"This is a different ball game," says Chuck Stobart, who prepped as an assistant coach at Michigan and USC before getting his own program at, yes, Memphis State. "These aren't the John McKay years [USC 1960-75] anymore, when you could win four championships, or the years when Michigan and Ohio State dominated the Big Ten. The hoarding of players isn't possible anymore."
Allen Wallace, the publisher of Super-Prep, a magazine about recruiting, remembers the old ball game, when USC could tie up not only players who could help its cause but also players who, were they to develop in another program, could hurt it. "I'm a 1974 grad, and I remember the word on campus was that McKay had as many as 140 kids on scholarship," says Wallace. "He signed 'em up, brought 'em in and stashed 'em. A lot of them were kids he just didn't want to worry about playing against."
Every superpower enjoyed a similar advantage. "Recruiting at Michigan used to be easy," says Stobart. "In the days when only one Big Ten team played in a bowl, we'd just say, 'Do you want to play New Year's Day or not?' Boom, that eliminated eight teams from a kid's consideration."
It became difficult to remain a superpower when the NCAA began reducing the number of football scholarships. From no limits at all in the '60s and early '70s, the NCAA mandated a limit of 105 in 1975 and reduced that to 92 last year. Two years from now the limit will be 85. "Recruiting 18-year-old kids, five years shy of their physical prime, is not an exact science," says Smith. "If you had 120 scholarships, you could make mistakes and, also, you could be pleasantly surprised. Now there is no margin for error."
Gradually, as the other schools in the Pac-10 develop those "extra" players, the conference is reaching a certain level of parity. Washington represented the conference in the Rose Bowl for the second straight time last January, and upstart Cal was the league runner-up.
In Los Angeles, where UCLA (3-7-1 in 1989, 5-6 in '90) and USC have faltered, a lot of fans yearn for the way things used to be. But Southern Cal, which was long known for its running backs—Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell, Charles White, Marcus Allen—suddenly cannot land a glamour back. It seems inexplicable, given the schoolboy talent that blooms within an hour's drive of the Southern Cal campus. Russell White, from Van Nuys, went to Cal; Beno Bryant, from Los Angeles, went to Washington, as did Napoleon Kaufman, from Lompoc, who may be the fastest player in the country. These were among the top prep backs in the country over the past four years. And they all got away.
USC insists that its admissions standards are stricter than most schools' and that it thus loses some marginal students. USC does not admit Prop 48 student-athletes. But of those three who got away, only White was a Prop 48 for whom USC could not bend its rules. Still, the USC recruiting class of '92 is rated by Wallace as being among the top 10 in the nation. "Neither their record nor the troubles in South Central Los Angeles [not far from the campus] seemed to matter," he says. "USC won the state. Kids want a big-time game, beautiful women and a wonderful climate."
And they still want tradition. Shawn Walters, a top running back from Arlington, Texas, is said to have looked at those four statues in Heritage Hall and committed on the spot. But even if Smith were to lock up all the athletes he could, as in the McKay days, he couldn't guarantee the future. He can bring a prep star to USC, after all, but he can no longer make him stay for four or five years. So far, since underclassmen have been allowed to enter the NFL draft, Smith has seen two stars, linebacker Junior Seau and safety Mark Carrier, leave a year early, and another, Marinovich, skip two full seasons.
Wallace, for one, wonders how much USC tradition there would be if it had always been thus. "Let's see, O.J. Simpson [who was a junior college transfer], you only have him for a year. So he never wins the Heisman, and USC doesn't come from behind to beat UCLA 21-20 his senior year. Because he's gone."
More important, Wallace wonders what USC tradition will become if the situation remains so. "When you maintain a great tradition, you maintain a thread to the glory years," he says. "At Notre Dame, Lou Holtz can convince his kids they'll pull it off. Because they always have. But USC may be getting to the point where it doesn't have the kid who thinks he can beat Notre Dame anymore."