On the outside looking in, it sounds like students would jump at the opportunity to work with Trojan players and coaches on a daily basis. However, being a student manager at USC entails unpredictable hours (anywhere from 25 to 70 hours per week), missing portions of winter, spring, and summer breaks, unprecedented stressful situations, and being at the absolute bottom of a hierarchical structure (hence the affectionate use of the label "jamokes" between managers).
The hardest sell? No pay. Perks, but no pay. What makes it more difficult is that many players and coaches oftentimes think managers are being paid for one of the more difficult long-term volunteer jobs one could possibly find on any college campus.
It takes a certain breed of student who can handle the daily grind of certain football overload for uncertain rewards. Last year's reward was a season that began in Hawaii and culminated at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the stage for ESPN's top game of 2006.
That spring, fellow student manager Natasha Godoy told me, "My friend Art [Vasconcelos) from class wants to become a manager, so I gave him your number. He played with Darnell (Bing), Herschel (Dennis), Manny (Wright), and Winston (Justice) at Long Beach Poly. I think you'll like him!"
Little did I realize how valuable "my friend Art from class" would become to me and the program throughout the 2005-2006 season.
Starting in Spring, where new student managers traditionally have absolutely no clue what is going on during practice, causing them to simply run wherever people tell them to go or run away from wherever people tell them they shouldn't be, Art immediately displayed a willingness to do anything and learn everything, no matter the circumstance.
If anyone attended the first spring practice of 2005, you'll remember the rain. It was the kind of horizontal rain that shows up as red spots on Doppler radar maps. Because it was the first of fifteen spring practices, the coaches had no intentions of cutting this practice short.
Together, we student managers struggled through our first practice. Half our managers were new and completely confused, but frantically tried to keep footballs dry for drills. Making matters worse, the rain was drowning out not only our verbal communication, but was completely washing out the plans set out when we had gone over our student manager "practice walk-thru" the previous weekend. For me, this was a worst case scenario.
Instead of experiencing complete pandemonium, we had one of our best practices of the season considering the circumstances. The veteran managers were taking charge of different drills and directing the new managers, allowing me to slip and slide my way to spot the ball through team drills, all while answering questions from new managers on the fly as I slid from sloppy field to even sloppier field.
That day, Vasconcelos, who skipped class to be at the first Spring practice, took charge of situations as if he was a veteran. Regardless of him not knowing exactly how practice worked, he constantly asked where we needed him to be and would gather other managers together to get anything accomplished. He took initiative and even though he was new, people listened.
After practice, looking as if I jumped in a mud-filled swimming pool with my clothes on, I waddled down to the locker rooms in Heritage Hall. Emotionally and physically defeated by this perfect storm on my first official practice as head student manager, I turned the corner by the coaches locker room when I heard a voice.
"Hey Dave-o, hold up a minute!"
It was Coach Sark[isian]. I stopped and turned around. I figured he was going to tell me that we had to make sure the quarterback footballs were cleaned up by next practice or that I read my rain-soaked script wrong during team drills. After surviving the perfect storm, I was prepared for the worst.
"Your guys really battled out there today. Tell everyone they did a great job. See you Thursday."
One of the student managers I had to thank the most for that day, one of my greatest memories with the USC football team, and that whole season, was one of my new guys, Art Vasconcelos, who would succeed me as head student manager for the USC football team for the 2006-2007 season.
WeAreSC is proud to present our first Exit Interview of 2007: Art Vasconcelos.
WeAreSC: We're here with Art Vasconcelos, head student manager of the USC Football team for the 2006-2007 season. Art, thanks for taking the time to meet with us and congratulations on the Rose Bowl.
AV: Thank you very much.
WeAreSC: First off, tell us how you're feeling looking back on the year. It must have been nice to come back to the Rose Bowl, a place you hadn't experienced a victory as a manager and come out with a win, right?
AV: Yeah, you're definitely right. Looking back on the season, it's been an up and down type of deal because of the fact that it was a little shaky in the beginning and we didn't know what the outcome of the season was going to be, let alone what bowl we would end up in. But Coach Carroll always talked about "getting to the Rose Bowl," so that was our main goal. Going through the season, winning the first six games, then losing to Oregon State was tough because then we were left wondering "Now what's going to happen to us? How was our team going to respond?" I didn't know if we were going to end up in the Sun Bowl or something *laughs*. But we were able to come back and win three tough games at home, it showed that it's all about finishing.
Then going in and playing UCLA… Afterward, I hated the Rose Bowl. Hated it. After that game, I was just angry at the place. After the game, their fans were screaming "Just leave your stuff here! You're coming back in a month!" And I just thought I didn't want to come back to that place. I remember my uncle telling me [about playing in the Rose Bowl], "Just remember, you're 0-2 in '06, but you'll be 1-0 in '07." It was the start of a new year, the start of something new. Being able to go into the Rose Bowl and beat up on Michigan the way we did was just awesome. Being able to celebrate with the team and be a part of it was unforgettable. Everything was just great.
Leading up to that game, I didn't think we could lose after being inside the special teams meeting the night before the game. That was the best meeting all year by far, or that I've ever been to. Guys were pumped for punt team. Guys were making noise and cheering. You couldn't even hear Coach Seto explaining what everyone needed to do. Then at the end, Coach Seto came to the back and told me, "Dang Art, I hope they know what they have to do tomorrow." *laughs* All the players were just so loud, making noises and pretending a ball was in the air during a walk thru. It was such a crazy atmosphere and the players were so excited. That night, I felt the most confidence in our team that I ever had felt and I knew we couldn't lose.
WeAreSC: Can you let the readers know what responsibilities you had as a student manager? What coaches did you work directly with?
AV: Everyday tasks were pretty much the set up of practices, just making sure everything was run correctly and to a level where it's competitive. We want to be one step ahead of players. It's always about creating a great tempo for practice. Coach Carroll always talks about having a great tempo because that tempo leads straight into the game. By us being out there getting drills set up for the guys, making sure they have that tempo from one drill to the next, and checking that the players have everything they need, the players won't have to worry about anything outside of practice – even if they're just need a glove or a knee pad. We want it to be so all the players and coaches have to worry about is football. They don't have to worry about little things.
This year, I was always there for Coach Carroll whenever he needed anything during practice or outside. Going from Coach Ruel and then working with Coach Carroll, I was on my toes just that much more. It made me realized why the players love to play for this guy because I love to work for this guy. He's a great guy and has energy that feeds off to everyone else.
WeAreSC: After working for one year as a student manager, you came in and became the head student manager, something that took me two years to achieve. What kept you motivated and did you think you would become the head student manager after just one season?
AV: Coming in, when we first started the interview process and even when I was talking with you, I knew that I had a chance to be the head manager, but the position was probably going to go to the people who had been here longer than I and knew the system already. I was ok with that because I came in here because I love USC Football and being part of this program meant a lot to me. I wanted to get involved in something. Everyone at USC gets involved in something at school. For me, I wanted to be involved with football because that is where my heart is. I have always played it and always been around it.
Tino [Football Equipment Manager] told me he was looking for someone who knows the whole operation to be the head manager – every setup, takedown, and anything else. He told me that if I knew that, that's what they would be looking for. Not only that, they were looking for someone who can lead other people. They were looking for someone who can take a group of guys and lead them to what needs to get done. Tino left the door open for me because he told me that you can just never know what will happen and I could end up having a chance. To me, that was my opportunity to run with it. I picked up things quick and every little thing he told me, I was on it. If this was how to stack a trunk, this was how I was going to stack a trunk. If this is how he told me to set up a locker room, that's how it was going to get done.
On a personal level, you being my boss, you taught me a lot. Even when you would just tell me "do this, do that," I was learning. I did all those camps with you over the summer. I just tried to get involved as much as I could with the time that was given to me. It gave me the sense that I had a chance because it got to a point where people started believing I had a chance and that made me pursue it even more. I wanted to earn that position, earn that scholarship, and help my family out. I have always wanted to just give everything my all. I prayed about it and kept working. Luckily, I ended up with the job.
I would try and learn from example. Because when you left, you left on top. I had some big shoes to fill. From getting out information and communicating with people to just being a great leader for the managers who were up and coming and those who were returning, I took everything I could and tried to be a good leader.
WeAreSC: What changed when you became the head student manager? I liken the job to being the "Project Manager" on The Apprentice for a full season.
AV: The big difference was that the responsibility levels just skyrocketed. Any phone call, any change, I had to come up with answers quick. If there was any change in practice, I had to get on that quick too. Sometimes, the stress level went up a little bit. I remember you told me that it's a job where you're on a deadline everyday. Everything has to get done, one way or another. They don't care how you get it done, just as long as you get it done.
There was one day when we couldn't bring the field goal over to the track field from the practice field because all the doors were locked. There was no way we were going to be able to bring it in for practice. We told Coach Carroll at the beginning of practice and he said not to worry about it. But then, all of a sudden, coaches were screaming for the field goal post at the end of practice. I had to explain to Coach again what happened, and he said, "Well you should have got a crane or something and lifted it up on to the field." *laughs* Last year, I was more of a follower, but this year, I had to set an example for everyone else. I would be running around with my team of managers, but I always wanted to make sure that we were having fun doing our job. We were out there to have fun and be part of something special. Only a select few of us can experience something like this at SC.
WeAreSC: I also heard you had the opportunity to intern in the football office this year as well, can you tell us about that experience and how did that help you during the season this year?
AV: That was a great opportunity for me to intern upstairs in the football office. It was different because I was working downstairs for the equipment room, but interning upstairs for the football office. Being able to work with the operations staff, Jared [Blank], [Dennis] Slu[tak], and Justin [Mesa] was amazing. It also helped my relationships with the coaches because they saw me more and saw I was getting work done for them. It was fun getting things done for recruiting and helping just get things done.
On Thursdays, before every home game, because the coaches would drive their cars to the hotel, I would take their cars, get them all cleaned and detailed. It was job work, but it was cool. Coaches started to ask, "Hey are you going to go get my car washed?" And I would tell them that I would hook it up. I'd take them down here to San Pedro Harbor Detail, get their cars all hooked up. The first time I had Sark[isian]'s car washed, he looked at it and said "Dang Art, that thing looks brand new!" And then Kiff[in]'s car, my goodness, it was like he hadn't washed his car since the day he bought it. It had sand in there and all this other stuff. I took it to the detail shop, where they couldn't believe how dirty the car was, and explained that coaches don't have time to get their cars washed. It was cool for me to be able to do something that made the coaches feel good after they left the office. The next day, the coaches always came up and said "Thanks Art, we appreciate it."
WeAreSC: What do you think you've taken out of this experience and what will you take into whatever job you do down the road?
AV: While there might be times where you might feel very pressured to get something done and a coach might be screaming at you, but in the end, it taught me that if something needs to get done, it has to get done quick. I've learned a lot of leadership skills and things that will help me in my work life because I'm hoping to work down here at the ports. Working for a group of people and getting a group of people together to get a job done has really given me a lot of great experience with communicating and scheduling. With football, everything is a schedule, down to the minute. As soon as the schedule is typed out, we're on that schedule.
WeAreSC: Let's take it way back for a minute. In high school, you played at Long Beach Poly alongside guys like Winston Justice, Hershel Dennis, Manny Wright, Marcedes Lewis, and Darnell Bing, tell us what it was like to play with them and the "national championship" against De La Salle High School. Did you ever think you were going to reunite with these guys at USC?
AV: Playing with these guys at Long Beach was amazing. Going to Poly, I thought I experienced it all playing with these guys. They were the Fab Five. We were considered one of the greatest teams ever in high school football. Four of these five guys are in the NFL right now. In high school, we were all kids still. But at USC, they were all grown up, but we all still act like kids *laughs*.
Playing next to Winston on the offensive line… his thing was that he wore glasses and couldn't see. So a lot of times, we'd score, and then come back, but he couldn't see the scoreboard. We'd sit down and he'd ask, "Art, what's the score?" At first, I didn't know he couldn't see the scoreboard, but then I realized he couldn't see it, so I would tell him, "28-0" or whatever it was. After that, he would ask me every single time that we would sit down.
These guys were hilarious and I got to build friendships with these guys because I went to high school with them. We all hung out and it was a different atmosphere. I remember signing day, they had a huge press conference with reporters inside. Winston, who I was closer with, told me he was going to USC, then I knew Hershel and everyone was going to follow because they all wanted to play together on the next level. For all of them to be able to go to that next level was amazing.
Going back to that game… It's something I'll never forget. Going into Long Beach Vet stadium and seeing it completely sold out was the most people I've ever seen inside that stadium. I remember my first time on the field at the Coliseum reminded me of that, tons of people screaming because there was just so much hype. It was a true #1 vs. #2 match-up. I didn't think we were going to lose that game. We didn't see too much film on them because we didn't have a lot of film, but what we did see, we thought we could handle. But when we were shaking hands with them at the beginning of the game, right across from me was Maurice Drew. I was going up to him and knew he was the running back, then I looked at his legs and this guy had the biggest thighs I've ever seen on a "little dude." He didn't even need thigh pads his legs were so huge! He's a monster and could just run the ball. I couldn't believe we lost, but he lit it up. It was his show. Of course, if we could play that game again, we would have beat them *laughs*.
WeAreSC: I have always thought that a head student manager looks as good as his team of student managers allows him to look, could you tell us a little bit about the new guys on your crew this year? What would you say to them if you had the chance to get everyone together again?
AV: This year's crew really stepped it up. I really needed a crew that was going to be there when we needed them and cared about Trojan football. If I was to talk to them together again, I would tell them to just enjoy it. A lot of times, we got fed up with each other and situations, but in the end, we're a family. The first rule of football is "protect the team," and I would tell them that we had to protect "our team."
WeAreSC: Tell us about the equipment room staff and how things operate behind the scenes.
AV: We work hand in hand with the equipment guys and they do a great job, from Tino Dominguez to Dave Scott, to Greg Allen, Hammer, and everyone else. A lot of what we do is because of their leadership.
Dave Scott being the Director of Equipment Operations, his ability to be organized and get anything we needed, he would always say, "You know ‘Pops' got your back!" Anything you needed, any concern, he was there for it.
Tino is like a dad away from home. Whenever you need something or need to talk to someone, he was there. He's been here for a long time, seen the good, bad, and the great, and knows how to get the job done. Following him and realizing he can do anything is incredible. He taught me how to fix a tire that didn't even have air in it! I've just learned so much from this guy. He just gets the job done and gets it done in perfectly. They [the equipment room staff] might seem anal or get upset about something, but they get on our [the student managers'] case about little things is because they take pride in it and we should take pride it in as well. Learning from them was a great add-on to being able to work for them.
WeAreSC: Let's say you were stuck in the woods and a bear was running at you trying to eat you, if you could choose one player on this year's team to help you escape from the bear, either by blocking, throwing things at the bear, or picking you up and running, which player would you choose to help you survive and why?
AV: A bear…a big bear… I think I'd have to pick Sed[rick Ellis]. The beast. Just because he's "Big Sed." Big, buff dude. They call him "The Beast" for a reason. He's also a funny guy. To be stuck in the woods and to have him be there, it'd be funny. He would just look at you and ask, "Why the hell are we out here?" *laughs*
WeAreSC: You developed some very close relationships with many of the guys on your team. I remember in my years, every manager had a "top 5" favorite players list, who would round out your list?
AV: Top 5 would be Mark Sanchez. Next guy would Sam Baker. Next, Oscar Lua. Who else…Rey [Maualuga], just because he's Rey. Last, he got hurt, but Pinkard, Josh Pinkard. He's a great guy and he was very respectful to the managers.
WeAreSC: You're a Public Policy & Development major taking some graduate courses as well right now, what are some of your career goals? Have they changed since you've had this experience as a manager?
AV: I've always wanted to work down here at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. It's like my backyard. I look out the window and that's what I see, the port. I see cranes and cargo going in that goes all over. I always took an interest in that because it's so amazing. Being able to go to USC, I hope to work down in the ports in the planning department. I want this area of San Pedro to be here for my grandkids. There are so many environmental issues with the trucks and ships down here that could create a problem. It's a great place to live and I want to get involved with keeping it that way.
WeAreSC: What was better? Being part of one of the greatest offensive machines in the history of college football and experiencing the win at Notre Dame? Or this year, coming in and surprising some critics and winning the Rose Bowl?
AV: I'd have to choose this year because we did win the Rose Bowl. Last year was an amazing year. I think last year was about Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. But this year really felt like a team, which is what football is all about. This year, I got to see more of a team atmosphere. It was great to walk away 1-0 in '07. That meant a lot to me.
WeAreSC: What were some of the most memorable parts of your job?
AV: The Notre Dame game. That game will be in my memory forever. Just not knowing if we were going to get that 4th and 9 was unreal. I had a headset because I had to chart plays for Coach Ruel, and just hearing Coach Carroll, Kiff, and Sark going at it with one another, then all of a sudden, Kiff said, "Quiet, hold on. Just hold on." Coach Carroll was saying "We need a play, we need a play," because we had just called a timeout and needed a high percentage play to try and get that first down. Just listening to how they would go at it, then seeing how relaxed Matt was after they called the play, it was emotional.
Jarrett caught that pass and I thought he was going to score, but then he got dragged down and I couldn't believe it. Then all the fans ran on the field, and I couldn't believe it. I was thinking, "Did we lose?" But then the next thing we knew, Matt scored. And it was awesome. It was the quietest locker room ever, but it was emotional. It was quiet, but in a good way because everyone was so drained.
WeAreSC: Lastly, what would you like to say to the football program's staff, the fans, and anyone else who supported you over the past couple years?
AV: I want to just say thank you for the memories. My parents, thank you for putting up with my time away from home. The fans, thank you for going out there and giving your support. The Thundering Herd, those guys are always out there at practice and everyone else who came out to practice everyday to cheer for the players. I just want to thank the coaches and the equipment room staff for giving me the opportunity to be involved with something that will be with me for the rest of my life. It taught me to grow as a person and just so many skills that have allowed me to look at myself in a different way. Being able to be part of something so prestigious and exciting is something that will be with me for the rest of my life. Thank you. For everyone who is still there, I wish them all the best and hopefully next year, they'll be there – at the National Championship.