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6 thoughts about USC’s lost decade

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USC rambled through 10 mediocre years. Here, we ramble about what that decade meant.

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USC mascot Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

If someone came to us in 2008 and declared the California school with the most wins from 2010-2019 was going to be Stanford, we wouldn’t have believed them. We’d assume they were pulling a very weird prank if they told us San Diego State was going to have the second most. But that Pacific Coast prophet would be right! And while we could not foresee USC’s strange, struggling decade, we can reflect on what it meant.

The decline starts with USC’s leadership, by Spencer

This worked once: An athletic director with no prior experience, Mike Garrett, hired a two-time NFL failure, Pete Carroll. Carroll was not the first choice and had no ties to USC. He got the offer only after Mike Bellotti, Dennis Erickson, and Mike Riley passed.

Somehow, the last option worked brilliantly. And rather than considering how lucky they had gotten, USC learned all the wrong lessons. When Carroll left, the Trojans tried to clone a unicorn — again, again, and again.

To succeed Garrett, the administration brought in former Trojans quarterback Pat Haden, who had no experience in college management. He inherited NCAA penalties for football, a basketball program also in NCAA trouble, and first-year football coach Lane Kiffin.

Kiffin had been the co-offensive coordinator for 2005 USC’s record-setting offense, and his hiring was a transparent attempt to replicate the Carroll era. Kiffin, the well-connected son of a prominent NFL coach, struggled under NCAA sanctions. He had difficulty delegating to assistants, lost a Sun Bowl to Georgia Tech, appeared alternately overwhelmed and indifferent, and got fired after a 2013 loss at Arizona State.

Haden literally left him at LAX, which is funny but also a genuinely terrible way to treat anyone. (Yes, even Kiffin.) Did we mention Haden, his daughter, and his sister-in-law were making six figures a year combined, serving part-time on the board of a non-profit scholarship fund for USC students, sometimes working as little as an hour a week?

Anyway, that USC team went an impressive 6-2 under interim coach Ed Orgeron. He interviewed for the vacant position, but was passed over for Steve Sarkisian, the other co-OC with Kiffin on that 2005 team. Haden, given the freedom to take the program in any direction, instead hired the closest thing USC could find to Kiffin Part Two. The difference? Instead of taking a brash but promising coach, Haden hired a coach with a 34-29 record and a documented reputation as a problem drinker.

Orgeron, per Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, was passed over in part because USC didn’t like his voice. While this was happening, USC assistant basketball coach Tony Bland began taking bribes to steer recruits towards specific managers. He was arrested in 2017 by the FBI and sentenced to two years probation as part of a sprawling federal prosecution.

Sarkisian lasted 18 games before getting fired for substance abuse. Haden claimed USC did a thorough background check. He also admitted the school had never done a simple public records check like the ones the LA Times and the Associated Press did. Clay Helton, an offensive assistant under both Kiffin and Sarkisian, became the new head coach.

At the same time, USC water polo coach Jovan Vavic was taking $250,000 to give two applicants offers to play, thus boosting their chances of acceptance to USC. Senior associate athletic director Donna Heinel was indicted for taking over a million dollars in bribes, too.

Haden resigned in 2015. Every other major program would have then hired a career college sports person. Even Alabama, a school that at one point all but required employees to have some connection to Bear Bryant, replaced their athletic director in 2017 with a career professional from Arizona, Greg Byrne.

Instead, USC hired Lynn Swann, whose resume points were a.) being a USC alum and football great, b.) co-owning an AFL team that folded after four years, and c.) having a close friendship with B. Wayne Hughes, one of USC’s largest donors. That was enough for president C.L. “Max” Nikias, who hired Swann before resigning in the wake of another scandal. This one involved a campus gynecologist who abused students on campus for three decades, not the one involving the dean of USC’s medical school smoking meth and partying in the offices.

TL;DR: USC turned inward for solutions and looked backward for their future. Incestuous power relationships repeatedly put unqualified people in situations they could not handle. The football program burned a decade of potential on a nostalgia trip. The same inept people kept regurgitating variations on the same inept people.

Oh, and the guy passed over in favor of Sarkisian took LSU to the national title game.

Helton shows how USC stopped being USC, by Alex

USC is the only West Coast program to ever build a college football dynasty at any level. The Trojans have won around 80% of the West’s FBS championships (give or take). Being by far the most powerful player in a region is supposed to give you the ability to do whatever you want.

USC ended the 2010s with Helton flailing to a 13-12 record over the last two years. Helton’s continued employment means either the Trojans can’t do whatever they want, or they can’t find the right administrators to decide what they should want.

USC’s glory-days hirings at least made sense as high-upside plays. The Trojans had the strongest bat in the neighborhood; they might as well swing hard. The home runs will be worth the strikeouts over the long run.

Helton’s tenure is more like the Trojans striking out looking.

Removing the interim tag from Helton after 2015 might have been an attempt to avoid the error USC made when it passed on Orgeron. But Helton was a weird choice for a job that could lure almost anybody. His only other coordinator experience was at Memphis and Arkansas State, and his time running USC’s offense had coincided with the Trojans not putting up great numbers. He was 5-4 as the interim coach with an elite roster.

In 2016, Helton’s first full year, he started 1-3, prompting loud calls for his firing. He didn’t lose again, and USC won the Rose Bowl. But to the extent a 10-3 season with a Rose Bowl win can look bad on a coach, this one did. Helton didn’t start redshirt freshman QB Sam Darnold until the fourth game, a close loss to Utah. USC might have played in the Playoff if Helton had pulled the trigger earlier.

In 2017, USC made another New Year’s Six bowl, the Cotton, where it lost to Ohio State. The Trojans had fallen out of the Playoff race when Notre Dame crushed them in October. Their Pac-12 title was the hollowest possible.

These were Helton’s good years. Then 2018 and 2019 happened.

AD Mike Bohn, hired late in 2019, referred to it as Helton’s best job. After all, USC had to dip into its QB depth chart after losing JT Daniels in the first game. And the Trojans had beaten Utah, a team that looked elite.

But USC is not the kind of place where 8-4 should be anyone’s “best job.” Good QBs grow on trees in Southern California, so USC should always have enough.

Except now, USC’s recruiting — hampered by Helton’s job security — is doing what should be impossible. From 2002 to 2019, USC never finished Signing Day with a class ranked worse than 12th. For 2020, the Trojans ended the Early Signing Period 57th, between Cincinnati and Wake Forest. One (1) of California’s top 25 recruits committed to the Trojans. Bryce Young, a five-star QB at SoCal powerhouse Mater Dei and the kind of player who should be a near-guarantee, signed with Bama.

Why USC kept Helton remains a mystery. He reportedly has a big buyout, but Bohn said that wasn’t a consideration. Maybe the new AD didn’t take his job soon enough to mount a good search. But that would be indicative of the problem that seems to have gotten Helton here in the first place: USC not throwing its weight around in a clear direction any more.

USC somehow went a whole decade without a true Pasadena sunset, by Richard

USC had recently attended five Rose Bowls in six years. But from 2010-2019, USC only went to the Rose once, their fewest in any 10-year stretch since the 1920s. They’d averaged just north of three per decade since the 1930s.

USC has gone to 55 bowl games, 34 of them the Rose (by far the most Pasadena trips of any team). Whether you think the greatest Rose Bowl was 2017, 2006, 1980, 1975, or 1963, there is one constant: USC was there.

But even in the Trojans’ one Rose of the 2010s, there was something wrong with this picture:

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The third quarter is when the sky tints in illustrious orange and pink and the sun finds its home behind the San Gabriel Mountains. It’s supposed to look like this:

USC v Northwestern

It rained the morning of the 2017 game, and 55 degrees was the coldest Rose since 1974. USC’s lone Rose of the 2010s wasn’t even on New Year’s Day. For only the 14th time in 103 games, the game was on January 2.

It wasn’t even a Pac-12 champion USC under that blanketed, January 2 sky. USC was only good enough for second place in the South, but got to Pasadena because Pac-12 champ Washington had a date in the Playoff.

It was all weird.

Mother Nature knew the jig and robbed us of the sunset. An impure Rose Bowl deserved an impure setting.

The game was, thankfully, an absolute humdinger. USC came back from 14 down and beat Penn State as time expired, 52-49. Sam Darnold broke the all-time Rose Bowl record for yards (which Vince Young set against USC).

Nine months later, the hype was very real. USC started in the top five, but tripped up on a Friday against Washington State and got blown out by Notre Dame. The Trojans won the Pac-12, but Oklahoma and Georgia played in the Rose Bowl semifinal, and USC then closed the decade with a whimper.

If USC continues to do in the 2020s what it did in the 2010s, then like the rest of us, they will watch the sun set amid the San Gabriels on New Year’s Day and wonder why USC isn’t there.

2000s USC built a myth, and 2010s USC killed it, by Ryan

Look at the last eight years of Carroll’s tenure, and you’ll see some astonishing numbers:

  • 91 wins, only surpassed by Boise State’s 94.
  • 57 wins in conference, 14 better than the next team, Oregon.
  • Just four home losses.
  • Seven straight Pac-10 championships (four outright, three shared).

Had the Playoff existed, the Trojans probably get in five or six times; as it was, they settled for a national title, another AP title claim, and a loss in one of the greatest championship games ever.

The formula was pretty simple. Bring in top recruiting classes. Use superior talent to beat high-profile opponents (the Trojans only lost one regular season non-conference game in this stretch, swept home-and-homes against Arkansas, Auburn, Nebraska, and Ohio State, and beat Notre Dame eight years running). Send some first- and second-round picks to the NFL Draft, but keep going because your roster’s still stacked.

Those years vaulted the Trojans out of the stratum for most college football teams, where you can be good, and up to a loftier level, where you should be good. It’s hard to reach, perched between reality and mythology, and comes with heavy expectations, but still: most programs would be thrilled to level up to “should be.”

That doesn’t guarantee good things will happen to you, though, and a lot of bad things happened to USC since that run – bad losses, bad hires, bad press, bad NCAA decisions.

Individually, these were embarrassing. How does the fearsome Coliseum become the place where “Washington State 10, USC 7” happens? What do you say about the head coach who loses to Boston College in his third game? Where do you go after Alabama, the program that has taken your throne, beats you by 46 on a neutral field?

But the cumulative effect is even worse. The last 10 years have destroyed almost every piece of the mythology. Top recruiting isn’t a birthright any more. Neither is a place in the Pac-12 Championship, which the Trojans have only won once since the conference expanded in 2011. In the 2019 preseason AP Poll, USC wasn’t even ranked, the first time they entered the year without a number beside their name since 1998. And after a 25-point Holiday Bowl loss to Iowa, where the Hawkeyes looked faster and more imaginative, the same program that finished in the top four for seven straight years under Carroll will again finish unranked.

The Trojans tumbled from a team that should be good to a team that should be good but couldn’t because of NCAA sanctions to a team that should be good again having emerged from those penalties to where it is now: a team that could be good, but, at least lately, just isn’t. Most of us won’t notice USC’s absence, and that’s the real measure of what this lost decade cost the program.

The Pac-12 can limp along fine without a dominant USC, by Jason

When some college football people say things like The Pac-12 Needs A Great USC, that feels like an updated version of The ACC Needs A Great Florida State And Great Miami.

The ACC’s divisions were literally structured around the idea that both would be great forever ... and then three-loss Virginia Tech kept winning the conference. Things were never going to turn around until the Canes and Noles became the Canes and Noles for good. This was universally accepted knowledge.

Next thing you know, Clemson is amid one of football’s most impressive runs ever. The ACC did not need Miami (or Florida State, outside of one year) to be great. It needed a great team, no matter that team’s uniform colors. Even new-guy Louisville had a shot!

USC is far from the only Pac-12 team to blame for the conference’s struggles. It also needed more nationally competitive 2010s product from other members with historical success — so don’t forget to side-eye UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado, and Cal.

In the Trojans’ vacuum, some Pac-12 teams found new modern-era ceilings. In this decade, USC’s supposed little brothers twice made it closer to national titles than the Big 12 ever did, despite the Big 12 having a competent version of a USC-style flagship in Oklahoma (here’s where we remember USC still won 15 more games this decade than Texas did). If one ball and/or body part bounced differently in 2010, Oregon could’ve given the Pac-12 a title this decade, equaling the Big Ten. If Chip Kelly had stayed, perhaps Oregon could’ve won two. 2015 Stanford was a play or two from a Playoff. Washington made a trip and didn’t embarrass itself.

In recruiting, USC missing on top California talent is a much more recent trend than it might seem — the Trojans signed five of Cali’s top six as recently as 2018 — and partly due to trends bigger than any one program. In lots of hotbed states, top kids are leaving (look at Florida). Within the Pac-12, that can be great for other members — the Pac-12 as a whole is still signing the clear majority of California’s top 50. Oregon signed California’s top player in both 2019 and 2020. In those classes, Utah, Washington, and Arizona State signed top-15 Cali blue-chips who might otherwise have become Trojans.

If I’m Larry Scott and would like to keep having lots of money to spend, sure, I’d love an elite USC. I’d also accept an elite Oregon State, though now I’m getting greedy.

But if I’m a coach at any other school in the Pac-12, I’m delighted if USC has as many down years as possible. That’s the only feasible path to me becoming any sort of Dabo.

The point I’d grant is that USC’s ceiling is higher than anyone else’s. If everyone is recruiting at historical levels, the Trojans have by far the Pac-12’s most realistic chance to beat any given year’s Alabama-equivalent in a title game.

I don’t think the Pac-12 needs USC to be great. But it does need somebody to be great. If no one is great, then USC should take more blame than anyone else.

But all of college football is better with a good USC, by Godfrey

College football doesn’t particularly need USC to lead a stronger Pac-12.

College football just needs USC to live up to its Hollywood capacity, to be a billion dollar explosion with a plot that makes no sense, but gets people across the country to watch.

Right now the Pac-12 is a flashy, feckless mess that one USC season can’t fix, even if the Trojans miraculously went 9-0 in conference play. The conference office has diverted from industry-proven spending patterns. Simultaneously, it tripled down on a conference-owned and -operated TV network that’s wildly expensive and generates a fraction of competitors’ revenue. Football talent is migrating away from California because of living expenses.

But USC can provide something more valuable: big dumb energy. In 2006, USC lost the national title in the Rose Bowl in the highest-rated broadcast in the sport’s modern era. Some of that was Texas and Vince Young, certainly, but the fever pitch of Los Angeles, Reggie Bush, Carroll, et al., that was all Trojan.

USC can (we think!) still fill out a two-deep of the game’s best talent. They can do this is the nation’s second-largest TV market in one of the world’s most diverse and culturally relevant cities. And somehow — despite being a pricey private college renowned for closed-door decision-making, incestuous hiring, and “country club culture” in all its lily-white connotations — USC can captivate Los Angeles, if not as much as the Lakers, then maybe as much as the Dodgers, and certainly more than any NFL franchise. At their hottest, they can be the #2 sports ticket in the world’s entertainment hub.

There is almost no other major American city that can rally around a single college brand like Los Angeles can with USC. When we attempt to find a definitive college team in places like Chicago or Houston or New York, it falls apart. When a program tries to claim one of those cities as their own, it always becomes a punchline.

USC can be the best and wildest Miami team your parents remember, in a bigger city with more media and more celebrity. And yeah, those things are horrible, but they create moments that transcend tribalism. They make college football a national sport.

And the good news is that the rubric doesn’t demand sustained success. USC doesn’t have to be a perennial, just a neon bloom for people outside of our culture.

Alabama can build dynasties. USC can invite movie stars onto the sideline with a bread line of future NFL talent in America’s cultural capital. They can have Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell showing up to practice. They can flash the thinnest excuse for free houses, cars, and Hollywood parties for amateur athletes. And yes, build dynasties and win football games and get in amazing trouble.

So no, the Pac-12’s structural failures won’t improve if USC beats Alabama or makes the Playoff. We don’t need USC to good for the sake of the West Coach. A better USC would give all of us that big, dumb energy that places our sport’s splendor and shame on a marquee no one else can reach.