Why USC flourishes in early-season showdowns (cont.)
Hayes had no way of knowing that the manic, boyish assistant bopping alongside him was a rebel, an insurgent. As a head coach, Carroll has blazed a trail that diverged radically from the shaming, screaming, saliva-spritzing, face-mask-grabbing model favored not just by Woodrow, but by generations of football coaches.
Carroll doesn't coach through fear. Which is not to say none of his assistants never have. Once his players have put in their preparation, Carroll's goal is to get them to a place where mind and body are in harmony, "to operate in the absence of fear," as he puts it.
Which brings us to Ray Small, the Buckeyes wideout and punt returner who ended up on SoCal message boards this week. Small recalled his recruiting visit to 'SC for ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "How are they successful?" he recalls thinking. "They're not even serious about the game. Before the game, they're all going crazy. Me and Rob Rose was on the visit and I'm looking like, 'Wow.' And then the coach said, 'You better get out of here. It's about to get hectic.' "
He compared that to the calm, quiet pregame scene in Columbus -- "the total opposite."
"Here at Ohio State," he went on to say, "they teach you to be a better man. There, it's just all about football."
I am not here to dogpile on Small. As a journalist alternately frustrated and rendered drowsy by the blandness of countless interviewees, I applaud his candor, even if it means he is about to reap a cardinal and gold whirlwind.
What's interesting is that the craziness he referred to appears to be that which erupts during one of the Trojans' game-day rituals. A few hours before kickoff, the team gathers in a meeting room where the players take over, and a healthy kind of anarchy breaks out. "Sometimes it's emotional, sometimes it's fun," says Carroll. "We just go with the energy, you know?" And if a coach is called upon to dance in the middle of the room, he doesn't really have a choice but to dance.
What Small didn't discern, and I don't blame him, was the method to this madness. In the end, says Carroll, the ritual is about trust. "The preparation [for the upcoming opponent] is done. We want them to trust that everything's OK, that we got everything right. There's no need to be all uptight or afraid of making mistakes, cause that part's done. Now it's time to go out, relax, have a little fun, play a little Trojanball."
This explains, for me, why the Trojans under Carroll have been so adept at taking the pressure that attends huge games, national games, and making it their ally. The bigger the stage, the better they play.
Their problem is the converse: The smaller the stage, the greater the likelihood that the Trojans get caught sleepwalking, as happened against Oregon State in '06 and Stanford last season.
Intensity won't be a problem for USC on Saturday night. And that -- not Beanie's bad wheel -- might be the visitors' biggest problem.