It's not hyperbole or arrogant to call USC the envy of the college football world... ten years ago. The program reached dynastic proportions with Pete Carroll, the man who could do no wrong in the eyes of the Trojan faithful. The campus flaunted some of the biggest athletes in the city, and, by default, the country in Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush.
Legitimate celebrities, from Will Ferrell to Snoop Dogg flocked to USC to hang out on the sideline of games and practices, when students swarmed the sidelines of Howard Jones field, just to sneak a glimpse of the juggernaut composed of their peers representing their school. In a star-laden town, the early 2000s Trojans shined the brightest.
But this is all stuff that's been retread and mentioned ad nauseam. A Rose Bowl this year, a BCS title the next, a one-loss season treated as heartbreak and disappointing--it was all routine, a routine deified in the four years since the NCAA levied USC with stunning sanctions. The patriarch, Carroll, cut ties and fled north the winter before, leaving the Trojans chasing remnants of Papa Pete's reign in Lane Kiffin.
What followed was the worst four-year stretch since Paul Hackett helmed the program. Talented players still chose the school's rich football history and promises of a better tomorrow, resulting in one great year, two above average ones and a tumultuous campaign that requires a tell-all, behind-the-scenes book (but really -- Gary Klein or Arash Markazi totally have enough inside information to crank out 250 pages).
Now, another tie to the most recent golden years has his shot to resuscitate the on-the-field product, a task at least four years in the making, when the roster will be comprised of 25-man recruiting classes, not 15. The team was hamstrung and couldn't compete with the likes of Alabama or Oregon in earnest and probably won't for a while.
Once again, nothing new in all that. Did USC get jobbed? As the Todd McNair lawsuit lingers, more signs point to that being a resounding "yes." Pat Haden believes so. Most, if not all, local fans believe so. Even USC haters came around to that school of thought. So unless Mark Emmert signs your checks, it's unanimous that the sanctions were unfair. Rosters thinned, attendance dwindled. That was to be expected.
The most jarring change occurred on campus. It wasn't the team--it was the students. Having watched USC from afar in Northern California, a specific image of the fans' fervor developed. Game days seemed legendary and mandatory, partaking in the ritual of early pre gaming and a 20-minute pilgrimage to South Central's Mecca: the L.A. Coliseum, where Olympian Carl Lewis and Trojan football studs Marcus Allen, Ronnie Lott and Junior Seau all entered as unknown quantities and left as legends. But the aura and sheen of the stadium and the Trojan mystique dissipated. The saddest part was that's the way the student interest went, too.
Now, football will always be a part of the true USC experience. Hardcore fans and legacy children watched as kids, sporting cardinal-and-gold onesies and throwing up the "V" before they could walk. But the enthusiasm dampened. When I interviewed alumnus and blogger Zack Jerome two years ago about Arrogant Nation, he elucidated the phenomenon in the best way possible.
"When [USC] got sanctioned, I started seeing this whole generation of kids coming into 'SC that were getting down about the idea of USC football," Jerome said. "Which to me was insane, because our team didn't get bad, games weren't just, hypothetically, able to lead to a bowl."
It was something I failed to see realized until the 2013 campaign when many friends decided against purchasing student tickets, some citing the reason because of how rough 2012 was, ultimately delivering an empty promise. In hearing Haden speak a few times, each occasion, without fail, he mentioned the decreased amount of purchased student tickets. I'm curious as to how the first non-sanctioned season since 2009 will affect those figures.
As with the team itself, a new student generation will need to take hold and rediscover football sans restrictions. Akin to the roster composition, palpable change won't stick until this upcoming freshman class becomes seniors, when a full cycle of students only knowing football life without sanctions rule the school. Fraternities and sororities will always attend football games. That's neither new nor the desired demographic.
The days of Bush, LenDale, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews and dozens others oozed crossover appeal; it's no surprise the latter two are two of the NFL's most marketable athletes (if only for their respective locks). Students espoused the team despite not knowing more than five players' names, overtime rules or whether a call was right or bullshit (often, it was correct, but people would react like Tim Donaghy and Glasses Ref vindictively collaborated in fixing games).
In the age of compliance, it's hard to imagine various Hollywood types returning to sidelines and practices given all the nerves about any possible violation. But that shouldn't matter for the allure of USC or its tradition.
What really give the team life is the four-to-five sections in the Coliseum's northeast corner. The only environment that rivals sitting with The American Outlaws, a U.S. soccer supporters' group, is the student section against a premier opponent. Though the 2011 Stanford loss broke the hearts of many, my best friend and I left in awe of that cool October night under the lights, grateful we just witnessed one of the season's best college football games.
Beyond making bowl games and having 85 players again, what I long for is the electricity around the program. Too often last season there was a dread and pessimism concerning the team. If all goes according to Haden and Steve Sarkisian's master plan, more games will be won -- assuming that would never be a reality again is naive. Elite programs have rough patches, but they ultimately rebound after reaching the nadir.
After sustained wins, the students will return. Sadly, the co-ed fan base is that fickle. Give it time, and the team and crowd will be straight outta 2005. Maybe not by opening day 2014. But it will.