You’ve probably heard the famous story of the Trojan Horse. As the story goes, during the Trojan War, the Greeks were looking for a way to end the war which had been dragging on for years. So the Greeks constructed a large wooden horse, put select soldiers inside it and rolled it up to the gates of the City of Troy. The Trojans took it as a sign of surrender and rolled the wooden horse into the City as a symbol of victory. Oops. That night, the Greek Soldiers came out of the horse, opened the gates to the City and the entire Greek Army invaded wiping out the City of Troy and winning the War.
For most of its football history, the University of Southern California Trojans haven’t needed a wooden horse or any disguise as they are not sneaking up on anyone. USC – a private school located adjacent to one of the worst neighborhoods in Los Angeles – first fielded a football team in 1888. Since then, the Trojans claim 11 National Championships, have had 497 players drafted into the NFL (the most of any school), boast 12 NFL Hall of Famers, 7 Heisman Trophy winners, and head into the 216 season with 813 all time victories, against 333 losses and 54 ties. That’s a winning percentage of 70%.
Impressive, but USC’s recent history has been one of not being able to get out of its way. The school’s all-time winningest coach is the legendary John McKay who posted 127 wins and 4 National Championships before leaving USC to coach the NFL’s expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was in Tampa that McKay authored perhaps the greatest line in the history of sports when – after another loss – he was asked about his team’s execution to which he responded, that “he’d be all for that.” He was replaced at USC by another legend in John Robinson who won 104 games in two separate stints as the Trojans Head Coach, along with a National Championship in 1978. Since Robinson however, USC football has at times been extremely successful (albeit while apparently breaking NCAA rules), and part dumpster fire just trying to find its way.
USC has no real excuse for not getting some of the best players in the country. They sit at the epicenter of the most fertile recruiting ground in college football in the State of California which turns out more Division 1 players per year than any other State. USC doesn’t even have to go outside of California to fill its roster with top 10 talent. Add in the history and tradition of the program, which few if any other schools in the PAC-12 can actually match, and USC should annually be amongst the best in the nation, but they aren’t always the best in their own city.
They’ve made poor coaching hires over the past couple of decades with names like Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, and Paul Hackett. Even when they appeared to get it right with Pete Carroll who won two national championships and made USC the best program in the Nation, they got it wrong. Carroll’s cutting corners (which he’ll deny to the day he dies), and his open access that allowed every rouge sports agent and rapper to mingle with USC players at practice, got USC hammered with the most severe sanctions short of SMU’s death penalty. USC had to forfeit its last two wins in 2004, all of its victories in 2005, was banned from bowl games for both the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and lost 30 scholarships over three years which cuts right to the heart of any college football program. Before the NCAA posse arrived in town, Carroll high tailed his ass to the NFL and the Seattle Seahawks. So, instead of searching for a coach equipped to handle the program’s problems and navigate USC Football through rough waters, USC’s then Athletic Director Mike Garrett took a short cut and hired lifetime Junior High School Student, Lane Kiffin after Kiffin spent just one 7-6 season at Tennessee. Kiffin – who for some reason continues to get employment for which he’s not qualified – had a USC team that was preseason number one in the nation in 2012, and completely flopped going from number 1 to unranked at 7-6, and hitting rock bottom by getting run out of town in the Sun Bowl by Georgia Tech, a game where his players were reportedly fighting in the locker room.
Nothing tops the next season however. Kiffin’s team was struggling and after getting hammered on the road at Arizona State, he was fired on the airport tarmac by then Athletic Director Pat Haden. Ed Orgeron took his place and went 6-2 over the last 8 games of the season, but when Haden told Orgeron that he wasn’t going to be the Trojans’ Head Coach, he threw a fit and packed up his stuff. USC was coached in its bowl game by offensive coordinator Clay Helton. That’s three coaches in a single year. Not exactly the portrait of stability.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. Haden replaced Kiffin and Orgeron with another former Pete Carroll assistant in Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian is frankly a better head coach that Kiffin was or will ever be, but he had his own demons and after getting drunk and making a gold medal ass of himself at a USC function, Sarkisian was out of a job just 5 games into the 2015 season. He sued the school over his termination, and once again Clay Helton was called in from the bullpen to be the interim head coach.
Now, the Trojans begin 2016 with Clay Helton as the permanent head coach (although there’s nothing permanent in College Football) with 9 starters back on offense and 5 on defense. The roster is starting to come back now that the school once again has it’s full allotment of scholarships. The question is will Helton have time to try and do the job? HIs first problem is the 2016 schedule with begins on Saturday with defending National Champion Alabama. Along the way, he has to deal with Stanford, Utah, Oregon, Washington, UCLA and the Trojans’ annual match-up with Notre Dame. His second problem is that he was hired by Haden but is no longer working for Haden, who resigned as USC’s athletic director earlier this year and is staying on with the school to assist in revamping the aging iconic Los Angeles Coliseum.
In true USC fashion to replace Haden the school didn’t conduct a national search to find someone with experience running an Athletic Department, must less a wealthy one like USC. Instead, USC hired former player and NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann to be the A.D. Swann has no experience in college athletics administration. In fairness, neither did Haden, but he’d been on the school’s board of directors for years and had dealt with tough decisions. As one columnist wrote at the time Swann was hired he couldn’t find a record of Lynn Swann doing much of anything for the past decade. Swann used to work the sidelines on college football for ABC Sports, but when ESPN decided to bury ABC Sports in 2006, Swann suddenly decided to run for the Governor of Pennsylvania, an election he lost by twenty percentage points. He’s been on corporate boards, and been involved in some other things but frankly doesn’t know diddly about running an athletic department and inexperienced administrators tend to have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to coaches because they are heavily influenced by the boosters donating the money. Suffice to say, that Clay Helton’s days as head coach are numbered if no other reason than Lynn Swann won’t know what he’s doing.
Pay close attention to how USC starts this season. If they start well, then Helton may be on to something. If not, he’ll join the list of underwhelming USC hires like Paul Hackett. And then USC will be looking for a head coach with an athletic director not very qualified to conduct such a search. Helton may not get more than one year to prove himself despite the fact that he’s been a loyal soldier at USC, twice stepping into a nearly impossible situation. USC isn’t the best team in the PAC-12 and so the rest of the conference won’t need a Trojan Horse to sneak up on them. Success is measured in championships at USC and the Trojans might be able to get back in the running for one if they can just find a way to get out of their own way.
PAC-12 North: (1) Stanford – Best player in the country in Christian McCaffrey. One of the best coaches in the composed and impressive David Shaw, whose true to himself and his system. (2) Washington – Chris Peterson left Boise State to struggle for a few years at Washington. That struggle is over and Washington – which boasts one of the best game-day atmospheres right along the river in Seattle – could win the PAC-12 and make the playoff; (3) Washington State – Mike Leach never played college football, has a quirky personality, is obsessed with Pirates and once wrote a book titled “Swing your Sword”. He also has a brilliant football mind and a team on the rise in the PAC-12’s most remote outpost in Pullman, Washington; (4) Oregon – best facilities in college football thanks to Nike which includes a full time barber. The best facilities however don’t mean the best team and for the second straight year they are putting a Band-Aid on quarterback with an FCS Transfer. The fact that Oregon coach Mark Helfrich can’t seem to recruit a quarterback that he can develop like Marcus Mariotta is not a sign of long-term success; (5) California – already 1-0 after beating Hawaii in Australia. Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb takes over in Cal’s pass happy offense, but if they don’t get the ball what can they really do? Up tempo high energy teams are fun to watch, but they don’t give their defense much time to rest and in a conference where you play 9 conference games that’s not a positive; (6) Oregon State – Gary Anderson had a sweet frankly “lifetime gig” at Utah State when the hot girl known as Wisconsin winked at him and invited him to Madison. He figured out quickly he was a mismatch and pulled up after a year to take the job at Oregon State. That’s desperation because Oregon State struggled in his first year and figures to do so again.
PAC-12 South: (1) UCLA – I have to admit while I don’t know the man, I don’t have a very positive impression of Bruins’ coach Jim Mora. He was an underwhelming NFL Head Coach in Seattle and Atlanta before coming to UCLA as the Head Coach. He’s recruited well and has a quarterback whose good, but appears to be a bit entitled. The kid reportedly has a hot tub in his dorm room. For real? I don’t understand why UCLA is not annually good as well. They are in California, play their games in the most iconic stadium in the Country in the Rose Bowl, and the Campus is in Westwood, one of the nicest areas in L.A. No excuses this year. Mora needs to win the conference and show that he’s something more than just the son of one of the best pro coaches whose never going to be recognized as such; (2) Utah – Granted Urban Meyer got Utah off the ground with an undefeated season in 2004 before heading to Florida, but what Kyle Whittingham has done here is amazing. He’s taken a very good Mountain West program and turned it into a very good PAC-12 program, which isn’t easy. He’s passed on opportunities to coach other places to stay in Salt Lake City, and if you’ve ever visited Salt Lake City, you know why; (3) USC – the schedule is brutal but the talent is probably good enough for a finish behind Utah and UCLA; (4) Arizona – Last year when the Va. Tech job opened the general thought was that Rich Rodriguez was gone in Tuscon and on to Blacksburg. Apparently the way things shook out that was never a consideration so those pick-up basketball games Rodriguez played with Va. Tech A-D Whit Babcock when they both worked at WVU didn’t have that much of an effect. Rodriguez is an excellent coach, but his crazy act only works in places like West Virginia and Arizona. See, his colossal failure at Michigan. I’m not convinced that he’s going to stick around at Arizona long-term. His son, whose apparently a pretty good high school quarterback is a Senior at a Tuscon area High School. Rodriguez has the ultimate wandering eye and if the dominos fall right, could we see Rich Rodriguez-West Virginia Part II? Stranger things have happened. ESPN brought back Keith Olberman for a short time; (5) Arizona State – There’s really no real difference between USC, Arizona and Arizona State so all of them could jostle around between 3rd and 5th place in the division depending on their head-to-head match-up. The only difference I see in 4th and 5th is Arizona beating Arizona State; and finally (6) Colorado – For whom the PAC-12 move hasn’t be such a good thing. Once again the place where the Buffaloes roam figures to be last place in the PAC-12 South. It’s not all Head Coach Mike McIntyre’s fault though. He got the job fresh off Colorado making one of the worst hires in college football history in John Embry who ran the program into the ground and is now back in the NFL as a position coach. That bad hire set Colorado back at a time it was joining the PAC-12. My guess is that McIntrye has probably laid a nice foundation in Boulder. Someone else will probably get the chance to build on it.
PAC-12 Title Game: Stanford over UCLA. Stanford to the CFB Playoff as the #3 seed.