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TGS SPECIAL REPORT: CHANGING THE TUNE AT SOUTHERN CAL
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


The music didn’t necessarily stop this past weekend at Southern Cal.

But the tune sure changed.

The eventual departure of Pete Carroll from SC was something that Trojan fans everywhere had been dreading for years. And it was inevitable, even though some Cardinal & Gold backers had deluded themselves into thinking this was an arrangement that would go on for eternity. Or “Win Forever,” as Carroll liked to put it.

But “forever” turned out to be nine years, or until the Seattle Seahawks came calling with an offer that Carroll simply couldn’t refuse. One is left to wonder what would have happened five years ago had 49ers owner John York decided to make a similar, Seahawks-like offer to Carroll before deciding to spend a few million less and hiring Mike Nolan instead. If you recall, there were hints that Carroll considered the San Francisco assignment his dream job, given that he was raised in the Bay Area, and that something might have gone down after the 2004 season if York wanted to play ball. Which he didn’t.

But that’s just a peripheral angle to the bigger Carroll tale that has more compelling chapters to address as he embarks upon his new assignment in the Pacific Northwest. Such as the fact that this coaching change has a different feel to it than most others we have witnessed through the years. Whereas most of the chatter about a coach’s move usually revolves around where he’s going, much of the focus regarding the Carroll switch will be around what he’s left behind. Indeed, the immediate future at Southern Cal makes for a lot more compelling speculation than the immediate future of the Seahawks.

Because there are a lot of college football followers, especially those on the west coast, that are a bit excited at the prospect of the Trojans regressing back to where they were before Carroll arrived. Which really wasn’t anywhere at all.

And that, folks, is one of many things that has SC shaking in its boots these days. We’ll get to those other items in a moment.

We suspect that many Trojan backers have long forgotten the lesson that Carroll should have reminded them, that it’s people, more than a name, that make a situation special. Notre Dame football has certainly learned that hard truth more often than not over the past generation. UCLA basketball found that out during the Steve Lavin years. Just as USC football found out in the couple of decades that preceded Carroll’s arrival, when the Trojans only occasionally made noise on the national scene.

From the end of John Robinson’s first tenure in 1982 to the end of Paul Hackett’s disappointing run in 2000, SC football lost its swagger, and then some. Although there were a few brief revivals in that near 20-year period, the SC that Carroll inherited post-Hackett was a shell of its former self, having limped home with a 5-7 mark in 2000. Hackett’s Trojans had slipped to the point where they had lost three straight times to Cal teams coached by Tom Holmoe. A decade ago, SC would only fill the L.A. Coliseum for dates vs. big rivals UCLA and Notre Dame. For many of the other games, the big saucer was barely half full, as it was for the first game of the Carroll era, way back on September 1, 2001, when only 45,000 fans showed up to watch Pete’s first Trojan team chug past scrappy San Jose State, 21-10, in the opener.

Indeed, at that time the Trojans were not a relevant football program, which the cigar blowers at those many Cardinal & Gold Club functions seem to have conveniently forgotten. Carroll, however, made the Trojans relevant again, and then some.

Although some football programs have edges that are inherently built into their foundations, even the strongest can flounder if the right people aren’t in charge. Anyone who thinks Florida is always going to win big is forgetting that the Gators certainly didn’t dominate from 2002-04 when Ron Zook was their coach. LSU has won big with Nick Saban and Les Miles but sure didn’t do the same with Curley Hallman or Gerry DiNardo at the helm. Likewise, SC descended from its heights under Ted Tollner, at the end of Larry Smith’s and then John Robinson’s second regimes, and finally to the ineptitude of the Hackett years. Those Trojans who believed SC would dominate always because, well, we’re USC, were treated to a dose of cold, harsh reality, especially in the Hackett years, when the Trojans were far off the national radar.

That many of those same sorts have apparently forgotten where the program was when Carroll arrived are the reason that so many cannot wait for the Trojans to descend back into that abyss of irrelevancy. Not that SC can’t remain as a force on the college football scene post-Carroll; indeed, whoever takes over at SC will not be inheriting a bare cupboard. Nonetheless, some erosion should be expected, which is why most informed and enlightened observers are now asking the question not if SC will regress post-Carroll, but how far it will fall.

Like everything in team sports, how the Trojans fare in 2010 and beyond will depend upon the man in charge of the program. But the likelihood of AD Mike Garrett stumbling upon another home run hire like Carroll is asking for lightning to strike twice. That's because Garrett was going through potential candidates like Larry King goes through wives when looking for Hackett's successor after the 2000 campaign. Remember, Carroll was no better than Garrett’s fourth choice when he was hired nine years ago. We know that Dennis Erickson, Mike Bellotti, and Mike Riley were ahead in the queue, and had Dean Spanos not threatened then-Charger HC Riley when about to take the job in late 2000, history might have written some far different chapters at SC the past decade. (Riley is a good coach, and has found his perfect spot in his return to Oregon State, but we doubt he could have achieved what Carroll did at SC the past nine years). Colorado State’s Sonny Lubick also might have been above Carroll in the SC pecking order in December of 2000, but after getting rebuffed at almost every turn, Garrett (upon the recommendation of then-assistant AD Daryl Gross, now at Syracuse), turned his attention to Carroll, and took a blind leap of faith that rewarded him and Trojan backers with riches and success that they dared not dream (but since have treated like a birthright) in December of 2000.

We have always likened Garrett’s decision to hire Carroll to what we have seen for years in the horse racing business, when sometimes an owner or breeder can just get plain lucky with a thoroughbred. This is the same Garrett that hired Hackett after ruthlessly ousting Robinson in a classless manner that had even SC haters feeling sorry for “Robofat” back in 1997. It is the same Garrett that also wanted Robinson out after a disappointing 1996 campaign, only to be temporarily be outflanked by Robo, who cashed his last remaining chips with the big money boosters to get one more season to turn things around. At the time in ‘96, it was rumored that Garrett was going to make a run at either John Mackovic or Ron Turner to replace Robinson. By the time Garrett got around to firing Robinson after the next season (1997), however, Mackovic had just been fired himself, by Texas, and Turner had just begun a stint at Illinois that would eventually see him get dismissed as well. But Paul Hackett was available, and he was Garrett’s choice to lead the Trojans back to glory.

Garrett has displayed a similar touch of a blacksmith with his basketball coaches, from unceremoniously pushing George Raveling out the door to brazenly dismissing Charlie Parker and the ill-suited Henry Bibby during the middle of seasons, to the Rick Majerus hiring fiasco to effectively throwing Tim Floyd under the bus (with cause, perhaps) last summer. Some believe Floyd and the basketball program were sacrificed to keep the scent off the football program; others believe the recent decisions to jettison Floyd and self-punish the hoops program might have been made over Garrett's head. Given that track record, it seems unlikely that Garrett can pull another Carroll-like rabbit out of his hat. Potential candidates are also bound to know how frosty Garrett's relationship's became with Carroll, and simply might opt out just because they don't want to work for the '65 Heisman winner. And whether Garrett even gets to be the one to make that call is open to some speculation.

What Carroll also leaves behind is football program and entire athletic department ready to be driven off a cliff. NCAA and Pac-10 investigators have been lurking for years, on the scent of what appear to be some egregious infractions committed by the football (and basketball) programs. Perhaps not coincidentally, the NCAA cops have announced, on the same day that Carroll officially took the Seattle job, that they have concluded their Southern Cal investigation and will present their report to the NCAA infractions committee in February. Around Exposition Park, the next round of job speculation could involve Garrett, whose chances of surviving a broadside hit from the NCAA are iffy, especially with a new school president slated to come on board in the summer.

Although we don’t want to pre-judge either the findings of the NCAA or the inevitable response by SC, we have some nice oceanfront property in Phoenix to sell to anyone who doesn’t believe there weren’t some serious shenanigans going on in the Trojan football program during the Carroll regime. The fact is that the NCAA had its hands tied regarding the Reggie Bush controversy for the past three years, lacking the subpeona power to extract testimony from sources who could not be compelled to testify with their matters simultaneously tied up in court. A previous Bush settlement in 2007 with another figure in the controversy, Michael Michaels, included a stipulation that neither party was to talk about the specifics publicly. SC was also reportedly uncooperative at best through whatever investigation the NCAA detectives could develop, with many curious at the lengths to which everyone seemed to be going to clam up about the accusations. But with gag orders now lifted in the pending Bush litigation vs. Lloyd Lake and the upcoming trial being on the public record, even the most inexperienced gumshoes at the NCAA will likely be able to uncover some damning evidence against SC that will now be presented to them on a silver platter.

The broad details of the situations with Bush as well as hoopster O.J. Mayo have been available for public consumption for a good while, however, and there’s no reason for us to rehash all of the specifics (as we know them) on these pages. But where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, and more than a few keen observers believe the NCAA can present a heckuva case against the Trojan Athletic Department for, among other things, a lack of institutional control, and the penalties could be a lot more harsh than the self-imposed ones SC handed its basketball program a few weeks ago. Hence the legitimate questions regarding Garrett's long-term prognosis as the AD. Carroll, however, will be long gone to Seattle, and away from the legal gunfire and NCAA firing squad that SC will likely have to face.

There are a few bigger pictures to the entire Carroll/SC saga that merit final commentary, however. First, one of the reminders from SC’s revival and ultimate journey into the gridiron stratosphere for Carroll is that those sorts of things can happen only at a handful of places where, if the constellations line up properly, true greatness can be achieved. It simply can’t happen over an extended period of time at most college football venues. Not Washington State. Not New Mexico. Not Baylor. Not Vanderbilt. But it can at Texas or Florida or Alabama or Oklahoma or Michigan or Notre Dame or USC if the right guy, like Carroll (and not Paul Hackett, or Curley Hallman), is in charge.

Second, as the recent unraveling of Tiger Woods’ mystique suggests, sometimes what the public perceives is far from the truth. Tiger’s travails are certainly the latest in that regard, but sports history is replete with heroes getting unmasked, with Mark McGwire another example. (In a similar line of thought, we also recommend taking a look a critically-acclaimed book written by the late Mark Kram, entitled “Ghosts of Manila,” that unveiled a lot about the contradictions and hypocrisy of Muhammad Ali and took the sports media to task for their complicity in that era.) In our own research for a book researching college basketball in the early ‘60s, we have come across more damning information against booster Sam Gilbert and John Wooden’s UCLA basketball dynasty that has only received token play from the media. But with Carroll now fair game and an easier media target since he bailed out (understandable as it is) from SC, and more and more comes out about what SC was doing off the field to become a football powerhouse the past decade, we could foresee a Tiger Woods-like unraveling of the whole aura and mystique that surrounded those Trojan juggernauts, who could be forever stained if forced to abandon their 2004 BCS crown...or if Reggie Bush has to explain to Kim Kardashian why he has to retroactively surrender his 2005 Heisman Trophy.

Third, condemnation for the bulk of the sports media, which for years treated Carroll and the Trojans with kid gloves. Except, that is, for some brave sorts at Yahoo! Sports (Charles Robinson in particular), who did some serious digging on this fiasco a few years ago and made their findings public at a time when many media outlets (including ESPN and much of the local L.A. press) scoffed at and even ignored the reports. (We at THE GOLD SHEET, however, always thought Robinson and Yahoo! were on to something, and suggested as much as far back as 2007 in an article that is also currently appearing in a “Best of TGS feature on our website.) So, as the bulk of the media decide that it’s now safe to put the Trojans under the microscope and pile on, just remember who first blew the whistle.

Lastly, we wonder about the reaction of the many SC supporters who are almost singular in their insufferability and who conveniently forgot the depths their program descended during the Tollner, Robinson II, and Hackett regimes, not to mention the uncomfortable last few years of the late Larry Smith’s tenure that were pockmarked by Todd Marinovich and the humbling Freedom Bowl loss to Fresno State in 1992 that paved Smith’s exit ramp from Troy. We have spent a half century watching college football fans from across the country and can say unequivocably that the hubris exhibited by the Trojan backers exceeds them all. We are often reminded by one shrewd gridiron observer who liked to compare the SC bunch to others elsewhere in the country that treat their gridiron heroes with religious-like fervor. But however over-the-top the Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Tennessee, etc. fans might be, those from other parts of the country seem to limit the idolization to their teams, where the standard SC backer appears to idolize himself (or herself) for, well, being a Trojan. (Case in point: After SC’s humiliating 55-21 loss to Stanford last November, haughty Trojan play-by-play announcer Pete Arbogast, obviously perturbed at the result, signed off his broadcast with a “Remember, we’re Trojans, and they’re not.” See?) Perhaps it's just part of living in the often make-believe world of L.A./Hollywood. And that might be part of the reason why the majority of SC supporters have almost all conveniently forgotten about the Hackett years or other Trojan gridiron disappointments in the last generation, and instead choose to view the glory of the Carroll years as reflections of themselves, something that truly sets them apart from almost all other college football fans.

Which is why no one outside of Trojan Nation is going to shed a tear if the recent SC football empire begins to crumble in the next few years.


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