The first thing that Smith and his defenders try out on you is the Halley's-comet angle: Something like this happens and it's very spectacular and then it doesn't happen again in your lifetime. According to USC history, a losing season rarely signals a decline. Quite the opposite: The last two times that USC had a losing season (1961 and 1983), it came back to win the Rose Bowl (and, in 1962, the national championship). A losing season is simply an aberration, actually a predictor of good times ahead.
The when-bad-things-happen-to-good-people explanation, which follows closely on the heels of the comet angle, is more complex and is familiar to football fans everywhere: Events can simply overwhelm a team. At USC these events began in 1990. Says Smith, "Before the season even began, there was controversy and adversity."
That's coachspeak for player arrests, NCAA sanctions and player rebellion. USC went two for three. There was the Todd Marinovich drama, featuring a talented quarterback who in full view of a national TV audience shouted his coach down on the sideline of the 1990 John Hancock Bowl (a 17-16 loss to Michigan State), got arrested for cocaine possession a month after the season ended and turned pro after his sophomore year. There were the arrests of three players on charges of sexual assault (they were acquitted) after that 1990 season. Then, after 1991 spring practice, there were the arrests and subsequent convictions of two players in a kidnapping-robbery spree.
"A couple of incidents off the field," is how Smith puts it, but he didn't take them lightly. In fact, he may have overreacted. As USC began to look like one more outlaw program, with rogues being recruited off street corners, Smith overdid the damage control. He brought in former players to speak to the team. And he really started delivering the gospel. The players went nuts. "He stressed that we stay out of trouble," says tight end Bradford Banta, "and that was fine. But after a while, we got tired of it. The feeling was, Just be quiet. We want to play football."
Looking back, Smith wonders whether he overtightened his players last year. "I think they may have been repressed, worrying about whether they might tarnish USC's reputation," he says. "We tried to push all that bad stuff out of the way. But we never really recovered from it."
There were other things going on too, and you can trace them back to the day that Smith took over from Tollner in January 1987. One factor was rushed recruiting—unavoidable when the reins are handed from one coach to another only weeks before high school stars are scheduled to make their commitments. But the determination to do better than 6-6 may have led to some quick fixes that the program began paying for last year. Smith did not redshirt several of his more talented players back in '87. Had he done so, last season he might have been able to field tackle Pat Harlow, running back Ricky Ervins and linebacker Scott Ross as fifth-year seniors in their collegiate prime. They are all in the NFL.
Beyond that there was an unusual number of injuries last season, especially to upperclassmen. By December, 22 Trojan players had undergone some type of surgery. "It became a redshirt freshman-sophomore team," Smith says. An average of 12 such kids started each game.
One of those kids was the quarterback. When USC landed Marinovich, the thinking was: Terrific, the Trojans are set at this position for three years. Marinovich, in his first two seasons after having been red-shirted, may have been a pain in the Pac-10, but he was enormously talented. To lose him and have to go to Reggie Perry, who had taken all of three snaps in his collegiate life, was not promising. Perry threw only three touchdown passes in '91.
It was not the year to embark on a schedule called the toughest in the nation by USA Today. When the Trojans upset Penn State in their second game, they only delayed the inevitable assessment. They were in for a long year.
As USC fields its 100th team this season, it may be a good time to ask what kind of tradition it means to uphold. Will the Trojans bounce back to their former glory? Or will they become Every-program—a team that some years will win through luck and circumstance, and other years won't? If you watched what Southern Cal went through last season, you probably saw the future not only of the Trojan football program but also of big-time college football. Great programs brought back to earth, perhaps only briefly, to mingle with the Memphis States of the world. The most chilling explanation for a 3-8 season is that tradition, mystique and a stirring fight song will no longer get you over the hump. Mr. Big-time Coach, this could happen to you.