Work in Sports
Pressure builds on Bruins, Trojans after disastrous '99
By Ted Miller, Special to CNNSI.com
How bad were Los Angeles' college football teams last year? It may have been the first time in memory you couldn't find a happy ending in Hollywood.
Something was rotten in Tinsel Town in 1999, and it wasn't just the oxygen. USC and UCLA combined for a 5-11 Pac-10 mark and 10-13 overall record.
L.A. college football used to carry some cache, even if the East Coast media Mafia tended to snub it in comparison to the SEC and Big Ten. But suddenly, USC and UCLA are flirting with mediocrity in a conference rapidly becoming nationally irrelevant.
It used to be different.
In 69 previous meetings, the Trojans and Bruins squared off with a Rose Bowl berth on the line 44 times. But the battle for L.A. supremacy last year only decided which team finished ninth in the conference.
Before last season, UCLA was the two-time defending Pac-10 champion. The Bruins have played in 12 Rose Bowls. Meanwhile, USC, the conference's most storied program, owns eight national titles, 28 Rose Bowl appearances and four Heisman Trophy winners.
See the storyline here? Both programs transformed impressive traditions of excellence into disaster pictures. Now, with the 2000 season just a few freeway exits ahead, the question is whether either or both programs can re-write last year's script and return to an accustomed place in the nation's elite.
Judging by talent alone, the simple answer is yes, but nightmarish non-conference schedules won't help.
Both teams welcome back 17 starters. Both teams face two ranked teams before the conference schedule begins.
Still, the not unexpected attitude is optimism on both sides of the city.
"We are much better than we were at this time last year," UCLA coach Bob Toledo said.
"We're ready to make a significant jump this year," USC coach Paul Hackett said.
Things are already decisively better at UCLA even before a down has been played.
Last July, a handicapped parking scam rocked the team and dragged on until late October. In the end, 19 players were convicted of wrongfully possessing handicapped parking placards. Ten players, mostly starters or key backups, served two-game suspensions, while projected starting cornerback Marques Anderson was suspended for the fall quarter.
Anderson is back and the mocking media onslaught is gone. Gone, too, are the bevy of injuries that turned the Bruins into a JV team. UCLA started 45 different players last year and limped into the season-finale against USC with just five healthy offensive linemen.
Did we mention Oregon State bludgeoned UCLA 57-7, UCLA's worst defeat in 69 years?
"I don't think it will ever be as bad as it was last year," Toledo said. "That's as bad as it gets."
USC started last season with two victories but then missed three field goals and was flagged for 21 penalties in a triple-overtime defeat at Oregon. More important, it lost talented quarterback Carson Palmer to a shoulder injury when he dubiously decided to run over a Duck defender instead of slipping out of bounds.
USC then proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with alarming skill, dropping five consecutive contests for only the third time in school history. Along the way, it blew 21-point leads over Stanford and Notre Dame. Yeesh.
The Trojans, who were the most penalized team in the conference, lost their six games by an average of 5.8 points.
"I'd like to believe that we will be a better team now because we went through that," Hackett said.
Hackett, who replaced six members of his staff during the offseason, is under intense pressure to win after compiling a mediocre 14-11 record in two years. The USC faithful, though thrilled that an eight-game losing streak against UCLA ended last year, isn't known for patience.
When Washington State coach Mike Price tapped Hackett on the shoulder at the Pac-10 media day luncheon and jokingly said, "No pressure," Hackett's face practically exploded in an ironic grin.
Hackett, who was an assistant coach under John Robinson at USC during the 1978 national championship season, knows his job is on the line.
"At USC, we expect championships," he said. "I was prepared for this level of scrutiny. I'm a Trojan. I was a part of it."
Toledo's situation isn't nearly as dire. He posted consecutive 10-win seasons before last year's collapse.
"It's not fair to evaluate me or to evaluate the program on what happened last year," he said. "It was a freaky year."
Palmer is the key at USC because the defense, which returns 10 starters, many of them all-star candidates, figures to be the Pac-10's best unit. If Palmer stays healthy and returns to form, he will have talented sophomores Kareem Kelly and Marcell Almond as targets.
The backfield has speed in underachieving Sultan McCullough, but two new offensive lineman will have to step up.
Penn State and Colorado are the Trojans' first two opponents. It won't take long to see if USC is back.
"If we play the way we are capable of playing, I don't see anybody beating us," linebacker and Butkus Award candidate Zeke Moreno said. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy. But we have a bunch of great talent."
UCLA also has great talent and a brutal schedule. The Bruins face top-six teams Alabama and Michigan in their first three games. Ouch.
Winning, of course, is always the goal, but Toledo admits something positive could come out of those contests even on the skinny side of the scoreboard.
"It depends on how you lose," he said. "If you get blown out and get embarrassed it could be hard. If you lose them but are competitive and close you might be alright."
Toledo believes he has the best defense of his UCLA tenure with eight starters returning, including end Kenyon Coleman. He also will have the same coordinator for consecutive seasons for the first time since he took over the program.
The receivers are solid and the offensive line could be one of the conference's best, but the battle at quarterback between Ryan McCann and Cory Paus is unsettled, though Paus is the favorite.
Also, the Bruins don't click when oft-injured tailback DeShaun Foster isn't on the field. Foster has no peer in the conference when he is healthy.
UCLA finished ranked ninth in the conference in total offense and defense last year. It's hard to imagine those numbers won't perk up substantially.
"The sky's the limit as far as talent is concerned," Coleman said. "We have all the tools to be on top of the Pac-10 again."
Also on the positive side: Both schools have reeled in strong recruiting classes over the past three years. Many of those young players are now seasoned and ready to contribute. Toledo gushed that his team gained a cumulative 600 pounds in the offseason and posted 90 personal bests during physical testing.
So how will this LA story end? In Pasadena's Rose Bowl, when the teams square off on Nov. 18.
Whether that game is merely for city pride, or whether the stakes are for a rosier return trip six weeks later, is a cliffhanger that will have to be continued.
Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His CNNSI.com conference insider will appear weekly during the season.