by Garry Paskwietz
On Tuesday afternoon, legendary Trojan fullback Sam Cunningham will speak to the current USC team about his experiences in 1970 when the Trojans traveled to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Chances are the players will have heard of Cunningham, and they will know something about the fact that his performance that day had a dramatic impact on racial integration in the south, but it’s going to have a completely different impact when they hear the story from the man himself. And what better speaker could the Trojans have before they get ready for game week preparations for an Alabama game of their own?
Count the Cunningham appearance as yet another example of a good decision by USC head coach Clay Helton. It sounds so simple to have Sam Bam talk about his 12 carries for 135 yards and 2 TD’s, and how his role in helping USC beat the Tide 42-21 led to Alabama and other SEC schools opening up their rosters in terms of integration. That’s living history. But it’s not the type of decision that always get made.
As the Trojans prepare for the opening match-up against the defending national champions, we may not know yet about how Helton will coach now that he has full control of the team, but we do know about the decisions he has made during his first off-season as a coach. And you just aren’t going to find many coaches who have had a more successful off-season.
Among the decisions Helton was faced with was a competitive battle at the quarterback spot, he had open communication during the process, he stuck to his time frame and the final decision was made and handled well by all involved. He eliminated music blaring throughout practices because he wanted his players to hear what the coaches were saying. He attended classes with his incoming freshmen to show that he genuinely cared about the “student” part of student-athlete. And he moved practices back to the afternoon, and opened them up to the public in spring and fall camps.
All of these decisions are good and they show a pattern of a coach who will follow through on his intentions. Trojan fans certainly hope that will be the case when it comes to Helton’s stated goal of returning the physicality to USC football but there’s just no way to judge that until you see how his teams play in an actual game, in this case a classic battle of college football bluebloods with the Tide this weekend.
It’s hard to imagine a much harder opening to a first-year for a USC coach. In recent years we saw Lane Kiffin open on the road against Hawaii, while Steve Sarkisian had the Fresno State Bulldogs come to town at the Coliseum. Even Pete Carroll opened with San Jose State. You have to go back 40 years to John Robinson in 1976 against #8-ranked Missouri to find anything close to playing a program that has won four of the last six national titles.
And let’s be clear, Missouri is not Alabama. Certainly not Alabama under Nick Saban. USC fans can recognize the level of dominance the Tide are at right now because the Trojans were at the level during the height of the Pete Carroll era. While the recent sanction impacted years have seen a dip from that level, it really wasn’t that long ago that USC fans would forget what it was like to legitimately be in the mix for the national title year after year. It’s an impressive place to be and it’s one the Trojans hope to return to very soon.
The good news when it comes to this game is that Trojans are one of the teams that will come closest to matching Alabama when it comes to pure athleticism on the field. I’m sure the scouts would give the overall talent edge to the Tide but there are plenty of athletes on the Trojan side who match up well, and will even win their share of battles.
The biggest unknown for the Trojans comes on the coaching side. Because no matter how well the off-season has gone for Helton, it is a whole different opponent standing on the other side in Saban. Like him or not, you have to tip your hat to the run Saban is currently on and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Helton, on the other hand, is coaching the first game with his chosen staff, and with a team fully under his charge. The sample size of his tenure as a head coach, primarily as an interim coach and two games in the full-time role at the end of last season, doesn’t allow for the full story to be told now that he has the opportunity to put his complete thumbprint on the program.
And so starting Saturday, instead of being judged on guest speakers and off-season banquet appearances, Helton will be judged on in-game adjustments, strategies and overall game management. Trojan fans can’t wait to find out what’s in store.