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Where Are The Good Old Days?

Southern Cal, a team of glorious tradition, is struggling to recover from a 3-8 season

How much tradition do they have at Southern Cal? More than they can use in any one year. This is the only football program in the country that has so much tradition it has to celebrate its centennial twice—once in 1988 for its 100th year and this season for its 100th team. So here's to you, Tommy Trojan, you bronze, Coppertoned hunk, you. And once more through Heritage Hall, with its Heisman statuary in stiff-armed glory. Centennial posters all around, boys.

USC has one of the most glamorous programs in all of college football. This is the 20th anniversary of the 1972 national championship team, the 30th of the 1962 national champions and the 60th of the 1932 national champs. Will the old-timers be hoisting a few at Julie's Trojan Barrel, or what? Here's to, without a doubt, the best little...3-8 team in America.

Three and eight? Like everything else, tradition is not what it used to be. The USC old-timer, having hoisted a few at Julie's, must be saying, "Son, you should have seen tradition in the old days."

Of course, USC has had down years before. But in the old days a bad year was 7-4. "I was 7 and 4 once," recalls Ted Tollner, the Trojan coach from 1983 to '86, "and I got fired." In fact, those old days were not so long ago. Tollner's replacement and USC's current coach, Larry Smith, cruised into three Rose Bowls in his first three seasons and was sufficiently shocked by the team's failure to reach the Rose Bowl in his fourth that he adopted the desperate rallying cry "Get it back!" for the fifth. See, as recently as 1990, 8-4-1 was a down year.

But 3-8? At a school like USC, that's not even a cry for help. A cry for help is 6-6. Tollner, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams, had one of those too. It was a season that included a loss to Alabama in the Aloha Bowl, and he began hearing stories about a wealthy alumnus who was willing to establish a fund large enough that the interest alone would pay a fabulous salary to Tollner's successor. "They do have high expectations," he says. "They should have high expectations." When Tollner could do no better than 7-4 the next season, the Trojans got a new coach.

USC hasn't beaten Notre Dame since 1982 and hasn't had a Heisman winner since 1981, and if it goes 3-8, it's probably time for an overhaul of the football program, sort of like the one in 1910 when the Trojans were on their way to an undefeated season and, in the final game, were tied by archrival Pomona. The disappointment was apparently profound. The program was disbanded, and for the next three seasons USC played rugby instead.

Nothing that drastic has happened so far, although the grumbling of alumni has approached the decibel level of a jet engine. One grad who identified himself as an attorney, class of '73 (9-2-1), made his case in a letter to Dr. Steven Sample, the university president. He presented 10 "facts," including won-lost records (which have gotten worse each season since 1988), the Trojans' cumulative record against teams finishing in the Top 10 (5-9 since 1987), and stumbling finishes (USC has not won its last two games in any season since 1979). "I do not see much reason for optimism regarding next year," he wrote.

Getting considerably more attention was a letter to Smith cowritten last January by former All-America Jon Arnett, who played at USC from 1954 to '56. In a nine-page missive, Arnett complained of weak "management." Play selection was unimaginative, he wrote, the running game was hampered by poor teaching of mechanics, and the entire program was dogged by poor recruiting. Arnett was hardest on Smith, whose career has revealed to Arnett a "pattern of mediocrity." Arnett suggested that Smith ought to be part of a "major reorganization," lest "the team and university suffer greatly." Arnett declared, "The program is in disarray and, if not addressed immediately, will quickly sink below its current level of mediocrity." Copies of the letter were sent to all university trustees and major contributors to the football program.

Smith did not reply to the Arnett letter, and eight months later still has an office in Heritage Hall. He did not sack his staff. He recruited. He held spring practice. He proceeded along the same lines he had the previous five years. Of course, there was some explaining to do.

Smith has developed a pat apology for the 1991 disaster. It appears, at least, to have bought him some time. In explaining himself and his team, Smith seems to make sense. But isn't that the special gift of all big-time coaches? If you spend any time in Smith's presence, it is almost possible to forget that in last season's opener the Trojans allowed Memphis State to beat them 24-10 in the Coliseum. Or that Cal, led by tailback Russell White, scored 52 points on the Trojan defense (we shall discuss White a bit later). Smith is so persuasive that, listening to him, you come to believe the season was inevitable.

The first thing that Smith and his defenders try out on you is the Halley's-comet angle: Something like this happens and it's very spectacular and then it doesn't happen again in your lifetime. According to USC history, a losing season rarely signals a decline. Quite the opposite: The last two times that USC had a losing season (1961 and 1983), it came back to win the Rose Bowl (and, in 1962, the national championship). A losing season is simply an aberration, actually a predictor of good times ahead.

The when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people explanation, which follows closely on the heels of the comet angle, is more complex and is familiar to football fans everywhere: Events can simply overwhelm a team. At USC these events began in 1990. Says Smith, "Before the season even began, there was controversy and adversity."

That's coachspeak for player arrests, NCAA sanctions and player rebellion. USC went two for three. There was the Todd Marinovich drama, featuring a talented quarterback who in full view of a national TV audience shouted his coach down on the sideline of the 1990 John Hancock Bowl (a 17-16 loss to Michigan State), got arrested for cocaine possession a month after the season ended and turned pro after his sophomore year. There were the arrests of three players on charges of sexual assault (they were acquitted) after that 1990 season. Then, after 1991 spring practice, there were the arrests and subsequent convictions of two players in a kidnapping-robbery spree.

"A couple of incidents off the field," is how Smith puts it, but he didn't take them lightly. In fact, he may have overreacted. As USC began to look like one more outlaw program, with rogues being recruited off street corners, Smith overdid the damage control. He brought in former players to speak to the team. And he really started delivering the gospel. The players went nuts. "He stressed that we stay out of trouble," says tight end Bradford Banta, "and that was fine. But after a while, we got tired of it. The feeling was, Just be quiet. We want to play football."

Looking back, Smith wonders whether he overtightened his players last year. "I think they may have been repressed, worrying about whether they might tarnish USC's reputation," he says. "We tried to push all that bad stuff out of the way. But we never really recovered from it."

There were other things going on too, and you can trace them back to the day that Smith took over from Tollner in January 1987. One factor was rushed recruiting—unavoidable when the reins are handed from one coach to another only weeks before high school stars are scheduled to make their commitments. But the determination to do better than 6-6 may have led to some quick fixes that the program began paying for last year. Smith did not redshirt several of his more talented players back in '87. Had he done so, last season he might have been able to field tackle Pat Harlow, running back Ricky Ervins and linebacker Scott Ross as fifth-year seniors in their collegiate prime. They are all in the NFL.

Beyond that there was an unusual number of injuries last season, especially to upperclassmen. By December, 22 Trojan players had undergone some type of surgery. "It became a redshirt freshman-sophomore team," Smith says. An average of 12 such kids started each game.

One of those kids was the quarterback. When USC landed Marinovich, the thinking was: Terrific, the Trojans are set at this position for three years. Marinovich, in his first two seasons after having been red-shirted, may have been a pain in the Pac-10, but he was enormously talented. To lose him and have to go to Reggie Perry, who had taken all of three snaps in his collegiate life, was not promising. Perry threw only three touchdown passes in '91.

It was not the year to embark on a schedule called the toughest in the nation by USA Today. When the Trojans upset Penn State in their second game, they only delayed the inevitable assessment. They were in for a long year.

As USC fields its 100th team this season, it may be a good time to ask what kind of tradition it means to uphold. Will the Trojans bounce back to their former glory? Or will they become Every-program—a team that some years will win through luck and circumstance, and other years won't? If you watched what Southern Cal went through last season, you probably saw the future not only of the Trojan football program but also of big-time college football. Great programs brought back to earth, perhaps only briefly, to mingle with the Memphis States of the world. The most chilling explanation for a 3-8 season is that tradition, mystique and a stirring fight song will no longer get you over the hump. Mr. Big-time Coach, this could happen to you.

"This is a different ball game," says Chuck Stobart, who prepped as an assistant coach at Michigan and USC before getting his own program at, yes, Memphis State. "These aren't the John McKay years [USC 1960-75] anymore, when you could win four championships, or the years when Michigan and Ohio State dominated the Big Ten. The hoarding of players isn't possible anymore."

Allen Wallace, the publisher of Super-Prep, a magazine about recruiting, remembers the old ball game, when USC could tie up not only players who could help its cause but also players who, were they to develop in another program, could hurt it. "I'm a 1974 grad, and I remember the word on campus was that McKay had as many as 140 kids on scholarship," says Wallace. "He signed 'em up, brought 'em in and stashed 'em. A lot of them were kids he just didn't want to worry about playing against."

Every superpower enjoyed a similar advantage. "Recruiting at Michigan used to be easy," says Stobart. "In the days when only one Big Ten team played in a bowl, we'd just say, 'Do you want to play New Year's Day or not?' Boom, that eliminated eight teams from a kid's consideration."

It became difficult to remain a superpower when the NCAA began reducing the number of football scholarships. From no limits at all in the '60s and early '70s, the NCAA mandated a limit of 105 in 1975 and reduced that to 92 last year. Two years from now the limit will be 85. "Recruiting 18-year-old kids, five years shy of their physical prime, is not an exact science," says Smith. "If you had 120 scholarships, you could make mistakes and, also, you could be pleasantly surprised. Now there is no margin for error."

Gradually, as the other schools in the Pac-10 develop those "extra" players, the conference is reaching a certain level of parity. Washington represented the conference in the Rose Bowl for the second straight time last January, and upstart Cal was the league runner-up.

In Los Angeles, where UCLA (3-7-1 in 1989, 5-6 in '90) and USC have faltered, a lot of fans yearn for the way things used to be. But Southern Cal, which was long known for its running backs—Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, Charles White, Marcus Allen—suddenly cannot land a glamour back. It seems inexplicable, given the schoolboy talent that blooms within an hour's drive of the Southern Cal campus. Russell White, from Van Nuys, went to Cal; Beno Bryant, from Los Angeles, went to Washington, as did Napoleon Kaufman, from Lompoc, who may be the fastest player in the country. These were among the top prep backs in the country over the past four years. And they all got away.

USC insists that its admissions standards are stricter than most schools' and that it thus loses some marginal students. USC does not admit Prop 48 student-athletes. But of those three who got away, only White was a Prop 48 for whom USC could not bend its rules. Still, the USC recruiting class of '92 is rated by Wallace as being among the top 10 in the nation. "Neither their record nor the troubles in South Central Los Angeles [not far from the campus] seemed to matter," he says. "USC won the state. Kids want a big-time game, beautiful women and a wonderful climate."

And they still want tradition. Shawn Walters, a top running back from Arlington, Texas, is said to have looked at those four statues in Heritage Hall and committed on the spot. But even if Smith were to lock up all the athletes he could, as in the McKay days, he couldn't guarantee the future. He can bring a prep star to USC, after all, but he can no longer make him stay for four or five years. So far, since underclassmen have been allowed to enter the NFL draft, Smith has seen two stars, linebacker Junior Seau and safety Mark Carrier, leave a year early, and another, Marinovich, skip two full seasons.

Wallace, for one, wonders how much USC tradition there would be if it had always been thus. "Let's see, O.J. Simpson [who was a junior college transfer], you only have him for a year. So he never wins the Heisman, and USC doesn't come from behind to beat UCLA 21-20 his senior year. Because he's gone."

More important, Wallace wonders what USC tradition will become if the situation remains so. "When you maintain a great tradition, you maintain a thread to the glory years," he says. "At Notre Dame, Lou Holtz can convince his kids they'll pull it off. Because they always have. But USC may be getting to the point where it doesn't have the kid who thinks he can beat Notre Dame anymore."

Nobody is predicting that USC won't beat Notre Dame again; what has happened at USC could happen to the Irish. "The dynasties are going to rotate," says Tollner. "You're going to see more people getting to hit that hot cycle. USC will still get its share of Rose Bowls. In this decade it may not get seven or eight, more like two or three."

If this is so, if tradition must be down-scaled in the 1990s, you wonder what USC will have to celebrate in its two bicentennials next century. Perhaps fans and alumni will come to grips with this new reality and still manage some hoopla. You just hope, whether you're a USC fan or not, that it's not for 100 years of rugby.



Perry (16), Marinovich's inexperienced successor, look a pounding.



Though skilled, Marinovich was ultimately a detriment to the Trojans.



Smith put the best face on things before the 14-3 loss to the Huskies.



Bryant (29) is one of the talented Californians who got away.



In '91 the Trojans took their lumps from arriviste Arizona State.