Even after they had been hosed by computer geeks with pocket
protectors and leapfrogged in the BCS rankings by LSU, self-pity
was not an option for the USC Trojans. At least, not for very
long. When word came down that they'd been denied a spot in the
Sugar Bowl, the men of Troy had serious grounds for outrage. But
instead of bellyaching, they followed the example of their head
coach, Pete Carroll, and embraced their destiny. "We get to
play for the national championship in a game we want to be in
every year," rationalized tackle Shaun Cody. So what if they
had to split the title? ¬∂ By the end of their impressive 28-14
win over Michigan at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the
Trojans seemed less inclined to view themselves as
co-champions. "They can have their trophy," shouted defensive
end Omar Nazel in the anarchy on the field afterward,
dismissing whichever team won the Sugar Bowl. "Everybody knows
who the people's champion is."
Students of this, the Early Bird Special national championship
game, will focus on USC's nine sacks of Michigan quarterback John
Navarre, who'd been taken down just 15 times in the entire
regular season. They will point to the blackjack dealer's cool
displayed by Navarre's counterpart, Matt Leinart, a sophomore who
carved up a very good Wolverines secondary. They'll dwell on the
heroics of Trojans senior wide receiver Keary Colbert, whose pair
of touchdown catches were, in order, sparkling and sensational.
All those things had plenty to do with USC's victory. At the
heart of it all, though, was Carroll. In contrast to grim-faced
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr, who hauled his team to the coast on
Dec. 20 and in classic Big Ten fashion subjected it to three days
of two-a-day practices, Carroll darted around his team's
practices--one a day was sufficient for the Trojans' coach, whose
sessions are open to reporters and players' families--elbowing
quarterbacks aside to uncork a few throws during passing drills.
When the team was installing a goal line defense earlier this
season, says All-America junior defensive end Kenechi Udeze, "I
look up and see this aged man flying through the air." It was
Carroll, 52 going on 13, doing his best Sam (Bam) Cunningham
impersonation. The coach failed to score but didn't fail to
impress his players. "I was pretty surprised at how high he
jumped," says Udeze.
Despite his age, Carroll holds his own in lunch-hour pickup
basketball games with his players, and he isn't out there just
for the exercise. Beneath his boyish mien is a give-no-quarter
gym rat who plays annoyingly tenacious defense--"Sometimes," says
all-cosmos sophomore receiver Mike Williams, "I fear for my
health"--and consistently knocks down jumpers from up to 16 feet.
In doing so, he sets an example. "He's all about competition,"
says Colbert. "Every day. It's what he preaches; it's what makes
you a better player."
The sense of fun imbuing USC practices coexists with the healthy
tension of constant competition, the current on which this
program runs. Successive superb recruiting classes have given the
Trojans scary depth at nearly every position. Carroll doesn't
worry about hurt feelings that may result from battles for
playing time; rather, he exults in how they raise everyone's
standards. "We're battling so hard out here," said Colbert after
one pre-Rose Bowl practice, "that when the game comes around it
Colbert's first touchdown sure looked easy. After Michigan's
first possession ended with a blocked field goal try, the USC
offense took all of 37 seconds to score. Leinart, with a blitzing
safety in his face, feathered a perfect 25-yard touchdown pass to
Colbert, who'd gotten a step on cornerback Markus Curry. Colbert
is a four-year starter who was overshadowed this season by
Williams even as he became the Trojans' alltime leading receiver,
breaking Kareem Kelly's career mark of 204 catches. Number 205
will go down as his most memorable. Having taken a 14-0 lead into
halftime, Southern Cal got the ball to start the second half. On
the fifth play of the drive Colbert snagged Leinart's slightly
underthrown pass with one hand while fighting off cornerback
Jeremy LeSueur--who was flagged for interference--then sprinted
for a 47-yard touchdown. Two catches later he finished his career
with 207, a mark he predicted "is going to be broken next year by
Let's follow Colbert's cue and sneak a peek at the future in
Troy. In just three years Carroll has recaptured the glory that
seemed to be the Trojans' birthright when John McKay and John
Robinson strode the Coliseum sideline, winning five national
titles between 1962 and '78. While Traveler and Tommy Trojan and
the rest of the school's storied football heritage appeal to the
parents of today's prep blue chips, that's not why their teenage
sons are lining up to come to Southern Cal. They're committing to
Carroll because they know they'll contend for a national title,
and they know he means it when he tells star recruits, "If you're
good enough, you'll play right away."
In 2002 Williams and right offensive tackle Winston Justice were
two of 11 true freshmen to log considerable playing time. This
season's wunderkinds included starting strong safety Darnell Bing
and tailbacks LenDale White and Reggie Bush, of whom one NFL
defensive coach said last week, "The kid is Marshall Faulk." One
of three holes on the offensive line next year is likely to be
filled by Jeff Byers, a 6'4", 285-pound high school senior from
Loveland, Colo., who's widely touted as the best high school
lineman in the country and who has verbally committed to Southern
Cal. In addition to doing a much better job than they used to at
recruiting in their own backyard, the Trojans under Carroll have
had great success luring recruits from different time zones.
The gold standard for out-of-state talent is Williams, a 6'5",
230-pound Tampa native who had his heart set on playing at
Florida until Steve Spurrier left the Gators for the NFL. When
Florida State and Miami projected Williams as a tight end, he
looked west. He may have been the only person in the country
underwhelmed by his 81 catches and 14 touchdowns as a true
freshman in '02. "I wasn't really good last year," he says. "Not
to be arrogant, but compared to where I am now, I wasn't." Where
he is now, after another 95 catches and 16 touchdowns as a
sophomore, is shoulder to shoulder with Pitt's Larry Fitzgerald
as one of the two best wideouts in the nation.
Williams didn't catch a scoring pass, which is not to say he
wasn't responsible for a touchdown. Norm Chow, USC's celebrated
offensive coordinator, called a superb game. With the Wolverines
crowding the box, Chow sliced and diced their secondary with pass
after pass. On second and goal from the Michigan 15 late in the
third quarter, Chow said to Carroll, "Let's go with the reverse
pass." Though it hadn't worked all week in practice, Carroll
responded with his trademark enthusiasm: "That's an awesome call!
Let's go for it."
"Trips right, 18 toss, reverse quarterback throwback," said
Leinart, smiling as he broke the huddle. He pitched to tailback
Hershel Dennis, who headed right before handing off to Williams
coming the other way. A southpaw like Leinart, Williams lofted a
pass to his quarterback, who was by then alone in the left flat.
Receiver led quarterback nicely, and Leinart's touchdown
reception all but assured the Trojans their ninth national title,
the first in a quarter century.
Chow wasn't the only USC coordinator who called a hell of a game.
Carroll, who runs his own defense, had quite a bit to do with his
unit's nine sacks. Sometimes, Wild Bunch II members such as Udeze
(three sacks) got pressure on Navarre by beating the man in front
of them. Other times, sacks resulted from well-timed blitz calls,
such as the rare and exotic Double Cat, in which both corners fly
at the quarterback.
Striding into a Beverly Hills hotel bar last Thursday night,
Carroll shared an embrace with wiry, white-haired Tampa Bay
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. The two go back 27
years, to when Kiffin was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas
and Carroll was his savantlike graduate assistant, soaking up
details of his mentor's attacking 4-3 defense--a system Carroll
has made his own. As they stood at the bar, Kiffin congratulated
his long-ago protege on his more inspired blitzes, one in
"The Double Cat was out of the bag!" Carroll cracked.
The cat is out of the bag: While he may have been fired by two
NFL teams, Carroll, it turns out, is an inspired coach presiding
over a nascent dynasty. Don't be surprised to see his Trojans
playing for the national title again a year from now. Next time,
they might not be so willing to share.
The ritual goes like this: The girl gives her father, the
football coach, a shiny penny before his games, and his team
wins. The two of them talk about the power of the coins, which
are their special weapon against opponents. At 10 minutes past
five on Sunday afternoon, LSU football coach Nick Saban boarded
a bus outside the New Orleans Marriott for the short trip to
the Louisiana Superdome and the Sugar Bowl game against
Oklahoma that would give the winner a share of the national
championship. He carried not just one penny in his pocket this
time but three, because his 13-year-old daughter, Kristen,
figured one just wasn't enough with so much at stake. ¬∂ It is
absurd, of course, to suggest that those three little pennies
were responsible for the Tigers' 21-14 victory over Oklahoma, a
win that secured LSU's first national title in 45 years and
sent tens of thousands of Tigers fans spilling deliriously into
the French Quarter and far beyond. Better to credit the
tenacious LSU defense, which held the Sooners to 154 yards of
total offense and forced Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback
Jason White into 13-for-37 passing, with two interceptions. "We
knew he didn't like to get hit in the mouth," said Tigers
All-America cornerback Corey Webster. "So we hit him in the
mouth. By the end of the game he was flinching even when nobody
was rushing him." Better also to single out the 117-yard
rushing performance of true freshman back Justin Vincent, the
game's MVP, or the inartistic but gritty leadership of Matt
Mauck, LSU's 24-year-old junior quarterback. Anything but the
But think again. This was the close of the bizarre 2003 college
football season. Absurdity ruled. The Bowl Championship Series
system had LSU and Oklahoma--the top two teams in its
rankings--playing for a share of the title only because the
members of the American Football Coaches Association had agreed
to vote for the winner in the final coaches' poll, even though
those same coaches had voted Southern Cal No. 1 at the end of the
regular season. USC's Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on Jan. 1
so deflated the atmosphere in New Orleans that Saban, Sooners
coach Bob Stoops and Sugar Bowl executive director Paul Hoolahan
each issued statements, hours apart, saying, in effect, that the
game in Pasadena had been meaningless. "The magnitude and
importance of the Nokia Sugar Bowl's BCS national championship
game remain unchanged," Hoolahan proclaimed. Now that was absurd.
The ongoing BCS madness was but one distraction for the Tigers.
Equally daunting were the expectations carried by the fans who
turned New Orleans into a purple-and-gold encampment by game
time. A fleet of RVs filled the lots alongside Poydras Street not
far from the Superdome, and LSU flags hung from wrought-iron
railings on balconies along Bourbon Street. "You can't go
anywhere without feeling how much this means to LSU fans," said
Mauck three days before the game.
Saban kept the Tigers relaxed by shedding his dour image. On a
team riverboat ride on Dec. 29 he cracked up his players with an
attempt at a James Brown dance step. "I hope he was just trying
to be funny, but I think that's how he moves for real," said
junior cornerback Travis Daniels. Often intensely critical of his
defensive backs in practice--"He'll get down in a stance and say,
'I can do this, and I'm 52 years old,'" says Webster--Saban
lightened the mood with jokes and smiles. Even away from the
team, he kicked back; after attending mandatory New Year's Eve
functions he returned to the team hotel, climbed into bed with
his wife, Terry, and watched a cowboy movie. On the night before
the game Saban took his team to see The Last Samurai and then
told the players in the Superdome dressing room, "This game is
going to be like that movie: a fight to the end."
Yet no play affected the game more than the very first one from
scrimmage. After LSU took a touchback on the opening kickoff,
Mauck called Right Dot Zone 34, a running play to the right in
which Vincent was to read the reaction of Oklahoma's defensive
tackle and cut accordingly. Seeing Tommie Harris slide inside,
the tailback slashed outside through a gaping hole and ran 64
yards to the Oklahoma 16. No matter that Mauck lost a fumble four
plays later; because the Tigers' Webster intercepted White's
first pass, leading to a 24-yard touchdown run by sophomore
wideout Skyler Green and a 7-0 lead with less than four minutes
The game was destined to devolve into a sumo match. Saban and the
43-year-old Stoops are former defensive coordinators with deep,
common roots. When Saban was an assistant coach at Ohio State
(1980 to '81) and Michigan State (1983 to '87), he recruited in
Youngstown, Ohio, where Stoops grew up. Saban spent long hours
watching film with Stoops's father, Ron, who was the defensive
coordinator at Cardinal Mooney High for 30 years until his death
in 1988. "I used to play gin with Bob's uncle [a coach at another
Youngstown high school], killing time," says Saban. In '86, when
Bob Stoops and his brother Mike were assistants at Iowa and their
brother Mark played there, the Hawkeyes visited Michigan State;
after the game the entire Stoops family had dinner at Saban's
Saban, who came to LSU in November 1999, calls himself "the
highest-paid graduate assistant in America" because he so
cherishes working hands-on with his defense. The Tigers allowed
just 10.8 points per game during the season, best in the nation.
Two days before the Sugar Bowl, Mike Stoops, who had been his
brother's defensive coordinator this year before accepting the
head coaching job at Arizona, said, "You're not going to see
either team marching up and down the field. Not us, not them."
What proved to be the Sugar Bowl's winning touchdown was scored
by the LSU defense when end Marcus Spears dropped off the line of
scrimmage as the Tigers ran a zone blitz, picked off a pass in
the right flat and ran 20 yards to the end zone just 47 seconds
into the third quarter, giving LSU a 21-7 lead. Nearly 30 minutes
remained, during which Oklahoma would run 40 plays and gain 110
yards, an average of 2.8 yards per snap. Typical of the Tigers'
resolve, starting defensive end Marquise Hill, who was fighting a
stomach virus, would occasionally take off a few snaps in the
second half to vomit on the sideline and receive intravenous
fluids. And when the Sooners had four tries from the LSU 12-yard
line, while trailing 21-14 late in the fourth, White threw four
incompletions. The game ended with three Mauck kneels and a punt
that rolled out of bounds on the Oklahoma 12 as time expired.
Tiger Nation erupted.
In the chaos on the field Saban found his wife and kissed her.
"It's been a long four years," Terry said. "But for Nick this
whole game was about the competition on the field, not all the
outside issues." When he learned back in December that LSU would
be facing the Sooners, Saban had told his wife they'd be the best
team the Tigers faced all year, that their complex schemes and
intensity reminded him of the Green Bay Packers. But he also said
this: "They're beatable." And then he went to work.
He had done the same thing four years earlier when he took the
LSU job after finishing a 9-2 season at Michigan State, his best
in five years in East Lansing. The position intrigued him. He
knew that Louisiana was a fertile ground for college and NFL
players and sensed that the Tigers weren't getting the best of
the local talent. "I didn't have any expectations, but I knew
they had players somewhere in the state," Saban says. "And I knew
there was tradition." He has recruited the daylights out of
Louisiana, snagging prized players like junior wideout Michael
Clayton, whose Baton Rouge neighborhood was full of Florida State
fans who didn't believe LSU was right for him. "Coach Saban sold
me on LSU," Clayton says.
Under the terms of Saban's contract, winning a national
championship gets him a raise from his current salary of $1.6
million per year to $1 per year more than the highest-paid coach
in college football. That coach is Stoops, who makes $2.2
million. A raise is unlikely to quell the rumors that Saban is
bound for the NFL, later if not sooner. "I like college football,
and I like being here," says Saban. "There's always the chance of
that being different someday."
Late Sunday night he stood on a temporary stage with his
daughter's three pennies in his pocket, holding a crystal
football in the air as adoration washed over him. "We're at a
pinnacle right now," said Terry. "That's a special place." They
had won just half a national title and in odd fashion. But for
one night, everything made sense. Or rather, cents.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TWO FOR ONE After Colbert (83) and the Trojans overran Michigan in the Rose Bowl to secure their place atop the AP poll, Vincent & Co. rolled past Oklahoma in the Sugar to earn BCS honors.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BLUE CRUSHED USC's pass rush ripped through the Wolverines line to sack Navarre nine times.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS BAYOU BASH Constant pressure from Hill and the LSU defense knocked White off his game.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER YOUTH IS SERVED The ever-dangerous Bush capped his first year with 41 yards on the ground and 42 receiving.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS LATER, SOONERS Green and the Tigers outgained an Oklahoma offense that had been one of the best in the land.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER WHOLEHEARTED The BCS hubbub didn't dampen Carroll's Rose Bowl joy.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS TOUCH OF GLASS Saban brought LSU a winning attitude--and a BCS trophy.
"They can have their trophy," shouted USC defensive end Omar
Nazel on the field afterward, dismissing whichever team won the
Sugar Bowl. "EVERYBODY KNOWS WHO THE PEOPLE'S CHAMPION IS."
A fleet of RVs filled the lots near the Superdome, and LSU flags
hung from railings on Bourbon Street. Said Mauck, "YOU CAN'T GO
ANYWHERE WITHOUT FEELING HOW MUCH THIS MEANS TO LSU FANS."