Its like old times at USC
Beavers hope to avoid being part of coach Pete Carroll's Trojan revival
There were some snickers when Southern Cal Athletic Director Mike Garrett hired Pete Carroll as head football coach in December 2000.
Not that Carroll was a joke, but he hardly seemed the savior necessary to resurrect a Trojan program that had gone 19-18 in Paul Hackett's three years at the helm, and finished in a tie for eighth in the Pacific-10 Conference during his final year.
Carroll had spent 16 years coaching in the NFL, including stints as head coach of the New York Jets (1994) and New England Patriots (1997-99). But his teams' records were an uninspiring 76-101 as an assistant and 25-33 as a head coach, including playoff games.
And he was unfamiliar with the college ranks, where he last worked as an assistant head coach at Pacific, his alma mater, in 1983.
Carroll, obviously, has had the last laugh.
After a stirring 2002 season in which Southern Cal went 11-2, blasted Iowa 38-17 in the Orange Bowl and finished with a No. 4 national ranking, the Trojans have been even better this fall. They enter Saturday's regular-season finale against Oregon State at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum ranked second in the country with a 10-1 record, and already are assured of at least a share of their second straight Pac-10 championship.
'He's the best,' says Cincinnati rookie quarterback Carson Palmer, whom Carroll guided to the Heisman Trophy a year ago. 'He's the coach who's going to make USC what USC used to be.'
USC used to be unparalleled for national football excellence, back in the days of coaches John McKay and John Robinson.
The Trojans won national titles in 1962, '67, '72, '74 and '78. USC finished the season ranked among the top 10 five times in the '60s, six times in the '70s and three times in the '80s. However, the Trojans had fallen on relatively hard times since then Ñ until Carroll arrived.
Creating 'Team' USC
The first thing Carroll did, he says, was establish a more visible link to the successes of seasons past. He welcomed back legends of USC's past to hang out in the locker room, at practice, and on the sideline during games. Such luminaries as Keyshawn Johnson, Ronnie Lott, Marcus Allen, Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and Ron Yary suddenly were regular visitors.
Carroll then established an attitude.
'The focus of everything is on team,' he says. ' 'Me' isn't important. We go by the old-fashioned team concepts. We started from Day One with that approach and never backed off it.
'There was a time lag when the players made a real honest commitment to what we are doing. I didn't want them to do it right away, because that would be shallow. We wanted them to really buy into it and make an affirmation that they are 100 percent with us, that this is the way we are going to run the program.'
Carroll connected with the players, just as he has done throughout his career. 'Great charisma,' says Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco coach who had Carroll as an assistant. 'He has a gift.'
Carroll made it fun. But he says that's not just for the players.
'It might look I'm trying to do that for everybody else, but, nah,' he says, chuckling. 'It's for myself. It has always been that way with me. It's just my nature.'
Did Carroll have doubts he could rekindle the glory years?
'I didn't know,' he says. 'My goal was to take it as far back as you could take it. I had heard all the stuff. Everybody said it couldn't be like it was, that no longer could a program show the kind of dominance like the old days. So we just set out to coach the heck out of the players, recruit our butts off and take them as far as we could take 'em.'
Paying the Pac-10 dues
Carroll's first team, the 2001 Trojans, started the season 1-4, losing four straight by 14 total points after an opening win over San Jose State. There was the 24-22 loss at Oregon in which the Trojans thought they had won with a last-minute field goal, only to have the Ducks respond with a game-winning field goal with 12 seconds left.
Washington did the same thing in a 27-24 victory, winning on the final play of the game.
'There were a number of opportunities for us to turn it early, but we were lousy, to be honest,' Carroll says. 'It took us awhile to get going. We were playing cruddy, and we didn't deserve those wins, I guess. But a couple of weeks later, we came back to beat Arizona, and we haven't looked back since.'
Since that game, USC has racked up a 23-4 record. This season, with a team loaded with talented underclassmen, including sophomore quarterback Matt Leinert, the Trojans have been dominant. And that doesn't look to change anytime soon Ñ the Trojans recruited what one scouting service calls the best freshman class in the conference in a decade.
Carroll finds that ironic because skeptics figured that recruiting might be a problem for a coach away from the college game so many years.
'That's the one that really got me Ñ he has been away from the college game so long, how is he going to recruit?' Carroll says. 'That was the most absurd comment of all the ones people said about me. Man, that doesn't make any sense. All you do while coaching football is recruit guys' loyalty. People were out of touch with that kind of thought.
'Recruiting is easy. You go at it with passion, you promote your program and present opportunities for kids to contribute to a winner. That's the easiest thing, to get kids and their families fired up about joining a program like ours.'
Carroll claims that his almost immediate success at USC doesn't mean personal vindication for what happened to him in his brief head coaching tenures with the Jets and Patriots.
'I was down that we didn't get to continue, sure, but I wasn't in the dumper,' he says. 'I had confidence I still had a lot of good coaching left in me.'
Chasing a national title
Carroll believes in his '03 Trojans.
'We don't give you many opportunities to beat us,' says the third-year USC coach, who also serves as the team's defensive coordinator. 'Our philosophy is to take care of the football on both sides.
'We go get the ball well, and we keep it well. Our turnover ratio has been phenomenal all three years. This year it is plus-17, and I am real proud of that. We kick and punt the ball well and play good defense. When we play well, we are a really good team.'
Carroll says the Trojans have respect for the Beavers.
'They are a good team,' he says, 'real good. They have excellent players at quarterback and tailback, a big-time receiver, experience in the system, and an effective defense. You can't complete passes against them.
'They are a difficult opponent. I thought they would be the team in a (Pac-10) championship situation at the end of the year, and they are capable of playing like that. They have played a lot of great football.'
Can the Trojans establish dominance in the Pac-10 like the teams of McKay and Robinson?
'I don't know,' Carroll says. 'We will find out. Next year gives us a window. If we beat Oregon State, we will be back-to-back conference champions. You make a statement doing it the third time, and the fourth time you are rolling. It takes a lot of time to figure those things out.'
Carroll probably will be around to find out. He says he has no interest in returning to the NFL.
'I have found a great place for me,' he says. 'I love the winning so much. I have the best chance to control that in this setting. I'm not letting that get away.'
This will be the fourth time in five years that Oregon State has played at Southern Cal. The Trojans' only visit to Corvallis during that span was 2000, a 31-21 OSU win.