How much tradition do they have at Southern Cal? More than they can use in any one year. This is the only football program in the country that has so much tradition it has to celebrate its centennial twice—once in 1988 for its 100th year and this season for its 100th team. So here's to you, Tommy Trojan, you bronze, Coppertoned hunk, you. And once more through Heritage Hall, with its Heisman statuary in stiff-armed glory. Centennial posters all around, boys.
USC has one of the most glamorous programs in all of college football. This is the 20th anniversary of the 1972 national championship team, the 30th of the 1962 national champions and the 60th of the 1932 national champs. Will the old-timers be hoisting a few at Julie's Trojan Barrel, or what? Here's to, without a doubt, the best little...3-8 team in America.
Three and eight? Like everything else, tradition is not what it used to be. The USC old-timer, having hoisted a few at Julie's, must be saying, "Son, you should have seen tradition in the old days."
Of course, USC has had down years before. But in the old days a bad year was 7-4. "I was 7 and 4 once," recalls Ted Tollner, the Trojan coach from 1983 to '86, "and I got fired." In fact, those old days were not so long ago. Tollner's replacement and USC's current coach, Larry Smith, cruised into three Rose Bowls in his first three seasons and was sufficiently shocked by the team's failure to reach the Rose Bowl in his fourth that he adopted the desperate rallying cry "Get it back!" for the fifth. See, as recently as 1990, 8-4-1 was a down year.
But 3-8? At a school like USC, that's not even a cry for help. A cry for help is 6-6. Tollner, now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Rams, had one of those too. It was a season that included a loss to Alabama in the Aloha Bowl, and he began hearing stories about a wealthy alumnus who was willing to establish a fund large enough that the interest alone would pay a fabulous salary to Tollner's successor. "They do have high expectations," he says. "They should have high expectations." When Tollner could do no better than 7-4 the next season, the Trojans got a new coach.
USC hasn't beaten Notre Dame since 1982 and hasn't had a Heisman winner since 1981, and if it goes 3-8, it's probably time for an overhaul of the football program, sort of like the one in 1910 when the Trojans were on their way to an undefeated season and, in the final game, were tied by archrival Pomona. The disappointment was apparently profound. The program was disbanded, and for the next three seasons USC played rugby instead.
Nothing that drastic has happened so far, although the grumbling of alumni has approached the decibel level of a jet engine. One grad who identified himself as an attorney, class of '73 (9-2-1), made his case in a letter to Dr. Steven Sample, the university president. He presented 10 "facts," including won-lost records (which have gotten worse each season since 1988), the Trojans' cumulative record against teams finishing in the Top 10 (5-9 since 1987), and stumbling finishes (USC has not won its last two games in any season since 1979). "I do not see much reason for optimism regarding next year," he wrote.
Getting considerably more attention was a letter to Smith cowritten last January by former All-America Jon Arnett, who played at USC from 1954 to '56. In a nine-page missive, Arnett complained of weak "management." Play selection was unimaginative, he wrote, the running game was hampered by poor teaching of mechanics, and the entire program was dogged by poor recruiting. Arnett was hardest on Smith, whose career has revealed to Arnett a "pattern of mediocrity." Arnett suggested that Smith ought to be part of a "major reorganization," lest "the team and university suffer greatly." Arnett declared, "The program is in disarray and, if not addressed immediately, will quickly sink below its current level of mediocrity." Copies of the letter were sent to all university trustees and major contributors to the football program.
Smith did not reply to the Arnett letter, and eight months later still has an office in Heritage Hall. He did not sack his staff. He recruited. He held spring practice. He proceeded along the same lines he had the previous five years. Of course, there was some explaining to do.
Smith has developed a pat apology for the 1991 disaster. It appears, at least, to have bought him some time. In explaining himself and his team, Smith seems to make sense. But isn't that the special gift of all big-time coaches? If you spend any time in Smith's presence, it is almost possible to forget that in last season's opener the Trojans allowed Memphis State to beat them 24-10 in the Coliseum. Or that Cal, led by tailback Russell White, scored 52 points on the Trojan defense (we shall discuss White a bit later). Smith is so persuasive that, listening to him, you come to believe the season was inevitable.