closer, I think they might have even done one shade better - despite the Bellotti's slippery surface, the USC Trojans might have found their heart.
Two years ago, the night Carson Palmer broke his collarbone, the night SC almost pulled off a stunning upset in Autzen, I wrote a letter to Paul Hackett. In it I said that I felt the team was on the right path, that they were building on something I hadn't seen in a long time - they were building character. Coach Hackett wrote a note back in agreement... "the team was on the right track." In looking back, I think, Coach Hackett was onto something. He focused on bringing in players who had integrity and could bring that missing dimension back to the team. The realization since, which we hear coaches cry, is that the rebuilding of a program, a program that has held such national prominence takes time. Hackett got us started as best he could by re-introducing integrity to the USC football program. Integrity, however, is only part of the puzzle. Pete Carroll has brought in the other principal ingredient to success - heart. Pete Carroll is not only showing, but teaching these kids to play with their heart. To put the team first and stop pointing fingers. I realize that we lost to Oregon, but I'll take the loss today for what tomorrow holds. Gone are the days of John Robinson's undisciplined squads, of playing as if only tomorrow and the NFL mattered. We have a team, lead by young men like Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu, Bernard Riley and many others that are bleeding Cardinal and Gold. They are holding themselves responsible for winning, not doing it to be fan favorites. We are rebuilding the things at SC, that, when I was a boy watching games with my old man, made me feel like the Trojans were the good guys. Parity and scholarship limitations have changed the face of college football. Florida State showed us that even they can fall victim to a hungry program. The days are gone when one program can dominate on a constant basis. But, with that said, they days are just beginning when a program can win on a consistent basis by playing with heart and also maintaining its integrity. Schools like Oregon have sold their programs out for a chance at the brass ring. They've recruited kids who are a cut below academically and choose to not punish those who break the law and are expelled from other programs. They will take whoever they can find to help post a winning season. Their journey is similar to the story of Icarus... ignoring all costs for a chance to reach the Sun. It is a short lived flight and very soon they will come crashing to the ground. I do not mean to suggest that many of their kids are not quality individuals. Nor am I offering that SC doesn't have their own collection of "bad apples," but it appears we are capable of policing in a manner that limits the rotting. We are drawing a line on what we tolerate from our student athletes and Pete Carroll is a champion of that effort.
In the melee of last night's brawl USC distinguished itself. We are a program on the rise. Oregon has left a bitter taste in our mouths. They've slipped by us one last time. Their mostly senior squad and two "Heisman" candidates will be gone in 2002. Ours will be returning for their senior campaign. Pete Carroll is going through his apprenticeship in the world of college football. Lessons are being learned, tradition is being rediscovered and a program is being built. It takes time, but the rebuilding process is not just beginning. It started three years ago with Paul Hackett and the quality individuals he brought into the program. It is being refined by Pete Carroll and staff and will be executed by the young men who wear the Cardinal and Gold. This season will continue to mark itself as one of our toughest campaigns, but in the end USC will be the victor.