Excitement Amid a Fragile Spring
It is one of those almost-too-good-to-believe, 75-degree Los Angeles afternoons in late March, and the usual large, cardinal and gold-clad crowd spills through the sun-splashed gates at Howard Jones Field for the first day of USC spring football practice. The veterans among the spectators are dressed comfortably but are carrying Windbreakers or sweaters, well aware that the brisk spring winds will come rattling in about the same time the early evening shadows creep onto the manicured lawn before practice is over.
The head coach doesn't seem concerned with any of that. Pete Carroll, wearing a thin, white, form-fitting, long-sleeved shirt and khaki pants, sprints onto the field, clapping and chirping, flashing a smile as wide as the L.A. Coliseum tunnel. Carroll, with his face seemingly more tan than ever and his gray hair blowing in the breeze, looks like a kid who can't wait to open his new, giftwrapped PlayStation 3. His bouncy enthusiasm is infectious, and several of the players look up and grin at him as they begin their calisthenics.
Thanks to Carroll, USC football is an institution again in L.A., the happy, winning substitute for the nation's No. 2 marketthat is still incredulously without an NFL franchise. Instead of Rams or Raiders merchandise, everyone can now be seen wearing USC gear at the malls and theaters and casual restaurants around this sprawling megalopolis. The Trojans have become the city's biggest winners, more consistent than the Lakers, more successful than the Dodgers, and clearly overshadowing the basketball exploits across town at UCLA.
It is not just all the winning, it is the style and caliber of players he has developed at USC. In his first seven years on the job, Carroll produced thirty All Americans and eleven first-round NFL draft picks, including four in the 2008 draft. It is a remarkable record, and the steady stream of victories has created a rare comfort zone for Carroll, who seems to tease the USC faithful every off-season by listening to an assortment of NFL head coaching offers. Few, if any, college coaches have less job pressures than he does. Still, you can sense a rustle of discontent from some boosters and alumni who have been spoiled by all the Trojans have achieved. They point out it's been four years since they won their second of two national titles under Carroll and three years since they've been back to the BCS Championship Game. They're hungry to wave those large cardinal colored foam fingers in the air and proclaim "We're No. 1" again.
Last season ended much like the one in 2006, with USC semi-grudgingly accepting a bid to the game that once was its ultimate goal, the Rose Bowl, where it systematically whipped yet another overmatched Big Ten opponent, this time Illinois. Back-to-back, 11-2 bowl-winning seasons would be cause for celebrations at most universities, but not here, where the bar has been raised to a whole different level. Maybe that's why there is an undercurrent of uneasiness about the start of this spring practice. Or maybe it's just the fact that, for the first time since a tall, left-handed kid named Matt Leinart squeezed out the job at the end of spring, the Trojans aren't sure who their quarterback will be in the opener at Virginia on August 30.
Once Leinart took control as a sophomore, he held onto the position for three glory-filled years, going 37-2, leading the teamto those two national titles and winning the Heisman Trophy along the way. When he left for the NFL, everyone knew that John David Booty, who'd been waiting patiently, would take over. Booty quarterbacked the team for two seasons, and although he never matched Leinart, he had a nice, two-year run, losing only three games he started and directing the team to consecutive Rose Bowl victories.
Now, at least publicly, Carroll and his coaches are saying the job is open. "We want to take our time, and hopefully get a real sense of someone we can count on at the position," Carroll tells me in our first real one-on-one interview of the season. "We want to do it right. We're not necessarily going to go for the biggest, strongest arm. We'll go for the quarterback we think will help us win."
Still, those who've been around the program the longest quietly believe the choice has all but been made already. They have come to trust Carroll and his instincts. They should. He picked Leinart over Matt Cassel, the backup to Tom Brady who eventually took over when Brady was injured with the New England Patriots, even when the two quarterbacks were basically even coming out of spring practice. He said he sensed something special in Leinart. Whether he senses the same thing in Mark Sanchez is difficult to know, but one thing is clear: Carroll has never had a quarterback controversy in his previous seven years at USC, and he certainly isn't looking for one now. So the sense is that Carroll wants Sanchez, the fourth-year junior who's been around the program for three seasons, to win the job, despite the challenge he knows is coming from flashy Mitch Mustain, the much-hyped transfer from Arkansas.
Around the rest of the country, on ESPN and in most L.A. area newspapers, this has been proclaimed as the hottest spring quarterback duel in college football. These are, after all, two kids who were national prep players of the year their senior seasons in high school. Most of the ardent boosters and alums think this is about which of the two quarterbacks proves to be a better leader and more accurate, mistake-free passer. In the quiet reality of theUSC coaching chambers, however, it's about more than that. It is about a philosophy and some off-the-field politics that are understood but never openly discussed, even in the staff's private meetings in Heritage Hall.
Carroll values experience more than anything else, and Sanchez has spent much more time learning the offense than Mustain, who was the scout team quarterback, running opponents' offenses, not USC's, in his first year after transferring from Arkansas. Then there is the potential recruiting fallout involved. Sanchez is from the same rich Orange County pipeline that produced Leinart and Carson Palmer, another Carroll-coached Heisman Trophy winner. Already, the next highly decorated Orange County quarterback, Mater Dei's Matt Barkley, the national prep player of the year as a junior, has committed to USC. Carroll has to be careful not to do anything that would besmirch his reputation among future SoCal quarterback prospects, like maybe choosing a transfer from Arkansas over a highly regarded local kid who had been waiting three years for his chance.
So, although Carroll keeps insisting the position is wide open, it's clear early on in the spring that it is Sanchez's job to lose. The only way he wouldn't be named the starter at the end of spring practice was if, one, he completely screwed up, or, two, Mustain was so spectacular that he thoroughly outplayed him. Both of those options were long shots, especially since the plan was for Sanchez to take 80 percent of the practice snaps with the first-team offense, while Mustain and Aaron Corp, still another Orange County hotshot, would split time taking the majority of their snaps with the second team.
Steve Sarkisian, Carroll's bright, young offensive coordinator, smiles and talks about how much he likes all the quarterbacks, but when you press him, he shrugs and admits what most already know. "Yeah, I'd have to say Mark is ahead going into this," he says, "but we're excited to see what they can all do." What makes this quarterback choice more intriguing is that it's the first time Carrolland Sarkisian have had to make a decision of this magnitude since Norm Chow, the former offensive coordinator, left to accept the same job with the Tennessee Titans. Widely regarded as an offensive genius, at least at the collegiate level, Chow molded both Palmer and Leinart into Heisman winners and did the same for Ty Detmer at BYU. He left USC under a smoggy cloud of controversy when Carroll wanted to move him, or, as Chow's friends contend, "demote him," to quarterbacks coach, taking away his cherished role as a play caller.
The Trojans's program under Carroll seemed at its pinnacle when the head coach was directing the defense and the creative Chow was calling the plays on offense, although the presence of Leinart and Reggie Bush, still another Heisman winner, obviously had something to do with it. Chow had a strong voice and he wasn't afraid to use it, even if he disagreed with Carroll or others on the staff. Some felt it was the kind of creative tension that made everything work on offense. Others weren't so sure. Whatever was going on, the tenseness had begun to grow on the coaching staff. What happened from there still remains somewhat fuzzy. Some felt Chow started receiving what fellow staff members felt was a little too much credit in the media for the offense. At the same time, the role of Lane Kiffin, a young, ambitious assistant and son of Carroll's best friend, Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, started to magnify. Carroll wanted the thirty-something Kiffin, who starts this season as the Oakland Raiders head coach, to have more input in the offense, and Chow quietly, or not so quietly, resented it.
Before this season, and this book, is finished, I intend to get Chow and Carroll to corroborate what really happened, what led to Chow departing for the NFL Tennessee Titans, and Carroll moving Kiffin up and hiring Sarkisian, naming them co-offensive coordinators, putting his own stamp on the offense and limiting Chow to work in some other capacity. When that occurred, the writing was on the locker room wall. Everyone knew Chow would accept the first good offer to come along.
When it happened, when Chow was named offensive coordinator of the Titans, Carroll was effusive in his praise of Norm in comments to the media, and Chow talked glowingly of how much he enjoyed his time with Carrol...