A Former Season-Ticket Holder’s Take On Pete Carroll and USC
Over at Yahoo, Matt Hinton has a solid, brief review of the Pete Carroll era at USC, and the implications of Carroll’s pending move to the Seahawks to take over operational control of that team.
My review of Pete Carroll can be summed up in 10 words: He’s the reason I care at all about college football.
Back in 1999, the esteemed Dr. F and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington, DC, just trying to find our way. She was working at NIH as a prelude to grad school, while I was covering commercial real estate for Washington Business Journal – after a one-year stint covering community news in Reston, Virginia, with a starting salary of $17,000.
While she applied to grad schools, we discussed the pluses and minuses of every application. The University of Minnesota offered one of the best psychology programs in the country, but the Twin Cities area also promised punishing winter months, something neither of us wanted. Case Western offered a rich academic tradition, but it was also in Cleveland. On down the list we went, until she ticked off USC. Hmmm. Great city, perfect weather year-round, highly-regarded Masters/PhD program, plus something I hadn’t much considered until that point: Going to Trojans football games could be a blast.
College football was off our radar at the time, mostly because we’d never been properly exposed to it. Dr. F attended an East Coast liberal arts college, while I did my undergrad in Canada. Neither school offered much in the way of college football tradition or excitement. Now here was a chance to file into a huge stadium every Saturday, to take in all the sights and sounds that make for a big-time college football atmosphere. In the end, she chose SC for reasons that had nothing to do with what would transpire in the Coliseum. But I went along with her choice, and our move, in part for the chance to experience everything that power-conference college football (and college basketball) had to offer.
I’ll never forget our first game at the Coliseum. Home opener of the 1999 season against San Diego State. We parked on the north side of campus, then made the long trek south toward the stadium. It was a zoo. Tents and chairs everywhere, people eating and drinking, tossing footballs around, just so happy to be there. The lineup to get into the stadium seemed to stretch forever. When we finally got through the turnstiles, about 20 minutes remained before kickoff. We bottlenecked into one of the ancient tunnels leading into the stands. We were all packed in like sardines, sweaty and impatient. But it was euphoric. Chants of “Go SC!” rang out, as everyone started shouting louder and louder.
When we finally squeezed out of the tunnel, the view took your breath away: A giant, cavernous stadium, already jam-packed with fans, a sea of cardinal and gold all around. The vast Trojan marching band had launched into one of their trademark songs, getting everyone fired up. Strolling the sidelines was Traveler, a majestic white horse who’d run right past the student section after every Trojans touchdown. Riding Traveler was a guy dressed in a gaudy Trojans get-up, holding a sword aloft and exhorting the crowd. I’d been to packed baseball parks, NHL playoff games and plenty of other crowded, public events. This dwarfed them all.
I don’t remember many details from that game, other than that the Trojans won, and we had a blast. The kicker was the location of our seats. Since Dr. F was a grad student, both she and a spouse were entitled to tickets in the student section for every sport. For football games, that meant seats on the 30-yard-line, or near midfield if you showed up really early. For basketball games, you’d get to sit either under the basket or just a few rows up from the foul line in. Cost of tickets: $90 – for every game, every sport, for an entire year, with primo seats each time.
The football in those days was, to be blunt, pretty bad. SC went just 6-6 in our first year there, despite playing several cream puff opponents. The next season was even worse. Under bumbling coach Paul Hackett, the Trojans limped to a 5-7 record. It was worse than that. SC wasn’t just losing, they were embarrassing themselves. Never much of a football fan, Dr. F quickly picked up the nuances of the game during our trips to the Coliseum. She was all too quick to notice one infuriating feature of the Paul Hackett Era: Horrendous special teams. It’s one thing if your team has trouble moving the ball on offense, or gradually breaks down against a punishing running game on defense. But in a sense, you’re naked out there on special teams. When SC’s punter would shank a 22-yard wobbler, the kicker would miss 26-yard, chip shot field goals, or the coverage team would yield an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown, you know this team lacked talent, and more, that they were poorly coached and poorly prepared.
Still, we kept going to games for the pageantry. Win or lose, the Trojan Marching Band and the Song Girls were always a blast. We quickly picked up all the uniquely SC call-and-response cues of every song.
“Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar
Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” … “U-C-L-A…SUCKS!”
“Spirit of Troy”
Still, something was missing. Losing started to get old, free time was becoming more scarce, and we were nearing the point where we’d be happy hitting the home opener and the annual Notre Dame or UCLA rivalry game, then leaving it at that.
That is, until Pete Carroll arrived. What happened next is well known to even casual college football followers: seven consecutive 11-win seasons and top-five finishes in the final polls, two national championships, six BCS bowl wins in seven tries, and three Heismans.
But it’s the individual moments of glory that stick with you.
Those big games down the stretch in the breakthrough 2002 season, when signs pushing Carson Palmer for Heisman started popping up everywhere on campus and in the Coliseum. The Trojans hadn’t had a quarterback that good, and that dynamic, in years. When the team marched into the Orange Bowl and demolished #3 Iowa 38-17, you knew this was a program built for success, and built to last.
The 2003 season was even more memorable. Matt Leinart took over at quarterback, paired with big, unstoppable wide receiver Mike Williams. It’s crazy to think about now, given how poorly their pro careers have gone. But any time Leinart had time to throw, he was going to complete any pass he wanted to Williams, and there wasn’t a damn thing the defense could do about it. Far from the fastest player on the field, Williams was a gigantic target who toyed with Pac-10 defensive backs. Jams at the line of scrimmage didn’t bother him. Double-coverage didn’t bother him. Cheap shots after the play didn’t bother him. The school that made its reputation as Tailback U, churning out Heisman winners in Mike Garrett, Charles White, Marcus Allen, and yes, O.J. Simpson, now boasted one of the most potent aerial attacks in the country. SC went on to win the Rose Bowl that season, beating Michigan, 28–14 and earning the top ranking in the AP Poll and a share of the national championship with BCS champion LSU. Most people remember the controversy that erupted, as the BCS, as usual, failed to resolve a situation that cried out for a playoff.
But what I remember was the Rose Bowl itself. As great as the atmosphere and the Coliseum could be – and by this point it was selling out 90,000 seats, or close to it, every game – the Rose Bowl was the most perfect setting I’d ever seen for a sporting event. The stadium sat in an impossibly beautiful location, tucked into the heart of Pasadena, within spitting distance of million-dollar homes, with an incredible view of the beaming sun setting behind the mountains in the distance. That game also featured, as Dr. F the psychologist later called it, “the scariest activation of the sympathetic nervous system” she’d ever seen. That’s fancy talk for “going completely bonkers”. The Trojans jumped out to a 21-0 lead, as vastly underrated #2 receiver Keary Colbert overshadowed Williams by hauling in two Leinart touchdown strikes. After Michigan cut the lead to 21-7, SC dipped into their bag of tricks. Looking to get the ball to Williams, Leinart tossed a lateral to his big wide receiver. Williams took a couple of steps, then stopped. (“What’s he doing?!”) He then raised his left arm (“Wait a minute!”), reared back (“Whaaaaa?!”), and lofted a pass toward the end zone (“Holy shhhhh….!!!”) that landed safely in the hands of…Matt Leinart! Touchdown Trojans! (“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!”)
There were more than 100,000 people in the stadium at the time, and every one of them was making noise, SC’s side of the stadium exulting, Michigan’s side groaning in disbelief. I’d say I conservatively scared 12,000 of those fans, as loud as I was yelling, with a look on my face that said, “This guy is going to kill us all.”
It only got better from there. The Trojans won the undisputed national championship the next season, going 13-0 and capping its year for the ages with another big Orange Bowl win. That season, Dr. F fell in love with the player who remains her favorite athlete to this day: Reggie Bush. He was a 5’9″ Superman that year. Routine off-tackle runs turned into 80-yard highlight reels. A blocked path at the 5-yard line was merely a signal for Bush to leap over two players’ heads, into the end zone. Punt returns became the most anticipated play at the Coliseum. No matter the score, whenever the opposing team lined up to punt, the student section’s chant was always the same: “Re-ggie! Re-ggie!” It was no exaggeration to say that every time Reggie Bush touched the ball in the 2004 season, everyone expected him to score.
As amazing as all those offensive stars and defensive beasts performed in those years, every SC fan knew that Pete Carroll was the biggest reason for their success. Playing for the Trojans became a dream for high school kids around the country, not just in California, but in the South, the Midwest and East Coast. Big recruits who might’ve been ticketed for Texas or Florida or Notre Dame decided they’d rather head west and play for Coach Carroll. SC became such a hot destination that O.J. Mayo went to play for the school’s middling basketball team, because he’d seen what being a Trojan had done for the branding of stars like Leinart and Bush.
Dr. F and I moved to Seattle in the summer of 2005. But we kept our season tickets for one final season, figuring we’d get down to L.A. to see them at least once in person. At Husky Stadium a short walk from our new place, the Trojans swamped the Huskies 51-24, in a game that featured an 84-yard punt return for a TD by Bush that remains one of the most amazing plays I’ve ever seen (If anyone can find video of this play, please send it along). Later that season, we flew to L.A. for the big rivalry game — and saw the Trojans obliterate UCLA 66-19, a game that destroyed the record for most times hearing “Tusk” in one day.
We started to lose touch with the Trojans bit by bit as the years went on. Moving to the East Coast in 2006 started the fade, and the team’s falling performance accelerated it. By the time yesterday’s news hit that Carroll was leaving SC for the NFL, you couldn’t be too surprised. The team could face stiff NCAA sanctions for a variety of violations, Carroll saw a great opportunity, and got out before everything hit the fan.
Still, after going a lifetime without caring one whit about a sport, the Trojans made a convert out of me. I’ve talked to friends and e-migos about road-tripping to Oxford for an Ole Miss game, of hitting the Big House or the Horseshoe on a crisp autumn day, catching a Red River shootout, or seeing a game between the hedges. All of that interest stems from our seven years of season-ticket bliss, cheering on the Trojans. The pieces were in place at USC to get a Canadian noob hooked. But Pete Carroll sealed the deal.
Best of luck, Pete. Fight On.