My daughter loves theater. For the last few years, she has performed in local theater productions non-stop; as soon as one show ends, another one begins. She almost always has a small role. But a couple of months ago, she finally got her big break: a starring role for the first time. And then the pandemic arrived, ending her show and her first chance at a lead.
Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, there are people with far bigger problems: sickness, death, the loss of jobs, businesses, and financial security. And my daughter will have other chances, other roles.
But what if she didn’t? What if this was her only shot?
I’ve been thinking about this in connection with USC football for a couple of reasons. The first is the very real possibility that USC will miss a football season for the first time ever. That’s right, USC played through world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic, Paul Hackett, and many other tragedies great and small. But I doubt it will play football this year.
I’m not going to get into the wisdom of the current lockdowns. Reasonable minds can differ on the issue, and I don’t want to wade in because there are so few reasonable minds these days anyway. Every issue is immediately politicized and becomes a football in this great struggle between red and blue America, an exhausting all-or-nothing battle between two groups of people who share so much in common – including the blessing of being born in this country – and who these days can hardly be bothered to pretend that the other side is deserving of anything but contempt. It’s a little exhausting and a lot demoralizing.
No, my point is not that we should or should not continue the lockdown. My point is the cancellation of the 2020 football season, while a disappointment for fans, is substantially more than that for the players, some of whom will lose their one chance to wear the cardinal and gold, to play in front of friends and family against the Irish in the Coliseum, to audition for NFL scouts. That’s not the biggest story of the pandemic; not even close. But it’s a major issue for college football players all across the country. The loss of a dream in some cases.
But I also raise the issue for another reason. Some other dreams have been dying, and USC football needs to be very careful.
People are motivated not only by the possibility of gain, but even more so by the fear of loss. Communication professionals know this, and they sell their ideas and products by convincing customers that the failure to comply will result in terrible outcomes for them, their families, and their businesses (If you buy the competitor’s batteries, your flashlight won’t work in an emergency, and you’ll probably die. Buy Duracell if you want to live).
USC football has a problem that it needs to address. We all know that blue-chip recruits follow success; they want to win and become first-round draft choices, and they’ll go to the school that can make those dreams a reality – even if that means saying “no” to their childhood favorite. And in increasing numbers, the childhood favorite of even local blue-chip recruits will be a program other than USC, because the glory of the Pete Carroll years is becoming a faded memory for today’s high school students, many of whom may never have seen Reggie Bush or Mike Williams play for the Trojans.
Worse, recruits are no doubt coming to fear substantial loss if they choose USC. Some of you have probably already seen the chart listing four and five-star recruits signed in the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes compared to 2020 NFL Draft picks.
Every program has recruiting classes that don’t live up to the hype. I’m not sure many have classes that underperform as dramatically as USC’s 2016 class, the New Coke of recruiting classes. But this is not about a single class. This is a long-term trend.
Do you think USC’s opponents haven’t figured out the power of stats like the ones in the chart above? Do you think Swinney, Saban, Cristobal and others aren’t pointing out that USC’s blue-chippers flame out at the college level in remarkable numbers? Do you think recruits don’t already recognize that fact?
Look, we can say that USC’s blue-chip recruits are overrated and give a whole host of reasons like west coast demographics of other things to justify that. But don’t try to sell that to recruits. The major high school stars have always been neighborhood heroes for younger kids, but these days, with the ubiquity of high school football television coverage and websites, all of the kids playing Pop Warner and Junior All American know who these high school stars are. They’ve heard about them. They’ve watched them play. hey’ve grown up wanting to be like them. And when 28 blue-chip recruits go to USC and that haul results in less draft picks than Oregon State and only 28% the number of draft picks as Utah, kids are going to take notice.
USC’s administration knows this. Remember in Lynn Swann’s message explaining why he was keeping Clay Helton after the 5-7 season he mentioned specifically that Clay “recruits well [and] produces NFL players.” That statement, like so much else about Swann’s tenure, didn’t age well. USC has a problem. It’s a substance problem and an image problem. California may not produce the number of players that it used to, but it still produces some elite talent. And as long as that elite talent thinks their NFL dreams will be crushed if they commit to USC, they will continue to go elsewhere as they have over the last couple of seasons.
There is reason for optimism for this next recruiting class. There has been good news and a lot of rumblings about potential good news. Helton and staff deserve credit for picking themselves off the mat and becoming a player on the recruiting scene again. But we can’t keep having draft classes like the one last week or the one last year. It’s not fair to the players that come to USC hoping to be developed, and it’s a disaster for USC’s recruiting efforts going forward.
It seems likely that any football season this year would be played in empty stadiums. I strongly believe USC should boycott any plan to play the season in front of empty stadiums. It’s just not a level playing field. UCLA has been practicing for this eventuality for a couple of years now. Bruin fans were social distancing at games all last year, long before the rest of the country jumped on the bandwagon.
Bruins fans: Social Distancing Since 2018.
I just don’t think it’s fair to give UCLA such a significant built-in advantage. At the very least, we should insist that crowd noise equivalent to a large high school crowd be piped in over the PA system to subject UCLA to noise levels they haven’t heard before and make them uncomfortable.
Other than sports, I rarely watch television. But ever since the worldwide house arrest began, I’ve watched far more than I want or need. As a public service, I will offer some of what I’ve learned.
1967 USC-UCLA Yes, this only arguably qualifies as a TV show. But what a show. OJ v. Beban. McKay v. Prothro. Traveler v. that stupid teddy bear thing. I’ve never before seen the game in its entirety, and now you can watch it with no commercials and no huddles on YouTube. Very interesting. You can see just how dramatically the game has changed in the last 50+ years. I know this next statement will border on blasphemy around these parts … but both of those teams would have lost to 2019 San Jose State by two touchdowns. The players are obviously much bigger and faster now – faster overall, that is, maybe not faster than Simpson and Earl McCullouch. But that raises another important difference. Offenses are so much better about attacking defenses these days. That John McKay, one of the great innovators and brilliant minds in football history, couldn’t do a better job of getting the ball to OJ and McCullouch in space was bewildering. In any event, special thanks to the UCLA field goal team, which essentially gave away that game. Thank you, guys, for being Bruins when USC needed it most.
Narcos/Narcos Mexico/Ozark – I binge watched all three of these series in a three-week period. I now know everything necessary to start a Mexican drug cartel. And I must say, I’m considering it. There’s something appealing about any profession where your second-biggest problem is how to keep giant stacks of cash from rotting in the hole where you buried them because you’ve run out of all other cash-storage options. I’ve never had to think through the issue of mass cash storage, and I’d kind of like to be in a position where I have to turn my problem-solving abilities that direction. The biggest problem, of course, is avoiding death and imprisonment. But I think if you get out at the right time….
Curb Your Enthusiasm – Larry David is brilliant. If you don’t think so, you’ve either not been paying attention or there is something deeply wrong with you. I know the series has been around forever, but having just watched season ten, I’m more sure than ever of David’s genius.
Tiger King – I’m torn here. Yes, it was oddly fascinating. Yes, that woman almost certainly killed her husband. Yes, the State of Oklahoma should have sought an injunction against the airing of that documentary to avoid having that freak show be the face of Oklahoma for the entire world. Homosexual bigamy between a gay man and two straight men? I don’t know how even to process that. Having been subjected, like everybody else, to my share of rejection over the years, I’m trying to comprehend how a gay man can convince not one but two straight men to marry him. Is this guy a sorcerer? Are tigers that compelling? Was it the country music videos? The mullet? Okay, fine, I’ll admit it. Maybe it was remarkable television. But I still often felt like I was completing the series out of an obligation and not because I really wanted to. So go ahead and watch it. But you might not feel good about yourself afterwards.
Carthago delenda est.