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IMHO Sunday: Maxed out

In my humble opinion, cardinal and gold thoughts on what I see, what I hear, and what I think.

The criteria: Before the University of Southern California selects its 12th president in school history – replacing the controversial C.L. “Max” Nikias (photo above with Clay Helton) – those in charge of making the critical presidential decision might want to strongly consider a leader that has a prior knowledge and real understanding regarding importance of USC football and athletics, especially in its relationships to the University and the SoCal community in general. If you admit well-rounded, incoming freshmen and transfer students, you should also want a well-rounded new president, one who loves athletics working in concert along with the ultra-importance of academia and fundraising.

To the Max: No question that departing of former USC president Max Nikias presents a chance at a new beginning. To his credit, it may be a long time before somebody like Nikias, a human cash cow, brings in gazillions of dollars.  However, from a football standpoint, here’s hoping that the next president already loves the game, comprehends the sport, grasps the importance of its role in university life, and – needless to say – respects storied USC gridiron tradition. And did we mention returning to a credible process when time comes to hiring the next USC head football coach? The new president cannot just be a fundraising dynamo and academic wizard, but somebody that will also have a credible process into filling positions like athletic director when that critical leadership role has its next opening.

Speaking of roles: With his departure from Troy, it’s assumed Max Nikias will give up his role as chair of the Pac-12 CEO Group, which includes all university presidents and chancellors from around the conference. The group governs the Pac-12. Additionally, Nikias was also chair of the College Football Playoff Board of Managers, giving the Trojans’ interests a high-profile voice at both the conference and national levels. Hopefully, the new USC president will also take an active role in both these important sports entities.

IMHO: While high GPA and SAT scores are important for the USC image and prestige, the longtime perspective here is that too many qualified “students from USC legacy families” have been rejected for admission. Those legacy family members, which can go back for decades or even generations, have been superseded by a number of students with high GPAs that would qualify them as academic “study-a-bots” with little passion for anything else besides studying and video games. USC’s lifeblood is its unmatched school spirit, and there has been a longtime fear from passionate alumni that the “new wave” of students lack fervor of what it means to be a Trojan. Having grown up in a USC family per say – and, yes, some UCLA clan as well – I know full well what it means to be a Trojan. BTW, just ask Dr. Arthur C. Bartner, USC’s legendary band director, what it means to be a Trojan.

IMHO – Part 2: Anybody that thinks that USC would be USC without a powerful football team is living in La La Land. It’s the football program that ties it all together in campus life in the fall, and hopefully the new president will see that just winning the Pac-12 and going to a Rose Bowl while a priority will also be committed to the ultimate mission, which is to routinely compete for a national championship.

The Nikias legacy:
Max Nikias, who had his own group of loyal followers, came to USC in 2010, which coincides with the selection of Lane Kiffin as head football coach. After Kiffin’s unceremonious late-night firing on the tarmac of LAX that should have come in 2012, next came the embarrassing episode with the hiring of Steve Sarkisian, which turned into a national nightmare and deserved ridicule. To replace Sarkisian, Clay Helton was selected the new football coach in spite of very loud and open complaints regarding the hiring process, which was – to be kind – highly questionable.

The Nikias legacy – Part 2: However, Max Nikias’s athletic legacy may actually be tied to the ongoing Coliseum renovation project, which had the earlier blessing of the outgoing president. The Coliseum project, marked by anger and angst from both those inside and outside the University, may be the most lasting Nikias athletic memory. The remembrance of Kiffin and Sarkisian and even the controversy of former athletic director Pat Haden will fade over time, but the Max Nikias renovated Coliseum will leave an impression for decades to come.

The aftermath: It’s known that Max Nikias was a strong supporter of Clay Helton and even Helton would refer to his former president as “Coach Nikias” during media gatherings. However, as if Helton doesn’t have enough on his plate by already working for an athletic director that didn’t hire him, at some point he’ll eventually perform his duties for a new USC president that didn’t give him his original hiring blessing. FYI, there has been no timeline announced for the Nikias replacement. And who knows how AD Lynn Swann will now go about his business without the Nikias factor over his shoulder.     

From the press box…

Why: That’s the question many informed media and fans are asking in regard to the recent announcement that the Trojans will again open a season (2020) with Alabama down in Arlington, Texas. It wasn’t all that long ago that Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide totally embarrassed an unprepared and awestruck Trojan team, 52-6, in Clay Helton’s debut as the USC head football coach. If Saban remain the Alabama coach in 2020, the Crimson Tide will be as strong as ever but will the Trojans? Will Clay Helton even be the head coach when the two storied powers collide? IMHO, why put the Trojans’ program on national display against a proven power, and, yes, I know that JT Daniels will likely be the Trojans’ starting quarterback. Play the Tide at the end of the season in the CFP rather than at the beginning, which would mean the Trojans would be a proven team with momentum and a legit national title opportunity.

IMHO: Maybe it’s not really about playing Alabama but the payday of playing at a neutral site. If reports are correct, the Crimson Tide will make a couple of million more than the Trojans, which speaks volumes of the current perception of both programs. In essence, Alabama is the reigning champion and the Trojans a patsy challenger. Unlike a heavyweight bout, there is no knockdown rule or technical KO. It’s 60 minutes to the end. Is a payday worth it for the Trojans? In many eras – like during the Carroll era – the answer is yes, but it’s debatable given the current national level of USC football. Winning the Pac-12 is a start, but the Cotton Bowl proved the Trojans still have a way to go to return to the level of play that reach the storied programs’ justified expectations.

Why – Part 2: Over the many decades, the Men of Troy have rarely dodged playing an elite program anytime, anyplace, and anywhere, and the nation knows it. The Trojans have traveled deep into SEC country and have played the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, and other southern destinations like South Carolina and Florida State. The Trojans have even traveled to Ohio State and Penn State and there is the annual bash with the Irish. When the Trojans’ football program is healthy and strong enough to play these heavyweights, by all means bring it on. The Trojans have more than proven they can come away with a victory.

IMHO: I know this: Another humiliating defeat to the Tide will take a long time to get over with and if it comes with Clay Helton as the head coach, it will be evidence that the coach’s program hasn’t progressed to elite status in four seasons, which would be problematic.

IMHO – Part 2: In the Clay Helton era, the Trojans have played two of college football’s annual powerhouse programs (Alabama and Ohio State), and the Trojans have been both times decisively defeated. They say that discretion is the better part of valor, but the truth is that the Trojans and not many others are capable of beating the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban. Until the Trojans can come close to recruiting the type of physical offensive and defensive lineman that dot the Alabama roster, the 2020 game against the Tide to open the season doesn’t make sense.

The post-game show…

No fair McNair: Boy, that was a real punch to the cardinal and gold gut when a Los Angeles jury decided against former Trojans Todd McNair’s civil lawsuit against the NCAA. While the type of jury and the questions the jury was allowed to pass judgment ended up dooming McNair’s case, one wonders with all the resources and money the NCAA brings to the legal table is it worth it? Let’s face it, the message of the McNair outcome is the NCAA rarely loses in court and can go the distance in the judicial system to get the outcome it wants. And don’t forget the irony that the NCAA is primarily funded by its member university institutions, and as all Trojans have seen can fill sanction committees with those with anti-USC agendas. Oh, and did we mentioned that the NCAA plays by its own rules and isn’t averse to bending or stretching those rules along with the truth?

The exception: Maybe we’re all missing the point in the McNair legal defeat. Many Trojan fans were relying on the McNair case to rip the heart out of the NCAA. The reality is this was simply a case of a former coach suing the NCAA for false imprisonment of his profession. The reality was this wasn’t really USC versus the NCAA. The McNair case may have again reconfirmed and exposed the disgusting way the NCAA does business and will continue to do business in the future, but you won’t see many individuals come away with a legal victory unless your name is Jerry Tarkanian, the late UNLV and Hall of Fame basketball coach, who drew monetary victory over the NCAA after a long and protracted court battle.

The exception – Part 2: After being fired from the San Antonio Spurs and wanting to return to college coaching, Jerry Tarkanian sued the NCAA, claiming it had harassed him for over 20 years. The harassment, according to Tark the Shark, began when he wrote a newspaper column claiming that the NCAA was more willing to punish less-prominent schools than big-name schools. Although the NCAA never admitted harassing Tark, it settled out of court in 1998, paying him $2.5 million. What does that tell you?

The exception – Part 3: In one of his most famous quotes, Jerry Tarkanian once said, “The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, they’re going to give Cleveland State another year of probation.”

Record setting: According to the National Football Foundation, the 2018 College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship between Georgia and Alabama on ESPN delivered the second biggest audience in cable television history, solidifying the College Football Playoff’s place in history as a ratings juggernaut with the four biggest TV audiences in cable history and seven of the top 10. This past season’s game (Alabama/Georgia) produced a total live audience of 29,932,000 viewers. Imagine those Southern California ratings if the Trojans were to get to the title game.

Record setting – Part 2: The inaugural CFP game on ESPN in 2015 between Ohio State and Oregon remains No. 1 with 33,395,000 viewers. Like previously said, imagine those rating if the Trojans get to the title game.

The last word: And now the weekly update on the Coliseum renovation: https://app.oxblue.com/open/usc/lacoliseumrenovation


Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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