ESPN The Magazine
Last season, the USC three put up huge numbers. Now, with the Trojans freed from a bowl ban, they're concerned only with No. 1.
ON JULY 24 IN LOS ANGELES, Lane Kiffin was suffering through the Pac-12’s preseason media conference, but his mind was elsewhere. The day before, the NCAA had penalized Penn State so severely that everyone in college football winced—except Kiffin. The USC head coach knew what it felt like to get pinched by the NCAA. The Trojans had just completed a debilitating two-year postseason ban, and they face two additional years of scholarship reductions. But Kiffin’s empathy for Penn State went only so far—and he knew an opportunity when he saw one.
Kiffin had already called Danny Gouin, the varsity football coach at King Low Heywood Thomas in Stamford, Conn., where Silas Redd had played prep ball. Kiffin asked Gouin if Redd, who had rushed for 1,241 yards as Penn State’s starting tailback last fall, would be interested in improving his prospects at USC, which has produced more NFL draft picks than any other school.
So following the Tuesday media conference, Kiffin’s second call was to Ted Jones, who owns one of the world’s largest Mercedes-Benz dealerships, Fletcher Jones Motorcars in Newport Beach, Calif. A USC booster, Jones had once told Kiffin he would do anything to help the football program regain its elite status; Kiffin informed Jones the time had come. So Jones phoned his pilot in Las Vegas, dispatching his Gulfstream jet to LA, where Kiffin was only too happy to cut short the interviews in which reporters all asked the same questions. He boarded Jones’ plane the next day, as did Monte Kiffin, Lane’s father and USC’s assistant head coach; Kennedy Polamalu, the Trojans’ offensive coordinator and running backs coach; and James Cregg, who coaches the offensive line.
The group swelled when recruiting coordinator Ed Orgeron caught a flight to New York from Louisiana and secondary coach Marvin Sanders did likewise from Nebraska, interrupting their vacations. Kiffin even looked into hiring a helicopter to evacuate Tee Martin, USC’s receivers coach and the former Tennessee quarterback, from a Caribbean cruise ship, but the operation proved too complicated. “We wanted to make sure Silas understood how important this was to us,” Kiffin says. “And we wanted to get there before anybody else. And before Penn State.”
Jones’ jet landed at the small commuter airport in White Plains, N.Y., 25 miles north of Manhattan, late on July 25. The next day, the six coaches drove across the state line into Connecticut and met at a local Dunkin’ Donuts, where they talked strategy. Kiffin didn’t order anything. “Right before a big game, you can’t eat,” he says. Kiffin and his assistants were scheduled to meet Redd and his parents at Coach Gouin’s home, avoiding the family’s house and the media attention that would expose this cloak-and-dagger recruitment.
USC currently has the top-ranked 2013 recruiting class (despite the reduced scholarships), a tribute to Kiffin’s persuasiveness. Over three and a half hours in Gouin’s living room, he employed his effective charm, selling USC’s tradition and its potential for Redd’s two remaining seasons of eligibility. Later that day, while the USC coaching staff returned to LA on Jones’ jet, Redd’s father left Kiffin a voice mail: Silas wants to visit. Kiffin picked up Redd at LAX that Saturday, and the running back spent two days on USC’s downtown LA campus, watching the Trojans practice and asking what role he would have in an offense that already boasts every component, trying to figure out if leaving sinking Penn State for rising USC was the decision he wanted to make. Just to be sure, Redd spent a night at the apartment of quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, sleeping on the L-shaped couch in their living room. And when he woke up in Connecticut on July 31, he realized he wanted to be a Trojan.
The entire operation took nine days, and it illustrates how USC—a preseason favorite to win the BCS title—is determined to solve an identity crisis that has plagued the program since Pete Carroll left for the NFL and the university forfeited its copy of Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy in 2010.
AT AGE 37, KIFFIN is the youngest head coach in the BCS. Wearing gym shorts and a USC T-shirt in his office at Heritage Hall (the school’s football administration offices have since moved to the new John McKay Center), he looks like an undergrad. Kiffin’s office is cramped, with numerous pictures of the LA Coliseum hanging on its walls. The 2005 Orange Bowl trophy, from the BCS championship that USC won with the help of Matt Leinart and Bush, sits on a cabinet, a relic of happier times.
USC was the best team in college football for most of the last decade, winning 34 straight games, going undefeated at home for five seasons and winning two national titles. Leinart, Bush and Carson Palmer won Heisman Trophies. Deprived of an NFL club, LA rallied around the Trojans and their star power, as the city does around the Lakers and the Dodgers, regularly filling the Coliseum to its capacity of 93,000. “Nobody may ever do that again,” Kiffin says, referring to the winning streak in the days before parity leveled the college football landscape. “And then it probably went the lowest it’s ever been.”
He is, of course, referring to when the NCAA discovered that Bush, the school’s best player, had received improper benefits from agents. It cut 30 scholarships from the program over three years and banned the Trojans from postseason play for two. USC crumbled, losing five games in 2010—the most since 2001. The team played in front of a Coliseum only two-thirds full on Saturdays and became an afterthought as SEC teams racked up six consecutive BCS titles. “If you were to take a picture of the Coliseum, or the university,” Kiffin says, “there would just be all these dark clouds around.”
The clouds remained last fall as USC struggled to beat a weak Minnesota team, then lost badly to Arizona. Midway through the season, however, the sky began to clear. USC crushed Notre Dame. It edged fourth-ranked Oregon on the road. It closed out the year with a 50-0 win over UCLA—at a sold-out Coliseum—finishing 10–2 with a No. 6 AP ranking. The team that was banned from postseason play had become a curious surprise, and it was worth imagining what might have happened had USC been bowl eligible.
When Barkley, a sure top-five NFL pick, turned down the draft this year, he gave USC—with dynamic wide receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee—the nation’s most explosive offense, one that averaged 456.8 yards per game last season. In just two years, while no one was watching, USC has gone from dead in the water to The Mag’s preseason No. 1. And now that Barkley & Co. are eligible for postseason play, they have one eye on the Pac-12 title and the other on Alabama, LSU and the SEC’s seemingly endless party.
Those dark clouds? “They’re almost all gone,” Kiffin says. “Winning solves a lot of problems. But not a distant second, I think, is style. We want to play great defense, and we did here before, but it wasn’t our defense that has Snoop on the sidelines. It wasn’t the defense that was heading SportsCenter. It was the Heisman Trophies. It was the offense. Offense is what fills the stadium. That’s what LA is: Win, and win with style. And they’ll come.”
Kiffin looks over his shoulder at the Orange Bowl trophy. He ran the passing game for that team, under Carroll—a hard act to follow. “It was special before,” Kiffin says. “We have more against us now. If we can do it again, it will be more special. The tools are there for a great run. You’re going to remember it.”
THERE IS JUST ONE PROBLEM with Kiffin’s plan to rekindle the excitement by bringing flash back to the Coliseum: There is nothing on Matt Barkley’s walls. When he opens the door to his apartment, a first-floor bungalow just off campus, the strong-armed quarterback looks smaller than his listed 6’2″, 230 pounds. Maybe it’s his unassuming manner or his Newport Beach upbringing that make him appear less imposing in person than he is on the field. But on his apartment walls, there is not a poster, nor a picture nor a strip of color that might project the personality of a matinee idol.
He dates his high school girlfriend. A sincere young man who has built homes for the disadvantaged in the Third World, Barkley informed his coach he would be returning for his senior season by writing the information on the back of a Christmas ornament. He is a solid, kind soul—hardly Hollywood. Is he boring? “I would say consistent,” he says. But even Barkley’s eyes sparkle at the thought of reviving the energy of the Bush-Leinart years. He got a taste of it over the second half of last season. “We were just rocking,” he says. “That mojo and swagger that used to be at USC, you started to feel that amongst the guys. We started playing well, and guys fed off of that. Especially at the UCLA game. The Coliseum was packed to the brim and we were kind of like, Okay, all right. We’re back.”
Barkley threw for 39 touchdowns last year, setting a Pac-12 record (without appearances in the conference title game or a bowl), and compiled 3,528 passing yards at a 69.1% rate of completion. In the pocket is where Barkley becomes exciting. The flashy game plan calls for him to find college football’s best receiver tandem, Woods and Lee, far downfield. Barkley also has a 1,000-yard rusher, Curtis McNeal, returning in the backfield. And now Redd joins him. Plus four-fifths of an offensive line that allowed the fewest number of sacks in college football last year is coming back to protect Barkley. “This year is set up like a movie,” he says. “Just a storybook ending.” With a favorable nonconference schedule of Hawaii, Syracuse and Notre Dame, USC is well positioned to write the story Barkley imagines.
“We can be one of the greatest SC teams,” says Woods, the junior wideout. “We can really be unstoppable.” Last year, Woods’ 111 catches broke the Pac-12 single-season record and earned him AP first-team All-America honors. After surgery in December to clean scar tissue from his right ankle, Woods missed spring ball, but he claims he’s completely recovered and ready to contribute to USC’s big-play offense. “It’s the West Coast,” he says. “We play fast and air the ball out.”
Woods’ nagging ankle injury allowed Lee, a true freshman last year and Woods’ former classmate at Junípero Serra High School in Gardena, Calif., to assert himself in the season’s second half. Lee finished with 1,143 yards and 11 touchdowns, raising the idea that he may be the better of the two receivers. For now, though, Woods and Lee plan to measure themselves against others and not themselves. “We can be better than anybody else out there,” Lee says.
OUTSIDE HERITAGE HALL,where USC’s six remaining Heisman Trophies reside in gaudy reference to the program’s history, T.J. McDonald sits at a stone table. Like Barkley, McDonald declined an early-round position in the NFL draft to return for his senior year. Unlike Barkley, he has a feel for the spotlight and a mean streak that he employs to unsubtle effect in the secondaries of the Pac-12. “If anybody gets in our way this year, I feel sorry for them,” he says.
McDonald has particular feelings for the SEC’s recent dominance. “They won the last two because we couldn’t play,” he says. “They gotta play us now. We’re SC for a reason.” (Even the mild-mannered Barkley weighed in on the topic, tweeting “Rather boring….,” during January’s Alabama-LSU BCS championship game. “I just wrote what everyone else was thinking,” he says now.)
McDonald’s father, Tim, was an All-America safety at USC and an All-Pro with the Cardinals. So when McDonald talks about USC and the program’s recent struggles, his emotions are evident, as though it’s a family matter. “People don’t know how hungry we are,” he says. “We watched everything stripped away from us, and there was nothing we could do about it. But now you can’t hold us back. We’re talking about finishing the story the way it’s supposed to finish. We’re supposed to be that team that comes out of the dark ages and brings SC back.”
The players on this USC team are now eligible to do so. And if they ever lack for inspiration, if they forget what it’s like to be on the downslope, banned, deprived, all they’ll need to do is look to the offensive backfield. There will be a Nittany Lion refugee in cardinal and gold, ball in hand, running hard to make people forget.