Here was history brought back to life last Saturday night, as a
52-year-old coach who was drummed out of the NFL for having too
much enthusiasm revived a storied program that had long had too
little. Venerable Los Angeles Coliseum was nearly full, awash in
cardinal and gold again, rocking under a cloudless sky as USC and
third-year coach Pete Carroll imposed themselves on the chaotic
national championship race with a 43-16 win over sixth-ranked
Washington State. College Football Nation now looks west and
computers reboot as the pollsters recalculate the status of an
old, familiar name at last back in the mix.
There was a time when cold autumn Saturdays in much of the
country were warmed by images beamed from California, as games
played in postcard sunshine or warm twilight sent ripples through
the national rankings. No Saturday was more memorable than the
one in 1974 when USC, led by tailback Anthony Davis, erased a
24-0 deficit and stormed past Notre Dame 55-24, humiliating the
Irish in 17 minutes of bloody, captivating theater. From 1972
through '79 the Trojans finished No. 1 or No. 2 five times,
ensuring that the Pac-8 (and then the Pac-10, after the league
expanded in 1978) always had a voice in deciding the national
But after that there was silence. In the 24 years since USC
shared the national championship with Alabama in 1978, the Pac-10
has only won half of another title, in 1991, when Washington
split it with Miami. Championships have been sprinkled from
Oklahoma and Nebraska to Florida, Florida State and Miami, to
Tennessee and Alabama, to Michigan and Ohio State, but the West
Coast has been a virtual black hole. Since the formation of the
Bowl Championship Series in 1998, only the Pac-10 among the six
power conferences has not sent a team to the national title game.
The Pac-10 became a late-night novelty, its teams playing
high-scoring shootouts and, like cannibals, devouring each other
in a stream of upsets that ruined title chances. "Exciting
football," says former Arizona coach Dick Tomey, "but no dominant
Until Saturday. USC's rout of Washington State--combined with
previously unbeaten Miami's 31-7 loss at Virginia Tech (page
52)--thrust the 8-1 Trojans into the heart of the BCS madness, a
confusing, unpredictable scramble to find an opponent for
unbeaten and seemingly unbeatable Oklahoma. This latest shakeup
left USC at No. 2 in both the AP poll and the BCS standings--in
line for a Sugar Bowl berth. The Trojans' players, under orders
from their coach to ignore the possibilities, are seduced by them
nonetheless. "I was just thinking," junior defensive tackle Shaun
Cody said after Saturday night's win, "it would be nice to test
ourselves against somebody from back in the East or the Midwest,
if you know what I mean."
On a midweek evening earlier this season Carroll sat in
semidarkness in a meeting room on the second floor of Heritage
Hall (where visitors are greeted in the lobby by a display of
USC's five Heisman trophies). In Carroll's right hand was a
clicker to control the tape of the day's practice, in his left a
tankard of Mountain Dew. "Once that kicks in, he's here until
everybody else is gone," says Mark Jackson, director of football
operations. The office suite buzzed as assistant coaches talked
on their phones with blue-chip recruits pledging their services
to the rebuilt Trojans. Carroll rose every few minutes to chat up
a kid or close an informal deal (recruits can't sign letters of
intent until February), and he came back cackling, fueled by
caffeine and commitments. "This is what SC can be," he said, "as
dominant as parity will allow. Ain't no SCs in the NFL."
Three years ago USC was scarcely a shell of its former self. From
1998 through 2000, under coach Paul Hackett, the Trojans went
19-18, played in one bowl game and failed to finish in the Top
25--the final, embarrassing stage of a two-decade decline. The
2000 team was 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the Pac-10. "The worst team
in USC history," says Petros Papadakis, a Trojans tailback that
year. He's now a Los Angeles radio host and sideline reporter.
"Hackett had no idea what USC football was about." Recruits from
the fertile L.A. basin were turning elsewhere. "We were begging
players to come here," says Trojans assistant coach Ed Orgeron, a
holdover from Hackett's staff.
Athletic director Mike Garrett (the Trojans' first Heisman
winner, in 1965) fired Hackett in November 2000. He offered the
job to Dennis Erickson, who had won two national titles at Miami
before moving on to the Seattle Seahawks and then Oregon State,
but Erickson turned it down. Garrett also talked to Oregon coach
Mike Bellotti. Weeks passed as what had once been one of the most
desirable jobs in football, at any level, sat vacant. Eventually
Garrett listened to his assistant Daryl Gross, who had been a
scout for the New York Jets when Carroll was an assistant with
that team. "Here's what I remember," Gross told Garrett. "People
fall asleep in football meetings. Nobody fell asleep in Pete's.
He was alive."
Carroll's career, however, seemed all but dead. He'd gotten his
first NFL job in 1984, at the age of 31, coaching the Buffalo
Bills' defensive backs. Over the next 10 years with the Bills,
Minnesota Vikings and Jets, he established himself as one of the
game's sharpest defensive minds. "The schemes he ran were ahead
of most teams'," says Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. When
the Jets fired Bruce Coslet after the 1993 season, Carroll
replaced him, went 6-10 and was also fired. He then reestablished
his credentials in two years as defensive coordinator for the San
Francisco 49ers before the New England Patriots hired him to
replace Bill Parcells as coach. The Pats went 27-21 in three
seasons and twice made the playoffs, but Parcells had taken the
team to the Super Bowl in '96, and Carroll's performance didn't
measure up. Again he got canned.
Carroll left the NFL with his reputation as a strategist
intact--"He taught us a lot about the game, not just defense but
offense, too," says Jets linebacker Marvin Jones--but with a
damning label: rah-rah guy. "He was very enthusiastic, and his
enthusiasm didn't sit well with everybody," says Patriots
cornerback Ty Law. "He treated you like a man, and if you
couldn't play for Pete, it was more your problem than his. But
some guys need to have their job threatened every day."
Even now Carroll bristles at the notion that he was too college
for professional players. "It's all a matter of control," says
Carroll. "If the [front office] gives you control, my style
works. I was pissed off that it didn't work, because it should
He spent a year doing media work before USC called. At the press
conference introducing him as Hackett's successor, he worked the
room like a water bug. "I was ready," he says. During the spring
of 2001 he took the entire team to the Coliseum and conducted a
tug-of-war in the dark. Early this season he stepped into the
role of scout-team quarterback against the goal line defense and
hurled himself through the air and over the pile, landing in a
heap in the end zone. "Everybody was in shock when he hit the
ground," says junior linebacker Matt Grootegoed. "Then we went
crazy. You just don't see coaches jumping over a pile of players
who are in full pads."
At practice Carroll is more Pied Piper than coach. When team
managers blast an air horn to signal the start of the next
practice period, Carroll runs to the appointed station, towing
half the team behind him and chattering, "Go, go, go! On the hop,
on the hop!" As forcefully as he resists the idea, he seems born
to coach college players. That energy is also part of the system.
Carroll installed the attacking defense he learned in the early
1980s at N.C. State from his mentor, Monte Kiffin, now the Tampa
Bay Buccaneers' defensive coordinator. It frees the front four to
chase big plays without being constricted by specific
assignments. "It's just, 'Go!'," says Cody. "We fly around, chase
the ball, pressure the passer. It's the way everybody wants to
play on defense." They call themselves The Wild Bunch II, after
the original edition on the 1969 team that went 10-0-1. Using
just a four-man rush against Washington State, the Trojans had
five sacks and continually pressured Cougars quarterback Matt
To run his offense, Carroll hired Norm Chow from N.C. State,
where Chow had worked for a season after 27 years orchestrating
one of the most efficient offenses in college football history,
at Brigham Young. It was no small move for Chow, 57. His commute
to work in Provo had been five minutes, barely longer in Raleigh.
"Here I figure an hour to the grocery store," Chow says of
getting around Los Angeles. "But Pete sold me. He's fun to be
around. He's convincing. And he created an atmosphere where we
can win at a high level." Chow steered quarterback Carson Palmer
to the 2002 Heisman Trophy and the top spot in the NFL draft;
this year he's guiding sophomore Matt Leinart, whose numbers are
significantly better than Palmer's were at the same point. "It's
mind-boggling to hear my name mentioned with Carson's," Leinart
said last Saturday night, after throwing for 191 yards and three
USC recruits are told that they'll play as soon as they've proved
themselves, redshirts be damned. Freshmen tailbacks LenDale White
and Reggie Bush have worked their way into a rotation with
sophomore Hershel Dennis. Against Washington State, White ran for
149 yards on 12 carries. Another first-year player, wideout Steve
Smith, scored a third-quarter touchdown on a 55-yard catch and
run while the game was still close. Yet another freshman, Darnell
Bing, starts at strong safety and hits like a mini-Ronnie Lott
(last Saturday's Homecoming honoree).
Carroll isn't just winning; he's also beating the traditional rap
against the Pac-10: that it plays a glorified flag football that
doesn't hold up to the power game practiced by more solid teams
elsewhere. Carroll's Trojans play aggressive, intimidating
defense. In the first game of the season USC stuffed sixth-ranked
Auburn 23-0. His practices are short and intense with lots of
hitting. If it isn't already, USC will soon be as tough as any
team in the country.
A few weeks ago, after practice was finished, Carroll, who played
quarterback in high school, began doing what he does nearly every
afternoon: throwing passes. To players. To managers. To anybody
who stuck around until the sun sank into the Pacific. At last it
was just the coach and his son Brennan, 24, a Trojans assistant.
Together they sprinted the length and breadth of the practice
fields, heaving bombs and snatching them from the air. "This is
what football is all about, just running and throwing and
catching," said Pete, sweating through his USC shirt. As long as
he coaches in college, the idea that he has one eye on a return
to the NFL will forever crop up. He denies it vehemently. "I'm
having way too much fun to go back up there," he said. "This is
better for me. This is a blast."
Carroll pointed to a huge white plastic hamper near a storage
shed, 40 yards across the field. "Watch this," he said, whistling
a spiral that smacked against the side of the hamper. Even before
the ball hit its target, Carroll was gone, running off the field
laughing like a man in the right place at the right time.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER TAILBACK U The Trojans' leading rusher this year as a freshman, White (21) ran for 149 yards and a score against Washington State.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (LEFT) RAH ENERGY Carroll's style may not have suited the NFL, but his enthusiasm has revitalized a stagnant USC program.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER BOYS GONE WILD Set free in Carroll's defensive scheme, Cody (84) and his fellow linemen harried the Cougars' quarterbacks.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK AIR RAID Wideouts Keary Colbert (83) and Mike Williams have a combined 107 catches for 1,558 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"Pete's fun to be around," says Chow. "He created an atmosphere
where WE CAN WIN AT A HIGH LEVEL."
Says Cody, "It would be nice to TEST OURSELVES against somebody
from the East or Midwest."