Oldtimer's Take: Investment in the Future

I'm still optimistic about USC's future. We need to see 2009 for what it was. 2009 has been a rebuilding year for the Trojans. I see it as an investment in the future.

Why do great college football programs slide? Is it the coaching or players?

Pete Carroll's message to the football team before practice began Saturday for the Emerald Bowl spoke of change. Carroll said, a shift has to happen, and it starts right now.

Carroll said, "We're faced with a new challenge. We need to take advantage of everything we can to get it right. We need to do everything better. This has to happen. We are going to grow with this as we change things."

What Pete Carroll is talking about is a change in a 2009 USC Trojan football team that fell below expectations. Pete Carroll was talking about a need for change, so USC could fulfill expectations in 2010.

Why do great CFB programs slide? Let's see what we can learn from the past.

From 1919 through the first three games of 1934 USC had won 132 games and lost only 18 with 3 ties. The Trojans had won 86% of their games. You can't ride any higher than that. Knute Rockne had a.881 win percentage and Frank Leahy .865 in their coaching careers at Notre Dame, but their coaching stints were separated by a decade at ND. USC football was riding high 3 games in the 1934 season. Then it dropped off dramatically.

In 1919 USC had hired a high school coach out of Washington who had been a college football star at Oberlin College. His name was Gus Henderson. Gus was 45-7 in his five years at USC and recruited the players that put USC on the national football map in the mid-twenties.

My grandpa always felt that Gus Henderson was as fine a man as had ever coached college football. He was dearly loved by his players but couldn't beat California. So he was let go after the 1924 season. It was Henderson that recruited Morley Drury and all the great Trojan players that put USC on the map as a national power.

Henderson went on to coach at Tulsa for a decade and also was a head coach in the old AFL and the NFL with the Detroit Lions. USC let Henderson go because he couldn't beat Cal, but they also thought they had a shot at Knute Rockne. When Rockne turned them down he suggested Howard Jones who had beat him when Jones was coaching at Iowa.

So in 1933 USC was riding a 27-game unbeaten streak until a loss to the Vow Boys at Stanford 13-7. The Trojans finished the year 10-1-1, and then from 1934-1937 they went 4-6-1, 5-7, 4-2-3 and 4-4-2 under Howard Jones. What happened?

Paul Zimmerman, who wrote for the Times back then, gave some reasons for the Trojans decline. He said during USC's great streak, players spent three years on the bench that would have started at other PCC schools. He said recruits began to see this and took a look at USC's depth chart and went elsewhere.

Zimmerman also said USC's coaching staff had begun to ride their own oars and assumed all the great prep starts would come to USC. But it didn't happen. He also brought up the matter of PCC schools being stomped on by USC for too long. The schools wanted their revenge. They hired better coaches, recruited better players, and USC became the game they pointed toward every year.

Nick Pappas who played for USC in the middle 30's and ran the support groups for USC in the 70's gave some insights on USC's decline. He grew up in Washington and loved the Huskies. But in 1927 as he was listening to the Washington - USC game he heard the Coliseum crowd roar for five minutes in appreciation as Morley Drury walked off the field for the last time. He said at that moment he told his parents he was going to USC.

Pappas point was different than Zimmerman's. He said great players and teams draw other great players.

Pappas said USC declined in the mid 30's, because the Trojans didn't have the great players they had had in the past. He said USC had good players, but not the great ones, who win ball games by making the big plays like sacking the QB to stop a last-minute drive or make those key passes, runs, and catches that win ball games.

Howard Jones and his coaching staff hadn't forgotten how to develop great players. USC just didn't recruit the kind of stars they had had in the past. Pappas said we just didn't have players like an OJ Simpson.

John McKay and his assistant Dave Levy came to the same conclusion after losing to ND 51-0 in 1966. They decided they hadn't recruited enough speed on defense, and they also sent Marv Goux out to get players like OJ Simpson and Earl McCullouch to improve their offense.

The results of that recruiting yield a National Championship in 1967, a 9-1-1 team in 1968 and a 10-0-1 team in 1969. They went out and recruited the Wild Bunch for the defense and some great offensive players.

Why do teams decline? There is an old saying, "It's not the X's and the O's, it's the Willies and the Joes."

Take a look at USC's two National Championships under Pete Carroll. They had two great defensive tackles in Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson. In 1931 and 1932 when the Trojans won back to back National Championships, they had a great defensive guard in Aaron Rosenburg and maybe their greatest defensive player ever in Ernie Smith.

USC had great offensive playmakers in their NC years of 1931 and 1932 and 2003-2004. The Trojans had great QBs in those championship years and great defensive linemen in the middle to disrupt opposing offenses.

Is USC football on the decline?

I don't think so. Pete Carroll hasn't forgotten how to coach or recruit. USC still has a strong shot at the top 5 high school recruits this year. The Trojans are going to have a great recruiting year. USC has not missed on many recruits in the past two years. The Trojans offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach have had a year to mature. That will make a difference.

Players like Matt Barkley will be much better next year, and I have great expectations for USC front seven on defense next season after a year of seasoning.

The one dark spot for USC is at LB with Telfort not being able to play, and now Jarvis Jones with a serious spinal problem. Losing both Manti Te'o and Vontaze Burfict has hurt USC's prospects in the future. Both of the players started as true freshman and had excellent years. Those kinds of misses can cost USC games in the future and can bring decline.

But I'm still optimistic about USC's future. We need to see 2009 for what it was. 2009 has been a rebuilding year for the USC Trojans. I see it as an investment in the future and I'm optimistic about 2010 and beyond.

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If you have any questions, comments or suggestions you can reach Kevin Carden at kevin@scplaybook.com

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