Steve Delsohn, the author of “Cardinal and Gold: An Oral History of USC Trojans football” will be signing copies of the book on Saturday at Homecoming in the USC bookstore between 1-2. We caught up with Delsohn to get his thoughts on how the book came together:
WeAreSC: What is your background and how did you get into writing books?
Delsohn: I grew up playing football in Chicago. Then I majored in journalism at the University of Colorado. I started out writing for newspapers and magazines and then I co-wrote a book with the former Oakland Raider and wild man John Matuzsak. That led to me writing more books with athletes, including Jim Brown, Dan Marino and Emmitt Smith. Then I moved on and started writing my own books.
WeAreSC: What prompted the interest for this book, the time period you covered and the way you wrote it as an oral history?
Delsohn: I had previously written oral histories on American firefighters, Notre Dame football and the Los Angeles Dodgers. So I like writing about iconic institutions–and USC football certainly fits the description. I started the book in 1976 because I figured I’d cover the past 40 years, but also because 1976 was a pivotal time for the football program. The great John McKay left that year to coach in the NFL and he was succeeded by a fairly obscure guy named John Robinson. As for why I chose to write it as an oral history, I have always liked that format for particular subjects. And while I do write some of my own narrative, I mostly get out of the way and let the players and coaches and administrators “speak” directly to the reader. It gives the book a feeling of intimacy.
WeAreSC: What were some things you learned about USC football when researching?
Delsohn: Well, I learned a lot. But a few things that jump out: Athletic director Mike Garrett was even more polarizing than I suspected; Pete Carroll is a more “fire and brimstone” football coach than his “Pom Pom Pete” nickname might suggest; Lane Kiffin was in way over his head when Garrett chose him to replace Carroll; Todd Maronivich, for all his wild-chid ways, was mostly beloved by his USC teammates; and almost to a man, the USC players I spoke to absolutely love their alma mater. They might grumble about their heads coaches or AD’s, but they have nothing but good things to say about the university itself. I thought that said a lot about USC and the education it provides.
WeAreSC: You talked to a lot of people, talk about that effort to get contacts and gather information, were interviews done by phone, e-mail?
Delsohn: Except for one interview conducted by email, the rest were done on the phone. I like phone interviews even better than in person because I feel like people let their guard down. Still, it’s always a ton of work scheduling and then doing the interviews. My running joke is, “I’ll just pound these guys into submission until they say yes.” I don’t mean I keep badgering them if they say no, but if they don’t get back to me when i ask for an interview, or they’re dragging their feet, or they cancel an interview, I can be pretty persistent. As a rule, however, the people who I interviewed for this book were remarkably gracious and cooperative.
WeAreSC: Were there any interview subjects or topics that really stood out?
Delsohn: Keyshawn Johnson, LenDale White and Keith Van Horne were three of the best interviewees because they tend to have no filter and they’re also perceptive. As for topics, I think the Carroll years are fascinating because there was so much going on–the utter dominance on the football field, the Hollywood connection, the tension between Carroll and his offensive coordinator Norm Chow, the perhaps unwarranted rise of assistant coaches Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian, the Reggie Bush infractions, the looming NCAA sanctions before Carroll leaves for the NFL. The Todd Marinovich years are also compelling because he and his head coach Larry Smith were constantly in conflict. In fact, the entire team seemed to be at odds with the tightly-wound Smith. And then of course you have the brief head-coaching tenures of Kiffin and Sarkisian. It was drama after drama, controversy after controversy…and most of it had nothing to do with football.