Two years ago this week, USC suffered some 1906 San Francisco-level, earth-shattering blows when the NCAA dropped the hammer on the Trojans in the form of sanctions and a two-year bowl ban. We knew that USC was under investigation by the NCAA, but for the charges levied against it, nobody thought the repercussions would be that bad.
Oh, how wrong we were.
Mark Emmert and the rest of the NCAA decided that they had to make an example of someone, and why not USC? With that in mind, the NCAA awarded some of the harshest, most vindictive sanctions of all time: Four years probation, two-year bowl ban, and a 30-scholarship reduction over three seasons.
Everyone in Troy at that time was in a daze. A general feel of shock and disbelief blanketed the USC as they watched the ship that was the Trojan Empire plunge into the depths irrelevancy.
That was what was supposed to happen, but we all know differently now. USC, essentially burned to the ground by the NCAA, would not take this lying down. They regrouped, restructured, and restarted, being born again from the ashes of past indiscretions. Along the way to USC’s epic comeback in the 2011 season, many people wondered how this was all possible. Well, I’m glad they asked.
Here are five reasons why USC weathered the storm, like a boss:
5. The Changing of the Guard
When news broke that Pete Carroll was going to leave USC for the Seattle Seahawks, Trojan Nation took it hard. The prodigal son of Troy, Carroll was responsible for the Decade of Dominance that Trojans had grown accustomed to, and it was unclear where USC should go from there. Shortly after, USC hired Lane Kiffin, and not everyone was thrilled about it. He had a reputation for being cold, arrogant and devoid of personality, the exact opposite of Carroll.
Not only that, but his ability to lead was called into question because of his volatile terms as the head coach of the NFL Oakland Raiders and the NCAA Tennessee Volunteers. But those same things that people criticized him for are the things that have enabled him to steer the sinking ship that was USC into calmer waters. Where Carroll was friendly, personable, and arguably too relaxed and care free, Kiffin is no nonsense. He wants to be a winner and for him that means running a tight ship. As a result we have seen a team go from out of shape and disjointed in 2010 to strong, cohesive, and only getting better by 2011. The firm hand that Kiffin coaches with is exactly what this USC team needed after a decade where wins piled up faster than Kim Kardashian’s exes.
4. Adversity Builds Character:
Under Pete Carroll, the USC Trojans didn’t know what failure was. They didn’t know what it meant to struggle, only to completely destroy the competition like it ain’t no thang. And it was awesome: As a fan, you pretty much knew game in and game out that USC would not only win, but that they would put a beat down on their opponents with no respect whatsoever. Being up 35-0 going into the half was just….rude. But the victories tasted so, so sweet. USC football practices were open to the public, and everyone from students to Snoop Dogg would show up for the party.
With this kind of environment, it’s no wonder ‘SC didn’t do so hot in 2009 and 2010, where for the first time in forever they weren’t necessarily favored to win. The Trojans lost nine games in those two seasons and went through a minor identity crisis. However it was then that the team showed us that they really knew what it meant to fight on: they swallowed their pride, took their sanctions and their losses in stride, and refused to give up. In Kiffin’s first year, they really struggled to get their identity back, but it was that same struggle that left them with a burning desire to prove themselves in 2011. They have finally learned, as Nike says, to “win from within”, and it doesn’t look like they have any intentions to stop.
3. Emergence of Character Role Players
While all this was going on, the football team clearly needed some direction. Sure, they had a capable coaching staff, but the players needed some of their own to be leaders. Guys like Matt Barkley, T.J. McDonald, Christian Tupou, and Khaled Holmes stepped up and became some of the faces of the program. All of them exhibit strong character off the field, which was essential in USC rebranding itself. They all have GPAs about a 3.0, showing that athletes can throw down in the classroom, too. They have molded themselves into the kind of athletes coaches dream about because they follow direction and take care of business without getting too caught up in the hype. In leading by example, they influenced their teammates to walk the same walk, and that path has led them to entering the 2012 football season as the favorite.
2. Out with the Old, In with the New…Sort Of
In the Pete Carroll era, USC was a run-it-down-your-throat-and-dare-you-to-stop us kind of team, and it worked. Receivers like Mike Williams, Damian Williams, and Ronald Johnson were playmakers too, but USC lived and died, for the most part, by its Power-I. On the other side of the ball USC had big linebackers like Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews, who instilled fear because of the pain they delivered with ease. By the time Kiffin got here, USC didn’t really have the personally to have the Reggie Bush-esque running game that killed opponents, nor did it have particularly huge linebackers to smother opponents. But when life gave him lemons, Kiffin made a lemon martini with the top-shelf stuff.
He recruited smaller, stealthier linebackers like Hayes Pullard and converted Dion Bailey from a safety to a linebacker so that the defense could hang with the increasingly pass-heavy offense in the Pac-12. He established his own passing threats in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, easily one of the best WR tandems in USC history. He started utilizing Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble, two big tight ends that can do it all. And he and father Monte Kiffin implemented the Tampa-2 defense that, after some growing pains, has been very conducive to the kind of talent USC has. This season, we saw the running game reemerge under the feet of Curtis McNeal, and if the football gods are kind, we will see it again in 2012. So by sticking true to USC tradition but by also exploiting the best of what he had before him, Kiffin molded this USC squad into one that is formidable to all who oppose them.
1. Matt Barkley, because DUH.
The most important, most critical, most essential factor to USC’s rebirth over the past two years has obviously been Matt Barkley. I mean, what else could it be? Had he jumped ship when the sanctions hit his sophomore year, who knows what USC would have been left with? It was his loyalty, his dedication to the team that encouraged many other players on the team to stay, too. He knew that his sophomore and junior year would not yield him any postseason glory, but still he chose to stay. And his character off the field? It speaks for itself. He spends every Christmas season with his family on mission trips, and this summer he headed the voyage to Haiti that inspired his teammates to join him. He is a role model and he will be a fan favorite long after his time at USC has ended.
He cemented himself as one of the greatest Trojans of all time when, after a career-defining season, he elected to stay for his senior to attend to some “unfinished business.” In doing so, he let everyone—most specifically YOU, NCAA—know that these men are resilient, that these men will stride past adversity, that these men will fight on to victory, always.
At first, it seemed as if things for USC couldn’t get any worse. They lost their beloved coach in favor of an undesirable, they were going to be sanctioned, and they were going to fall off harder than Humpty Dumpty from his wall. However, as we see now, all of those “hindrances” were actually a recipe for success for the Trojans. With that combination of factors, USC was able to weather the storm, to put out the fire that was burning the walls of Troy, and it was able to emerge from the ashes, a new team. The worst might not yet be over for USC—after this season, pretty much the entire squad will graduate or go pro and the Kiffins will have to rebuild, yet again—but they made it into the clearing much sooner than anyone anticipated.
And they did it like bosses, because that’s what Trojans do.