Carroll knew about coach's drug addiction before car crash (cont.)
No evidence has been produced in the civil suit to indicate that the university knew of Watson's drug problem when he was hired, or at any time before his alleged conversation with Carroll in February 2008. Evidence has surfaced, however, that in the three months between February '08 and his car crash three months later, Watson was prescribed a total of 1,680 tablets of pain medication.
The civil suit has become increasingly contentious. USC's lawyers have tried to delay the case and minimize the fallout since it was filed, first by rescheduling Carroll's deposition, then by asking to wait until after Watson was deposed before scheduling Carroll's testimony, and finally -- three months after Carroll was first called to be deposed -- by asking the court to protect Carroll from the deposition altogether.
The plaintiff's lead attorney, Ira Fierberg of Manhattan Beach, Calif., recalled that during Watson's deposition Watson "came up to me during a break and barked at me, 'You have no idea how many people you're hurting with this.' Meanwhile my client, who's facing a series of spinal surgeries, is sitting right there. And I'm being told that I'm hurting someone. It's amazing."
USC's counsel, meanwhile, has tried to portray Carroll as the victim -- the recipient of "burdensome and harassing" deposition notices that, if they're allowed to continue, would inflict "unwanted annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, or undue expense." In addition to their efforts to shield Carroll from questioning, USC's lawyers have asked the court to fine the plaintiff and his lawyers "$1,540 as a result of their intentional misuse of the deposition process to harass and inconvenience a private citizen and well known USC football coach ..."
One former USC coach who knows Watson and worked under Carroll (and asked to remain anonymous because of the ongoing litigation) said, "Dave's a good coach, a good guy. He made a mistake, obviously, but he and his family have been negatively impacted by this thing, too. USC will power through this. They've got all the money in the world, but [Watson] and his wife and his boys, how they come out of it is one of the most important parts of this."
Former USC linebacker Collin Ashton said neither he nor any other player knew about Watson's drug problem. Ashton, who said he did not have a good relationship with Watson, said the players would have been the last to find out. "All those types of things were kept from the players," Ashton said. "If players found out [Watson] had a drug problem, they wouldn't give him respect."
Carroll fired Watson a year ago this week after the Trojans capped a 12-1 season with a Rose Bowl win over Penn State. Watson, who had taken a brief leave of absence after the car accident and returned to coach the Trojans' defensive line throughout the season, was told by Carroll that he was "too hard on the players, too demanding," according to Watson.
Watson did not accept that as the real reason for his dismissal -- then, or today. The Los Angeles Times published a feel-good story in September 2008 about his road to recovery in which Carroll said of Watson, "He's operating at his very best. It's great to see him feeling good." Watson's quiet, mid-January dismissal gave the impression of a program who wanted his drug problem and his messy car wreck to go away. (Last week, USC sports information director Tim Tessalone declined an e-mail request to interview Carroll and six team doctors, stating "the people you list cannot comment" before directing SI.com to the university's legal counsel, who declined to comment based on health care confidentiality laws.)
Watson told the Times 16 months ago that he never informed his fellow coaches of his addiction. "I never told anyone anything because you don't want to be a high-maintenance guy in the football industry," he said. At his recent deposition, however, Watson knew he faced the penalty of perjury if he didn't tell the truth and gave a different story:
"Prior to the accident, did you ever discuss with Coach Carroll the fact that you believed you had a problem with pain medication?" Watson was asked.
"Did Coach Carroll offer to do anything for you to help you?"
"And what was that?"
"Work with the best specialists on knees and on backs to find -- find a solution to wean off some of the medication ..."
"Did you ever inform Coach Carroll which medications you were taking?"
"Did you feel like your ability to operate a motor vehicle was impaired by the use of the muscle relaxer (Soma)?"
"Not generally, no."
"... Did you ever discuss with Pete Carroll the fact that you were getting medications or prescriptions from USC team doctors?"
Later, when asked whether Carroll told him he was firing him "because of this accident," Watson smirked and said: "Of course he didn't."
"He didn't -- he did not tell you that?"
"But it's your belief that he did?"
Watson's counsel instructed him not to answer.
"Has anyone ever provided you with information that you were terminated as the result of this accident from your position at USC?"
Watson's counsel instructed him not to answer.
"Has anyone other than an attorney of yours informed you that you were terminated from your position at USC as the result of this accident?"
"No. It's all speculation. No."
Moments later, Fierberg asked: "Following the [crash] in May of 2008, is it true that Mr. Carroll was instrumental in getting you into a rehabilitation program?"
"Did he offer to get you into a rehabilitation program prior to the incident?"
Only Carroll knows whether the Watson case played a role in his decision to accept the Seattle Seahawks job, but according to one USC source, "it sure isn't making him stick around."
One BCS-conference head coach who said he heard about the Watson matter "through the grapevine" offered a poignant reminder that the issue of prescription drug abuse "is bigger than just USC. Our society at large has a problem with this stuff. Look around." Watson agreed with this point during his interview with the Times last fall. "I know it's more widespread in society than people would like to admit," Watson said. "Because it's in society, it's in football."
It hasn't been easy for Watson to testify about Carroll, whom he still reveres. (Watson said he hasn't spoken with Carroll since January 2009, yet he got choked up when asked about their relationship, calling Carroll "my mentor, a great man.") Although Carroll fired him, and despite USC's efforts to place all blame for the crash on Watson, Watson recently expressed his need to "protect the team" -- the first of Carroll's three cardinal team rules.
When he was fired, Watson told reporters that Carroll's decision was a blessing in that it would allow him to pursue other coaching opportunities. A year later, he is still pursuing them, but he almost certainly won't land a job until the USC situation is resolved and its aftermath blown over. "SC is a special place," Watson told reporters the day Carroll fired him. "As close [of a] relationship as I have with these kids, SC is bigger than one guy or one coach. It always will be."
These days Watson is working at a freight company in Carson, Calif. He wants desperately to return to coaching. When someone suggested a lunch break during his grueling, day-long deposition, Watson snapped, "I don't want to eat lunch. I don't sleep, O.K.? I want this to get worked out."
A jury trial is scheduled for late July, around the same time as Carroll's first training camp with the Seahawks. The next several months will determine the condition of the college football program Carroll left behind, and whether Dave Watson will stand alone -- or alongside his former boss -- on the plaintiff's list of witnesses.
Michael McKnight's first book, A Life Intercepted -- The Rise and Fall of NFL Cornerback Darryl Henley, will be published in 2011.
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