Saturday, January 9, 2010

USC, meet crossroads

It's all but official: Pete Carroll is the coach of the Seattle Seahawks (I never thought I'd be typing those words).
Pete Carroll did not officially inform USC he was leaving as of Friday afternoon, but sources within the university said he accepted a job with the Seattle Seahawks and only needed to agree to final contract details.
Once the financial terms are agreed upon and a minority candidate is given a token interview, an announcement will be made and USC will be without one of the most successful head coaches in the history of the sport.

His timing seems a little suspicious -- the NCAA is in the midst of the Joe McKnight investigation and is supposedly wrapping up the Reggie Bush probe -- but we'll probably never know his true reasons for leaving. Maybe he feared the allegations ... or maybe he simply grew tired of them. Maybe he was bored with dominating the Pac-10 and wanted to prove to all his critics that he can be successful in the NFL, that he doesn't need five-star talent to win, that his rah-rah style isn't prohibitive to winning in professional football. Maybe he just couldn't pass up a chance to stay on the West Coast and make $7 million a year. It doesn't really matter; the important thing is that he's now in the NFL, which means there's now a gaping hole at USC.

It feels like hyperbole to spell out all of Carroll's accomplishments, but I'll do it anyway. He took over a USC program that had been steadily in decline for about a decade and had gone 19-18 in three years under Paul Hackett. After going 6-6 in his first year (2001) and losing in the Las Vegas Bowl ... well, you know the rest:

2002: 11-2 (won Pac-10, won Orange Bowl)
2003: 12-1 (won Pac-10, won Rose Bowl)
2004: 13-0 (won Pac-10, won Orange Bowl)
2005: 12-1 (won Pac-10, lost Rose Bowl)
2006: 11-2 (won Pac-10, won Rose Bowl)
2007: 11-2 (won Pac-10, won Rose Bowl)
2008: 12-1 (won Pac-10, won Rose Bowl)
2009: 9-4 (won Emerald Bowl)

Carroll was 9-8 after 17 games; in his final 100 games, he was 89-11. He led USC to seven straight 11-win seasons, seven straight top-four finishes in the AP poll, seven Pac-10 titles, six BCS games and two national titles in nine years, and he was one spectacular Vince Young play away from another one. He coached three Heisman winners, had 14 players drafted in the first round and had seven straight top-10 recruiting classes (included three ranked No. 1 by Rivals). Am I forgetting anything? I think that pretty well covers it.

The only negative from his time at USC is that there will continue to be a cloud over the program until the NCAA finally does whatever it's going to do. I brought up the issue just a few weeks ago and said this:
... when we're talking about a pattern of several similar incidents with players living well above their means, it makes it a lot harder to believe that those incidents are just a string of random events that evaded detection. Did Pete Carroll know? Your guess is as good as mine. But it seems increasingly likely that he just ignored everything going on around him because he didn't WANT to know.
The insane talent USC managed to accumulate always raised eyebrows, and the various allegations of improper benefits didn't exactly help. To a lot of people, Carroll's USC had become the modern-day version of Jimmy Johnson's Miami. But I will say this: With Bush, McKnight and Carroll (and probably most/all of his staff) out of the picture, it'd be pointless to punish USC for their actions. That's called closing the barn door after the horse has left. If Bush is found to have been ineligible and some wins are vacated, that's fine; just don't impose scholarship or recruiting restrictions on the new coach, who will have had no involvement in any improprieties.

Speaking of the new coach, the guy who seems to be at the top of the list (at least according to the Los Angeles Daily News) is Oregon State coach Mike Riley, a former USC assistant who the school actually pursued before hiring Carroll in 2001. Riley doesn't jump off the page as an elite candidate, but keep in mind that he's coaching in a black hole called Corvallis with no recruiting pull. Before his arrival in 1998, Oregon State hadn't won more than five games in a season since 1971 (!!!). In the past seven years, they've won an average of eight games a season, they've gone 5-1 in bowls and they've beaten USC twice. Riley's a very good coach.

Other names mentioned include Jack del Rio (current coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars), Jeff Fisher (current coach of the Tennessee Titans) and Jim Harbaugh, and I still believe that if Riley isn't interested, a call will go out to Steve Sarkisian and possibly Lane Kiffin. Harbaugh's candidacy will probably be short-lived -- he hasn't exactly been diplomatic with USC since taking over at Stanford -- but everyone else on that list either played or coached at Southern Cal.

The depressing thing for USC is that no matter who's hired, there will be an inevitable drop-off. The recruiting classes have still been good the past few years, but they haven't been dominant like they were in the mid-2000s, and the new coach will be in a tough spot trying to reel in this year's high-end recruits with just a few weeks left before signing day. He'll also have to assemble a staff, and I'll eat my hat (I'm not actually wearing a hat) if the new group of coaches compares to the assistants Carroll lost during his tenure: Norm Chow, DeWayne Walker, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin and Nick Holt, among others. When you factor in Oregon's rise in the Pac-10 and Notre Dame's probable return to prominence under Brian Kelly, it seems unlikely that we'll be seeing any seven-year stretches like the one Carroll just completed in the foreseeable future.

That doesn't mean USC can't still be an elite program that consistently competes for national titles -- it really should be -- but that'll all depend on Carroll's replacement. Mike Garrett just needs to make sure he finds someone a lot closer to Pete Carroll than Paul Hackett.

About 24 hours ago, I ended my national championship game wrap-up with this comment:
In two years at Alabama, Saban has brought in a ridiculous 40 four- or five-star recruits, which is 10 more than either USC or Florida has signed in that time. The wave of talent has no end in sight. With the uncertainty of the Urban Meyer situation at Florida and the allegations swirling at USC, 'Bama might have just taken the torch as college football's next dynasty.
Consider the torch passed.

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