It has been growing increasingly difficult to defend USC as a true blueblood football program. The Trojans are consistently mentioned as one of college football’s historically elite programs, and the numbers absolutely demand that. Whether it’s Heisman Trophies, national championships, NFL Draft picks, winning percentage, or all-time great players, USC measures up with the best programs in using any metric.
But over the last decade, USC hadn’t just fallen behind the programs dominating college football. The Trojans were being lapped. And in some of the most important aspects to running a strong program, USC wasn’t even on the same playing field.
The 5-7 season in 2018 and the No. 64 recruiting class in 2020 were alarming, but only symptoms of much deeper and systemic issues in the program.
USC chief of staff Brandon Sosna has only held his position for roughly 14 months, but it’s probably felt like the better part of a lifetime given all the challenges the department faced — the fallout of the Varsity Blues scandal, a football support staff woefully equipped to compete with the national powers and a conference distribution deal that sees USC bring in substantially less in revenue than its national competitors — and the fact that this past year has been spent under a COVID-19 cloud, which has devastated athletic departments across the country.
Sosna arrived at USC in late 2019, two months after athletic director Mike Bohn’s arrival. He’d become indispensable to Bohn at Cincinnati, so when Bohn accepted the position at USC, Sosna had an idea what was coming next.
“I think in his mind, I wasn’t given a choice,” Sosna said of joining Bohn in heading to Los Angeles.
But Sosna is a born-and-raised Cincinnati Bearcat and leaving what he called his dream job at the time wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion for him. He’s the youngest of six children and he would be leaving his entire family in Cincinnati to come out to Los Angeles. But the draw of what could be at USC was too much to turn down.
“There were certainly some considerations to work through, but ultimately the opportunity at USC was enormous, and something that I think I would have regretted not taking,” Sosna said. “Obviously we’re in this job because we’re dedicated to the student-athlete experience, but we’re also competitors. And there are only a few places in the world you can go to, to consistently compete for championships. And this is one of them. And so that was, ultimately for me, the biggest draw.”
Sosna knew the outsider’s history of USC, though he worked backwards to get there. Being a Bengals fan, Carson Palmer opened his eyes to the Trojans, and then USC became his dream school while watching Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush and that era of the Trojans. So in that sense, Sosna had an understanding of what USC football could be.
For so many USC fans now, the discussion about whether the Trojans truly want to recapture the glory of that Pete Carroll run is focused solely on head coach Clay Helton. But Bohn and Sosna have focused instead on building a more solid foundation around the head coach, hoping that might set the Trojans up for a quicker rise and potentially more long-term stability.
The rallying cry from Helton, Bohn and Sosna has revolved around strategically pouring additional resources into the football program. Without simply throwing money at the issues and hoping for the best, the idea has been to be creative and innovative in finding ways to re-establish this program back to its historical blueblood status. The major point of emphasis over these 14 months has been bolstering USC’s recruiting department, which had capable bodies, but simply not enough to regularly compete in and win recruiting battles against national programs or even the top-tier Pac-12 programs.
“At the end of the day, if you place championship expectations on a program, you have to provide championship resources,” Sosna said. “And I think that’s our responsibility to the program as an administration, and that’s what we’ve been working on.
The off-field results so far have been pretty clear.
This offseason, name after name was added to the recruiting department or on-field support staff, and all of them arrived at USC with tremendous reputations in their field.
It was difficult to lose quality control analysts Chris Claiborne and Hayes Pullard, who left for Arizona State and the New York Jets, respectively. But starting on January 19, with the addition of Marshall Cherrington as the director of recruiting strategy, it felt as though the Trojans were adding to their support staff arsenal almost daily.
At the end of the run, the Trojans had brought in Nick Mitchell (Director of Video Production), Toa Lobendahn (offensive graduate assistant), John Bonny and C.J. Ah You (defensive quality control analysts), Megan Mueller (Director of Recruiting Operations), Derek Marckel (Director of Creative Media), Jeff Martin (Director of Scouting and Player Relations) and Bryan Carrington (offensive quality control analyst).
Martin and Carrington were the two major names, as each is regarded as among the elite recruiters in the country, but Cherrington is a dynamic recruiter as well, and, Mitchell, Marckel and Mueller had drawn rave reviews at their previous stops. In a profession that is fairly nomadic at best, creating the infrastructure and bringing in the right people that allows a program to turn an analyst job or an assistant coaching position into a launching point for bigger opportunities is a major part of finding sustained success. Working as an analyst under Nick Saban at Alabama has become such a straight shot to a big offer elsewhere that the pool of candidates Saban has to pick from for analyst positions is different than almost every other program. Losing Claiborne and Pullard hurts because of their potential and strong connections to the program, but both took big steps forward in their coaching careers with the move, which is not something that has been a common occurrence as many assistants have either landed lower-level jobs or none at all after not being retained. USC has been able to pry away some important pieces from other programs in assembling its on and off-field staff and has landed a number of people who will be coveted by other programs whenever their USC tenure is finished. Ultimately, this makes every position in the football program a more desirable destination for coaches or staffers, knowing they are going to have increased support and serve as part of a program more dedicated to finding ways to achieve success than USC has been in its recent past.
The end goals Bohn and Sosna have for the program aren’t remotely accomplished yet, but it’s easy to see that steps are being taken.
“I would say that as we embark on the vision of enhancing our recruiting department, for the first time in 14 months, at this point in time, we have everybody in place,” Sosna said. “I think from a personnel perspective, we are very much where we’d like to be in terms of numbers in the building, but championship programs require championship resources, and so we’ve looked holistically at all the elements that support the football enterprise beyond just the personnel who are in the building.”
USC has dialed up its social media presence, and specifically looked to lead the charge on the Name, Image, Likeness frontier, as one of Bohn and Sosna’s main goals for the Trojans is to be the most student-athlete centered program in the country.
USC director of player personnel Spencer Harris oversees a Trojans’ recruiting department that has more than doubled in size since the arrival of Bohn and Sosna, and just helped the Trojans land back in the top 10 of the national recruiting rankings for the 2021 class and to this point, the 2022 class, as well as secure a commitment from the top California prospect in the 2022 class, five star cornerback Domani Jackson (Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei).
“I think maybe the gift that he has that separates him is just a rare ability to see into the future of college football recruiting, from Name, Image, Likeness, to branding, to the transfer portal, and then being able to develop a vision to put us on the forefront,” Sosna said of Harris.
For the Trojans, it’s about using their advantages. Located in the middle of Los Angeles, with easy access to Hollywood and all the glitz that comes with it, plus strong film, music and journalism schools, USC absolutely should be a national leader in fostering the brand building of its student-athletes in order to best take advantage of whatever rules are coming regarding Name, Image, Likeness. It was a huge factor in No. 1 overall recruit Korey Foreman signing with USC in the 2021 class. It helped the Trojans land nine of the top 20 California prospect, sign four-star cornerback Ceyair Wright, land transfer wide receiver K.D. Nixon and safety Xavion Alford, and it could come into play with 2022 four-star defensive tackle and budding actor Christen Miller (Ellenwood, Ga./Cedar Grove).
It’s USC’s great equalizer right now when it comes to the uneven playing field of conference revenue.
“I think we’re all well aware of the economic realities of the landscape in college football right now, with respect to a primary source of revenue being conference distributions and where the Pac-12 is situated right now within the Power 5 in terms of those distributions,” Sosna said. “And so at this point in time, we’re not really going to out-resource our peers in that general sense, so we have to be more creative, more innovative, more strategic and efficient and we do have to leverage those competitive advantages that we do possess.”
Pac-12 programs are dwarfed by those in the Big Ten and SEC when it comes to conference distributions, as Big Ten schools are taking in around $55 million per year compared to just $33 million for Pac-12 schools. But not all dollars are created equally, and the same amount of money goes different distances in every other college city and town compared to Los Angeles. By the time cost of living is factored in, that $22 million difference could actually balloon to something like $40-$50 million depending on the program to which USC is being compared.
It puts USC at a significant disadvantage when compared to programs nationally and even within the Pac-12, and why USC’s seemingly just-happy-to-be-here approach to accepting an equal revenue split among conference members ten years ago was just as head-shakingly frustrating then as it is now.
With the Pac-12 media rights contract ending prior to the 2024 season, there is a sense that Bohn and Sosna both understand USC’s place in the conference and have the ability to best position the Trojans in those discussions moving forward. It hasn’t been too difficult to read between the lines when it comes to recent scheduling decisions from the conference, that USC might once again be throwing its weight around just a little more. Last season, USC’s crossover game with a North team was a home game against Washington State. This season, the Trojans will play all Saturday games for the first time since the 2009 season, with a seemingly favorable travel schedule as well.
They’ve already helped navigate a major hurdle for USC, as the athletic department duck paddled its way through the last year — calm on the surface but frantically churning underneath.
“My joke of a tagline for the year became, ‘Everybody has a plan until they shove an extra-long Q-Tip up your nose,'” Sosna said. “I don’t know if the public will ever fully or truly understand the challenge that the season was for everyone associated with the program, but especially our athletes, or the outrageous lengths that we went to within our protocols to try to protect our athletes and preserve the season that everybody so desperately wanted to play.”
Sosna said it required “constant vigilance” from everybody in and around the program, as players moved in and out of hotel rooms depending on wastewater samples from dorms or the surrounding community. Seating assignments on buses and planes had to mirror locker assignments that had to account for starters versus backups and various position groups to avoid contact tracing knocking out an entire position group or multiple starters.
“It was enormously difficult,” Sosna said, joking that he feels like an amateur epidemiologist now that he’s been on so many COVID-related phone calls as he led USC’s COVID-19 action team. “It was a daily logistical challenge. There are things you’re contemplating that you never fathomed you’d have to consider when operationalizing your daily schedule.”
And he probably has mostly himself to blame, as Sosna did a lot of the heavy lifting with regards to the letter from USC players, including quarterback Kedon Slovis and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, to California governor Gavin Newsom that was the key factor in getting a fall Pac-12 football season underway.
It’s that kind of peek into the mentality of the program now that gives credence to the idea that USC is truly working on building its football brand back to where Trojan fans expect it to be. USC knew it needed to get on field last season because it needed unsigned prospects — especially on the defensive side — to see Todd Orlando and the defensive staff, a group that embodied USC’s initial splash at rebuilding this program under Bohn and Sosna. And during this past season, while many schools were cutting athletics programs and unsure about whether they would be able to bring back senior athletes for the NCAA-granted sixth season of eligibility, USC made no cuts to the department — instead, continuously adding the aforementioned people — and immediately stepped forward to tell all of its senior student-athletes that they would be able to return for their extra season if they so desired. The program is also looking to bring in a dedicated football nutritionist, a director of football equipment and has brought in an athletic-specific grounds crew for the first time that will “make sure that our fields are taken care of at the highest level by individuals who have a specialized skill set in maintaining elite athletic surfaces,” according to Sosna.
While both Bohn and Sosna are passionate about every student-athlete in all sports at USC, they both understand what lies at the heart of USC athletics. Spring ball for the football team is set to kick off later this month and the Trojans will get their first look at what last year’s shortened season and all the offseason moves have done for the program. Because ultimately, hiring a new strength and conditioning staff, signing an terrific recruiting class and adding some dynamic personnel pieces didn’t score any points against San Jose State in the season opener or lock the Trojans into a spot in the conference championship game.
So what’s next?
For many USC fans, the temperature of Helton’s coaching seat ranges anywhere from blisteringly hot to a smoldering pile of ash, as the Trojans have won just one of the past 12 conference championships and seen its leads in all-time first-round NFL draft picks and total draft picks evaporate completely. USC went 5-1 and landed a spot in the conference championship game last season, but it did little to quell the unrest among USC fans. The Trojans will have an opportunity this season to maybe not completely silence any critics, but at least provide another piece of evidence that the Trojans are on the right path.
For now though, the calls for Helton’s job and the complaints about the program are opinions and criticisms Sosna hears and understands.
“Certainly those expectations are why you want to be at a place like USC,” he said. “And so I don’t think any of us shy away from those expectations. In fact, we embrace them. I always say you have to accept and embrace passion in all its forms, and so you can’t only selectively enjoy the passion from your fans when you’re winning and also expect that you won’t have to confront it when you’re not. At the end of the day, for an overwhelming majority of our constituents, winning is the most important factor. And we understand that.”