In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think from Los Angeles.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers: For the love of Tommy Trojan, they will continue, no doubt, in June, July, August, and throughout the 2021 season. Perhaps more so in older gatherings of Trojans fans than during an assemblage of cardinal and gold youngins. As ludicrous as it may or may not be, there are growing comparisons, louder than before murmurs and whispers, and more imbalanced debate exchanged when it comes to discussions of a formerly long-time-ago controversial fired USC head football coach (cover photo above) and the currently embattled Trojans head football coach.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 2: The kickoff of the 2021 season is still slightly over three months away, and discussion on the WeAreSC Garry P. message board regarding comparisons between Paul Hackett and Clay Helton are bubbling or more accurately scalding again. Maybe it’s unfair and out-of-bounds and maybe it’s not. Either way, it’s there and not all the message board contributors are wild, crazed, and/or demented cardinal and gold fans. Many are deeply passionate and loyal, but as longtime supporters of USC football, they are all very concerned and want to see the program succeed at the highest level. Who doesn’t? Okay, probably UCLA and Notre Dame and many of the fan bases throughout the Pac-12.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 3: Strictly by the numerical facts, you could make an argument that there is no argument comparing Paul Hackett and Clay Helton. Both come from different eras, incorporate different playing styles and philosophies, are under the direction of different administrations, and have completely different personalities. And besides, the Hackett era lasted half as long as the ongoing Helton’s era, which is heading into its critical sixth full season, not counting Gentleman Clay’s mid-season interim tag and then late-season full-time appointment in 2015 to settle the turbulent dismissal of Steve Sarkisian.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 4: For the record, Hackett’s first USC team in 1998 went 8-5 and lost, 28-10, to TCU in the Sun Bowl. The following season, Hackett’s 1999 team finished 6-6 with no bowl appearance. In the coach’s final season at the helm, his 2000 Trojans finished 5-7 and obviously had no post-season appearance.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 5: In Hackett’s three seasons with the Trojans, his record was 19-18, and in his final two seasons, he was 11-13. In three seasons, he had one losing bowl appearance, so his firing was not only expected but justified beyond a reasonable doubt. Needless to say, USC fans finally exhaled and were incredibly relieved and ecstatic after the tortuous final two seasons under Hackett.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 6: Ironically, Paul Hackett, who was John Robinson’s successful USC passing game coordinator and quarterback coach back in the late 70s when the Trojans won the national championship in 1978, would eventually replace Robinson after Jolly John’s second tour (1993-1997) of USC duty. For the record, Hackett returned as the Trojans head coach after having spent time as an assistant for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 7: In his firing story in the Los Angeles Times, Paul Hackett said, “For someone who has given three years of his life and for the last six months hasn’t slept or eaten, I’m very disappointed. I’m disappointed we don’t get a chance to continue this and complete this. I felt things were headed in the right direction.
“There’s no question we took our lumps this year. In the time allotted, we didn’t get a chance to make the kind of progress Mike Garrett wanted. I’m sure he’ll do the right thing for the university. In two years, I expect to see this team explode.”
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 8 : Regarding former Trojans athletic director Mike Garrett’s point of view at the time of the Hackett firing, Iron Mike said, “Kids weren’t progressing, weren’t developing. All of us have gone through a lot of pain, a lot of suffering. When we don’t beat people, it’s painful. Paul has left the cupboards totally full. He did some nice things for USC.”
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 9: “The right thing” for Mike Garrett after Hackett was the surprise choice of Pete Carroll, an out-of-work former New England Patriots head coach, who not only proved the experts who panned his selection wrong, the new Trojans’ head coach relatively quickly illustrated that Hackett was a bad coaching fit for USC. In his first season, Carroll’s 2001 USC team finished 6-6 and lost to Utah, 10-6, in the Las Vegas Bowl. Not great, but not a losing record either, and the Trojans did advance to a bowl game.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 10: Upon his exit, Paul Hackett was right about the Trojans timeline for greatness, but it couldn’t have happened under the fired coach as his successor proved beyond any doubt. Pete Carroll, who was basically playing with mostly Hackett recruits in his first season, made a major U-turn in his second season in 2002 when the Trojans finished 11-2, crushed Notre Dame, 44-13, in the Coli, whipped Iowa 38-17 in the Orange Bowl, and whose team by season’s end was arguably as good a team as there was in the country. And did we mention that under Carroll’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Norm Chow, Trojans’ quarterback Carson Palmer won the Heisman Trophy? It was the beginning of one of the great runs in college football history.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers – Part 11: The O/NSO well knows, good reader, that many of you began comparing Paul Hackett to Clay Helton sometime ago. As a quick review, Hackett’s USC three seasons (1998-2000) were a combined 19-18 including a 29-19 Sun Bowl loss. Conversely, in Helton’s first three full seasons (2016-2018) as the Trojans head coach, he was 26-13 with two bowl appearances – a dramatic win, 52-49, over Penn State and a crushing loss, 24-7, to Ohio State in the 2017 Cotton Bowl. By comparison, Gentleman Clay wins the contrast of first three seasons between both coaches.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers– Part 12: However, in Helton’s past three seasons, the coach is 19-15 with a humiliating loss, 49-24, to Iowa in the 2019 Holiday Bowl, which does allow critics, who are calling for Helton’s dismissal, to compare Hackett and Gentleman Clay’s records. By choice, the Trojans did not play in a bowl game in 2020 after finishing the season at 5-1 and No. 21 in the nation. In comparison, both Hackett and Helton talked about brighter days ahead at various stages of their programs. While Hackett didn’t get a fourth season to prove he was turning it around, Helton will get yet another chance in 2021 to prove he isn’t Paul Hackett 2.0.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers summation: In comparing and contrasting Hackett and Helton, keep in mind Helton has had four winning seasons in five outings and one conference title. Paul Hackett had one winning season in three years and no conference titles. As it should be, USC coaches are not judged just on winning records but by conference and national championship titles.
Comparisons, murmurs, and whispers summation – Part 2: If it’s just about winning records, then USC should be satisfied to be among the competitive ranks of Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Utah, and ASU. If you would be more than happy to just have more wins than losses and participate in lower tier bowl opportunities, you can also throw in Colorado, Cal, Washington State, Oregon State, and occasionally Arizona. If that is now the perception or mindset of USC football, it sadly ceases to be USC football, a storied and legendary gridiron program comprised of conference and national championships. No doubt, Hackett and Helton would find themselves in agreement.
From the press box…
Portal transfer turbulence: Out of the “powder blue,” the news was a stunner when true freshman defensive tackle Jay Toia decided last week to enter the NCAA Transfer Portal, especially considering Toia was expected to perhaps start or be solidly in the 2021 mix. But I am not telling you something you don’t already know. What we all don’t know, however, is where Jay is headed, but I am sure he has an idea, and that in itself could be more stunning if he lands in Westwood. Now that Pac-12 players can transfer within the conference and can be one-time immediately eligible, this could be the tip of the iceberg for all Pac-12 teams. Unleash the Kraken!
Portal transfer turbulence – Part 2: To illustrate the interest in Toia’s potential departure by way of the NCAA Transfer Portal, the WeAreSC Garry P. Message board as of early Sunday morning had recorded 9469 views and 81 replies (comments). Folks, that’s a lot of traffic no matter how you measure it.
Throwback Saturday: When the kickoff times for the Trojans’ first three games were released, the season opener on Sept. 3 against San Jose State was announced as a 2 p.m. PT (Pac-12 Networks) kickoff. That kickoff time was nearly a throwback when college games out here used to start at 1:30 p.m. on a weekly basis. One thing for sure, better bring some sunscreen, a spray fan, and a hat to the Coli; it’s probably going to be “roasty toasty.”
Air Raid: In a Zoom interview with Fox’s college football writer RJ Young, Clay Helton said by “nature” that the 2021 Trojans offense will be slightly more pass than run, “55 to 45.” You might want to mark that down for future reference.
Air Raid – Part 2: In the same Fox interview, Clay Helton also said he appreciated Graham Harrell because he “just doesn’t force the pass. He’s got the discipline and the patience to mix in the run game, especially with the runners we have.” For the record under Graham, the 2020 Trojans were last in Pac-12 rushing (97.3 yards per game) and 10th in conference rushing in 2019 (118.2 yards per game).
Air Raid – Part 3: In the aforementioned Zoom interview, Helton said the college game has changed because of the distance between the hash marks on the field, and then went on to say you even see teams like Alabama, Clemson, and Ohio State, going to this (passing) style of play. True, but the difference in those three teams Helton mentioned is that they have maintained a physical, effective running attack and the Trojans haven’t.
Air Raid – Part 4: For the 2020 record, Alabama finished first in SEC rushing (183.46 yds/g), Ohio State finished first in Big Ten rushing (256.9 yds/g), and Clemson finished 11th in ACC rushing (153.8 yds/g). Not to beat the proverbial dead horse, but the Trojans finished last in Pac-12 in rushing (97.3 yds/g). Because of COVID-19, it should be noted not all teams played the same amount of games.
The Happiest Place on Earth: Clay Helton recently said being at USC was “the Walt Disney World” of college coaching.
The post-game show…
Mr. National Gatorade: Trojans true freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart has been named the 2020 National Gatorade Player of the Year. Earlier, Dart was named the MaxPreps National Player of the Year. Will these national awards affect the competition between Jaxson and teammate Miller Moss, both of whom will continue to compete against each other in August training camp for the No. 2 QB position behind starter Kedon Slovis?
Mr. National Gatorade – Part 2: Miller Moss is basically in the same position as Sam Darnold when Sam had to compete against Max Browne, a former Gatorade National Player of the Year. Of course, it remains to be seen if Moss can prove he’s as talented as Darnold, who probably should have been starting over Browne when the evidence presented itself during summer training camp of 2016.
Mr. National Gatorade – Part 3: Previous USC National Gatorade Player of the Year winners include offensive guard Jeff Byers (2004/ Ft. Collins, Colo./ Loveland) and quarterbacks Mitch Mustain (2005/ Springdale, Ark./ Springdale), Matt Barkley (2007/ Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei), Max Browne (2012/ Sammamish, Wash./ Skyline), and JT Daniels (2017/ Santa Ana, Calif./Mater Dei).
Mr. Gatorade – Part 4: Jeff Byers and Matt Barkley had good, productive Trojans careers, Max Browne and Mitch Mustain never lived up to their prep accolades, and JT Daniels ended up transferring to Georgia where he’s the current Bulldogs starting quarterback and is in the discussion for the 2021 Heisman Trophy. For the record, the first National Gatorade Player of the Year Award was won by quarterback Jeff George (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central HS) in 1986.
Mr. California Football: Highly anticipated incoming freshman linebacker Raesjon Davis from powerhouse Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei HS has been named Cal High Sports’ Mr. Football State Player of the Year. Because of COVID-19, football in California was played in the spring with a restricted number of games.
The honor system: In surfing the official USC football social media website, it was noticed there was justified recognition of offensive tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker as being USC’s 24th first-round offensive lineman taken in the NFL draft since 1967. Surrounding AVT in a photo were a number of other USC first-round selections from yesteryear. However, missing was the Trojans only Outland Award winner and College and Pro Football Hall of Famer Ron Yary (1967) and the only Lombardi Award recipient, Outland Award runner-up, and College Football Hall of Famer Brad Budde (1979). Both were also named to the All-Pac-12 All-Century team. Who goofed, I’ve got to know?
It’s all academic: It was recently announced that fourteen USC football players have been named to the 2020-21 Fall Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll. Players with a cumulative grade point average of 3.3 or above, and who have spent at least one year at their institution, were eligible for recognition.
It’s all academic – Part 2: USC’s Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll honorees from this past season are: QB Brad Aoki (business administration); PK Michael Brown (project management, master’s); OL Liam Douglas (communication); CB Jack Drake (accounting/business administration); DB Nick Figueroa (real estate development); P Ben Griffiths (psychology); and SN Damon Johnson (communication management, master’s).
It’s all academic – Part 3: More USC’s Pac-12 Academic Honor Roll honorees from this past season include: TB Grant Jones (social entrepreneurship, master’s); TB Quincy Jountti (applied psychology, master’s); PK Parker Lewis (real estate development); TB Vavae Malepeai (project management, master’s); OL Frank Martin ll (project management, master’s); P Michael Shahidi (business administration); and QB Kedon Slovis (communication).
The call-in show…
Caller No. 1: Greg, so many local superstar high school football players seem to be leaving to play in other parts of the country, why do you think this is happening?
Caller No. 1, first, let’s define the word “local.” There is immediate “local”, which is Southern California, and then there is state of California “local.” Assuming that the College Football Playoff expands to include an automatic berth in the playoffs, that will send a message to “local” players they don’t have to leave the area to get into the playoffs. However, some players will be looking for a “now” national contender, which means the likes of an Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, etc. When USC returns to being a national player and a true contender, that will lessen to a much greater degree.
Caller No. 2: Greggor, is there any way the Trojans can win the Pac-12 title in 2021?
Caller No. 2, it’s really not a difficult question to answer. From the coaching staff to the players to the administration, it will take sacrifices working as one to win the Pac-12 title. All Trojans need to be pulling from the same end of the rope, and this season it really gets down to flexibility on offense, as it pertains to having a running game to compliment a passing attack and an offensive line to encourage that flexibility, and be disciplined on defense by not giving up the big play and stopping the run. When all else fails, just do what you’re taught in practice.
Caller No. 3: Mr. Katz, if the Trojans do make a coaching change, how long do you think it would take to get back to being a serious player for the College Football Playoffs?
Caller No. 3, realistically, I think it would take two seasons to build up to being back as a major national contender. The Trojans already have the skill players, but it gets down to recruiting dominant offense and defensive linemen. It took John McKay two seasons to build up to his third season and a national championship in 1962, and it took Pete Carroll into his second season to really begin one of college football’s great runs.
Caller No. 4: GK, people always talk about assistant coaches from the past like Marv Goux, Dave Levy, and Ed Orgeron. Could any of this year’s assistant coaches be worthy of being on the staffs of a John McKay or a Pete Carroll?
Caller No. 4, interesting question. First, it takes a superior head coach to provide the leadership and philosophy as a foundation. I think it is still too early because of last season’s limited season to pass a judgement on this staff since so many are relatively new to Clay Helton’s program. All of which leads back to Helton. You can draw your own conclusions on Helton’s ability to provide leadership, philosophy, and discipline, but I can tell you we’ll all get a better idea about the entire coaching staff following the conclusion of the upcoming 2021 season.
Caller No. 5: Coach, if you could pick just one DVD movie to watch on your Blue-ray, what would you pick?
Caller No. 5, well, that’s a tough one because like all of us, it depends on the mood. For pure drama, meaning the human condition, I never get tired of watching Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. If it was a fantasy drama and I felt like getting emotional at the end, I guess it would be “Field of Dreams.” If it was pure science fiction, probably the first “Star Wars” movie or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
If we’re talking about romance, I think I’d go with a Tom Hanks movie like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “You’ve got mail.” If we’re talking comedy, I probably would watch the original “MASH” with Elliott Gould, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Skerritt. Not to deflect the question, it just really depends on the mood.
The last word: The Trojans announced the hiring of Amy Johnson as the new football dietitian. A graduate of LSU, is there such a thing as an SEC football diet? If so, please pass the crawfish, gumbo, and beignets.