For Pete's sake
Carroll spurs USC's quick rise back to national prominence
Posted: Tuesday December 30, 2003 5:41PM; Updated: Wednesday December 31, 2003 4:14PM
LOS ANGELES -- The USC Trojans really shouldn't be here.
Not because they got jobbed by the BCS. Not because they should be in New Orleans instead.
Conventional college football wisdom offers a million reasons why this team should not be here preparing to play Michigan for a share of the national championship in Thursday's Rose Bowl.
It wasn't supposed to happen so soon and with such a young team.
And most of all, not with a twice-fired NFL head coach whose hiring three years ago was met with near universal skepticism.
"It's been quick," Trojans defensive end Shaun Cody said of his team's meteoric rise the past two seasons. "I can still remember losing in the Las Vegas Bowl to Utah [two years ago]. To bring this team back so quick, and be so young, you've got to be impressed by that."
Indeed, plenty of people are. There's a reason head coach Pete Carroll is the toast of the town this week, "the governor of California," observed defensive end Kenechi Udeze.
Strange as it sounds considering the program's rich history, USC has not reached this lofty a status in nearly 25 years. And while the Trojan faithful expect such things more regularly, it finally happened when many of them were least expecting it.
Think about it for a second. The Trojans lost a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Carson Palmer) from last season and replaced him with an untested sophomore (Matt Leinart). They lost an All-America strong safety (Troy Polamalu) and replaced him with a freshman (Darnell Bing).
Two of their top three running backs (LenDale White and Reggie Bush) are true freshmen. Their star receiver (Mike Williams) is a sophomore. Six of their starters were lost for all or large chunks of the season.
And yet here they are, having not just duplicated the success of last year's breakthrough Orange Bowl squad but shattered it.
"I couldn't imagine having a season like we've had," said the one-time question mark Leinart.
It's all a testament to Carroll, whose jovial demeanor, mocked when he was in the pros, has become a kind of spell that's managed to captivate amateurs.
"Players love the style of play we play here," said cornerback Will Poole, a former starter at Boston College who transferred to USC this season. "Freshmen get an opportunity to come in and play. The coaching staff is just great -- they're jumping around, they're in your face. And you're in L.A. -- who wouldn't want to come to L.A.?"
It may seem obvious now, but for the better part of the decade, most elite players were avoiding L.A. -- at least the cardinal and gold part -- like the plague.
"Before three years ago, we'd go to play Oregon or Washington and there'd be a guy out there making 10 or 12 tackles -- and he was from downtown L.A.," said assistant head coach Ed Orgeron, a holdover from predecessor Paul Hackett's staff. "The key has been recruiting and evaluating talent."
Normally a coach needs four or five years to truly put his stamp on the roster. Not this one. Yes, there are a few Hackett holdovers playing key roles on this team -- All-Americans Udeze and tackle Jacob Rogers and receiver Keary Colbert to name a few. For the most part, however, the two-deep is dominated by players in their first, second or third year.
"The key with Pete is, he doesn't want our guys to redshirt," said Orgeron. "He wants them to play. He wants new blood."
All-Pac-10 defensive tackle Mike Patterson, a member of Carroll's first signing class, said he wasn't even pursued by Hackett and was preparing to head to Oregon or Colorado State.
After one visit, he was sold. Seemingly every guy on the roster has a similar story.
"Once recruits some and see the energy Coach Carroll puts out, you'll do anything for the guy," said Cody. "When I was a recruit, I knew he was a great defensive coach, and then when I found out he was going to get a great offensive mind like Norm Chow, I was like, 'We can't lose here.'"
They did lose a little at first, starting 2-5 in Carroll's first season. Since then they've gone 26-4 and been dominant doing it, their last 16 wins coming by at least 17 points. Their offense scored a Pac-10 record 506 points this season, and they placed more players on the All-Pac-10 first team (nine) than any school since 1989.
And the scary thing is, almost all of them will be back next year, when they'll be joined by another heralded group of blue-chippers that's expected to include the nation's top overall prospect, center Jeff Byers.
The Trojans shouldn't be here. They should probably be in New Orleans playing for an undisputed national title.
But if you don't hear all that much complaining coming out of the USC camp, it's because they realize there's probably going to be more chances down the road.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.