Well, it is fair to say that it has been quite a ride! This past season started out with a very important win over a tough Auburn team on national television. Shortly thereafter SC hit two big snags along the way. There was the loss at Kansas State during which USC was handled fairly easily for much of the game by a very talented Wildcat Team. Little did anyone know that it would be the only time all season that this terrific USC team would really be taken apart. Soon after the KSU loss, USC went up to Pullman and played a pretty good Washington State team. Unfortunately, during that game SC lost Troy Polamulu and I don't think they really recovered from an emotional standpoint. Nonetheless, SC found its rhythm offensively and took the Cougars to OT before losing an emotionally charged game. And the rest, as they say, is history. USC simply refused to lose another game all season and the team picked up steam as the season progressed. The University of Southern California Trojans finished the season as impressively as any team in its illustrious football history, and that includes a direct comparison with the final three games of the highly acclaimed 1972 National Championship team.
Let's take a quick step back for a second. Just over two years ago, in December of 2000, the USC Football program was in a mess and that is being kind. Paul Hackett had wreaked havoc on the program and he was dismissed after three seasons. The overall morale around the program seemed to be quite low and the search for a coach was not going well, at least according to most fans. There were the misses with Bellotti and Erickson and we could not get Mike Riley either. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the name Pete Carroll, (are you kidding me?) emerged. To say that many were distraught and up in arms would be putting it mildly! So as not to be considered a huge hypocrite, I had better fess up and let everyone all know that my name was amongst those who were initially less than enthralled with the choice of Pete Carroll. However, after he was introduced he held his first introductory conference. By some quirk of fate, I was home at the time and the conference was on Fox Sports West. I got to see Pete and I listened and watched intently. I knew right then and there that SC had its guy. What others considered to be a lack of comfort in front of the cameras and an almost immature approach to speaking was what I was shocked and thrilled to see. This guy brought more passion and enthusiasm to USC Football in one meeting than I had seen at SC since the first era of John Robinson. Pete Carroll pulled no punches! He wanted to go out and recruit, he wanted to run the whole show and he wanted to win and win right now. That youthful exuberance was tailor made for college football. I went at it pretty good with others on several of the SC message boards, trying to defend a choice that I initially hated. Well, as most now readily admit, Garrett made a terrific choice, and whether it was by luck or not, it has worked out well. Pete Carroll is an absolutely perfect fit for the University of Southern California and its Football Program.
The Trojan Staff has just finished putting together a recruiting class that many feel is the premier class in the entire country. Of course most serious fans will admit that recruiting is hardly an exact science and that high ratings do not automatically guarantee success on the field. On the other hand, it is not possible to consistently win without adequate talent and depth on the field. Suffice it to say that in three short recruiting seasons this energy charged staff has managed to add talent and depth to the football squad as well as most anyone could have hoped or envisioned. There are already several stars amongst the Carroll recruits and more are sure to emerge from this most current group. A few examples that illustrate this point are Shaun Cody, Mike Patterson, Winston Justice and of course Big Mike Williams. In the current group of recruits are countless names, some of whom are sure to be added to that list of stars in the not too distant future. What is most important, however, from a football point of view, is that each one of these kids understands his role in the concept of team ball. It does not take much for somebody to come in and ruin or attempt to ruin a Karma that exists within a team and it is up to the coaches to spot problems and to head them off before there can be any damage done. So far, it would surely seem that Coach Carroll and his staff have excelled at just this point. Perhaps nothing illustrates this point better than the how the recent team approached the "voluntary" team workouts. Allegedly when one of the younger guys asked what happens if he does not volunteer to attend those workouts and participate, one of the cagey veterans is reported to have told him that "you either volunteer or I'll kick your ass". That is the kind of senior leadership that did not seem to exist in recent years under the various other head football coaches.
So, now that Coach Carroll is heading into his third full season as the head coach, is the team really back? If one reads the various USC Football Boards on the internet, and thousands and thousands of fans do just that, there seems to be the feeling that SC is indeed back. However, I caution those fans to have some patience and to give this staff and team a couple more years before making a final decision. Before anyone bites my head off, I would at least like to take a minute to rationalize that thought. USC has not had anyone not named Carson Palmer leading this team for quite some time. Granted, the Offensive Coordinator, Norm Chow is one of the very best, and if anyone else can lead the offense and develop a quarterback, this is the guy. However, as he demonstrated in his first year plus while at USC, it takes a while to assimilate everything into the offense and we can't yet be sure what the new qb will bring to the table. USC had a fabulous year and ended up ranked higher than at any time since the end of the 1979 season. Can this effort and success be continued? I think it can, but the very next test will be quite tough indeed. Opening the season against a very experienced and tough Auburn squad at Jordan Hare Stadium in the incredible heat and humidity is not a piece of cake assignment. In that very fist game in the post Carson era, SC will be breaking in an entirely new starting backfield and new middle linebacker and two or three new starters at defensive back, depending on how one looks at that. On the positive side, thanks to some great recruiting and good timing for the first time in a long while, there seems to be a perfect mixture of talented depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage and we all know that the games are won and lost in the trenches. Add to that the impressive group of skilled players that SC has now recruited on both sides of the line of scrimmage and USC should have a chance to compete successfully in every single game all year long.
The ability to play on an even field with our competitors has not always been the case in recent years. When Robinson came in for his second stint, there was a dearth of talent at USC. When his team had to go into South Band and face that huge Irish line, USC was truly outmanned. I remember, just as if it were yesterday, reading the comments by Willie McGinnest, no slouch in his own right, how big and strong those guys were from Notre Dame. I knew right then and there that SC had fallen lower than I ever expected. Since when were my beloved USC Trojans ever in awe of anyone else? What a disheartening experience. And then after the second Robinson era, in came the professor and once again we had to endure his comments about not enough talent and depth—once again what a mess! However, now, after only 3 recruiting classes and two seasons, we no longer hear that at USC. The USC Football team that hits the field for each and every football game is as big, strong and fast as anyone it is likely to play. To be sure, the reality is that once again, USC is actually stronger and faster and quicker than most of its opponents. Nobody and I mean nobody is going to intimidate the USC Trojans again, at least not with Pete Carroll at the helm. One of his best moves to date was hiring Chris Carlisle who has built the strength program at USC to a point where it takes second to nobody. Facilities not withstanding, this is a well conditioned, well motivated USC team and group of guys and the coaches and kids themselves deserve the credit. To demonstrate that this program is still in place and evolving, in the few short weeks since the Ting twins and Darnell Bing have been on campus, they have all shown signs of increasing their size, speed and determination. What more could a fan want from his team and coaches?.
So getting back to the question of whether or not SC Football is really back, I will say that I am very optimistic, but the reality is that it still has to be proved. USC needs several top ten finishes in the next five years to really reestablish itself and to keep itself in that upper echelon. We have to see the local high school kids pick USC as their dream team and not have to constantly listen to the locals declare that Florida State and Miami or even Tennessee are their schools of choice. Only consistent winning will do that. We had a terrific season last year and USC demolished a supposedly very good Iowa team to win the Orange Bowl. However, how many folks who are reading this would not have preferred to see USC play in the Rose Bowl? The only exception would have been had USC been in the Fiesta Bowl, but discussing that whole BCS "thing" is not going to happen here. It's time for USC to win the Pac-10 Championship outright and to win it often. Of course, one who makes that statement is obviously showing one's age. Repeated championships have not been common in recent years, with the last string being in the late 80's and early 90's. Prior to that, the last groups of championships were back in the 1970's. I figure if other schools can dominate their leagues, there is no reason why Pete Carroll and the USC Trojans can't dominate the Pac-10. Sure, there is parity in college football, but tell that to Lute Olsen. He seems to have his basketball team up every single year vying for the Pac-10 basketball title. Although the number of scholarships has created some parity in both sports, I think having the best coaches can be the big difference maker. Based on what I have now seen for three recruiting seasons and for two playing seasons, USC is now in position to win regularly. It surely appears that the Trojans no longer have to take a back seat to anyone either on the field, in the pressbox or on the sideline. Now, it will be very nice if Pete Carroll and his University of Southern California Trojan Football Team go out and prove it.