Take note, Lincoln Riley: How Pete Carroll made USC magic again
7: 30 AM ET
Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer
- Covers the SEC.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of Auburn University.
Matt Leinart is no longer the baby-faced quarterback leading USC to national championships.
During a phone interview this summer, the 39-year-old who now works as a college football analyst for Fox was driving between appointments while trying to keep his kids quiet in the car. He could have said it wasn’t a good time, but he didn’t want to put this off.
“Buddy,” he told his son in the backseat, “hold on.”
Leinart would multitask if it meant reliving the glory days of USC, which for too long have felt like a distant memory. In fact, he wondered if he had enough time to cover everything: Pete Carroll’s arrival late in 2000 and the unique ways he won over players and changed their mentality, the stars such as Reggie Bush he brought into the program, and the steady climb in confidence and wins — followed closely by championships and ticket requests from celebrities.
ESPN reached out to a number of former players, coaches and staff from Carroll’s USC teams to better understand what took place and how it might provide a roadmap for new coach Lincoln Riley. Leinart was the first of many calls, and as fate would have it, he said he was recently speaking to a friend about this exact topic.
On the face of it, Leinart explained, the two coaches are not alike. Carroll is a big personality who loves the mental side of sports, while Riley is more reserved, content to revel in X’s and O’s. But what they inherited is the same: a sleeping giant. When Carroll took the USC job, the Trojans had missed a bowl game in four out of five seasons. For Riley, it’s three out of four.
“It was eerily similar to when Pete took over,” Leinart said. “Because the mindset was like, ‘Oh, there’s good players, good talent. But, man, like, these kids don’t know how to win. They weren’t developed or they weren’t coached the right way or whatever it may be.'”
Leinart covered Riley at Oklahoma and has visited him since he got to USC. And he said he’s seen a shared mentality with Carroll just beneath the surface — that same drive, that same way of teaching, that same way of demanding the best out of players.
“You see the players respond,” Leinart said.”And [Riley’s] only been there for a handful of months, but you could feel it. Now, he’s got a lot of work to do, and you have to change the culture and you got to get players, but the first step is really changing the mindset there.”
And in that respect, Riley might have it easier than Carroll, who didn’t arrive with nearly the same fanfare or high expectations.
Riley was wanted. Carroll was not.
It’s hard to imagine a time when Carroll wouldn’t have been welcome in Los Angeles, but that was the case when USC hired him to replace Paul Hackett in December 2000. Carroll had taken a year off from football following three years coaching the New England Patriots. Rocky Seto, a graduate assistant, said Carroll was something like USC’s fifth choice for head coach. There was Dennis Erickson, Mike Bellotti, Mike Riley and … who can remember that far back? What Seto can recall clearly is how alumni voiced their frustration.
Seto: They broke all the fax machines. So many people were complaining like, “Who is this guy? We’re pulling our support.”
Mark Jackson, director of football operations: There was an undercurrent of a lot of people that weren’t happy. So there was that feeling like we were overcoming something. But immediately, as you might expect with Pete, he had his energy, his approach, his enthusiasm, his competitiveness. He had a plan. That was one thing he did in the year off; if he was going to get another head-coaching job, he was going to have a plan.
Yogi Roth, assistant quarterbacks coach who later wrote a book with Carroll: Being out for a year, he opened John Wooden’s book and realized it took him 15 years at UCLA to win his first championship — and once he did, he rarely lost. Pete said he slammed the book shut, stunned. He said, “Oh my God, once I figure it out, look out.” He said, “I’ve just kind of been operating as a coach climbing the ladder of success. I’ve never really crystallized my coaching philosophy.”
Seto: One of my jobs was to pick him up at the airport hotel. So I jumped in a Ford Explorer and went to the Marriott. I remember Coach Carroll said, “Bring it on. I know the challenges, I know the expectations.” He came out very excited and sure of what he needed to get done.
Carroll at his introductory news conference: I have been an unpopular choice in many places. It is a challenge. I would say that to [athletic director Mike Garrett] and [president Steven Sample]; that I’m going to prove them right. … Give me all of the problems, give me all of the pressure and that’s where I would like to succeed.
Carson Palmer, quarterback: Pete Carroll wasn’t the Pete Carroll everybody knows now. We thought he coached somewhere back on the East Coast. So it’s not like he had a ton of clout where he can come in and flip it on its head and everybody’s like, “Pete says do it, let’s do it.” There was a lot of, “Whoa, what are we doing now?”
Seto: The vibe he brought was very different.
Tim Davis, offensive line coach: That new-age stuff. That’s what he had.
Picture Ted Lasso: the overwhelmingly optimistic coach. Except this is two decades ago, and no one knows what to make of so much positivity.
Palmer: He ruffled some feathers, for sure. There were definitely some guys that were used to the old-school football mentality — the John Robinson guys, the Paul Hackett guys. That’s how we grew up — hard-nosed, tough football, and Pete wasn’t about that. I mean, we worked hard, we practiced hard, but his whole thing was the mental side of it. And guys either buy into that or you don’t.
Seto: In the morning [of the first workout], there were mat drills and running in the field. And Coach Carroll told the players, “I’ll see you at the Coliseum.” Maybe like 10 o’clock at night. We thought, “What’s going on?”
Roth: He didn’t even know what he was going to do. He was racking his brain, and across the street from Heritage Hall was the firehouse. He walked over and said, “Hey, can I get a rope?” So he went to the Coliseum and was by himself and not sure guys are going to come. And all of a sudden he starts hearing the cling of cleats. He brought them all to the 50-yard line. He said, “Carson, give me your best 11. Troy [Polamalu], give your best 11.'” And he had them play tug-of-war. They went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At the end, he said, “What did we learn here?” Nobody really answered. He said, “We learned that if we’re pulling in the opposite direction, there’s no way we’re going to have success.” He said, “Everybody get back-to-back at the 50.” And he said, “No matter who comes over the walls of the Coliseum — UCLA, Notre Dame, Cal, whatever — if we stay this tight, nothing and no one will be able to stop us.”
Seto: It was very emblematic of what would take place. It would be hard, but at the same time it was trust.
Roth: If you’ve ever met at the Coliseum at night, you know the magic there, especially with the dimly lit lights in the evening. There’s a beautiful sense of wonderment. And he said, “Not now or tomorrow or the next day. But if you’re truly in to go for this thing, I want you to come into my office, drop me a little note, say ‘I’m in.'” The next day, in the morning, a couple came by. A couple more came by. Eventually, the whole team came by and said, “I’m in.”
Jackson: There were definitely skeptics and some culture issues that we had to overcome. Pete was always criticized for the rah-rah nature, but the thing you realize is it’s authentic and it’s real.
Palmer: He was showing us a vision and really trying to change the way we think and the way we saw the program, the way we saw each other as teammates, the way we saw the fans, the way we saw our home stadium.
Strength coach Chris Carlisle remembers being summoned to Carroll’s office before spring practice. “Hey,” Carroll told him. “What do you think about this conditioning thing and running after practice?” Carlisle was confused. Everyone ran after practice. It’s what you did, and he told Carroll as much. But Carroll was unconvinced. “Let me propose this,” he said. “What if we don’t run and then the players don’t worry about what they’re going to run at the end of practice?” Carlisle rolled his eyes and went along with the experiment. They never ran again.
Seto: That motivated the players to elevate the effort and intensity.
Carlisle: Those practices made us. We were one vs. ones a lot of the time. It was competition at its best. It was almost to the point in games that we would get a step ahead and had to slow down.
Roth: I’ll try to be succinct for you: The No. 1 thing that allowed us to be successful was the authenticity around the central theme of the program, which was competition.
Davis: I remember talking to one of the old scouts and he said, “Your practice is a lot like recess. Everybody’s going crazy.” That’s what Pete wanted. Every day in practice it was a war.
Roth: It was short periods of 10 plays. It was reenacting sudden changes like you would see in a game. We didn’t have to condition because we played so fast. We practiced so hard. And it was really efficient. Practice was never three hours long. Never existed. If anything, Pete would start cutting reps. We’re at a lull and it’s a 15-play period, we’re done after 12, keep moving. And within that, he always kept score and he would end up manipulating it so it would come down to best out of three, for it all. And “for it all” didn’t mean you won an ice cream sandwich or you didn’t have to run sprints. It just meant you won. And that was enough.
Leinart: Everything was competition. He did that in a way where he understood how to develop players — what the players’ strengths were, weaknesses were, and then he would go attack those. It brought out the best in everybody. And it could expose certain guys, too, because obviously not everybody lives up to the expectation.
Davis: Pete organized these basketball games, and I didn’t want to run up and down the court. But he didn’t give a s—. He said, “Everybody’s playing.” So Pete is going crazy, up and down the court, and he sets a screen on me and gets uppity and I get uppity back. I thought we were going to throw hands. I said, “F— you.” He said, “F— you” back. So he’s intensely competitive in a good way. He hated to lose at anything.
It’s easy to look back on USC as an overnight success. It wasn’t. The growth, in confidence and then in actual wins, came with time. Take the Oct. 6, 2001, loss at Washington. It’s Carroll’s first season, and USC was 1-4 on the road against a top-15 team. A field goal gave the Trojans a fourth-quarter lead, but they coughed it up and lost 27-24.
Roth: Pete is so competitive that he grabs [Washington coach Rick Neuheisel] by the hand, shakes it and pulls him in tight and goes, “Don’t get too comfortable at the top. It’s not going to take us very long.” It was on, dude.
Jackson: Believe it or not, we’re up against bowl eligibility at the time. It’s late in the season and we’re playing at Arizona and Kris Richard gets a pick-six to essentially win the game.
Roth: Pete says, “All right, enough’s enough.”
Carlisle: He gets in the locker room and says, “We never have to lose again. It’s now up to you.” He took us from a team that was getting beat and they got rid of the coach and we were kind of struggling, struggling, struggling, and all of a sudden, “Now it’s in your hands. You never have to get beat again.”
Seto: And from that moment on, we didn’t lose much, you know? We learned how to finish.
Carroll had an unorthodox style of leadership, but the staff he assembled was integral to the program’s success. Among the assistants were future head coaches Norm Chow, Lane Kiffin, Ed Orgeron and Steve Sarkisian.
Carlisle: Ed Orgeron, I tell ya what, he was the hammer to Pete’s pillow.
Jackson: They ate, drank and slept USC football. They worked in concert well right from the very beginning. Pete leaned on Ed. And Ed could be the disciplinarian. When Pete wanted to turn up the heat or get everybody’s attention, Ed was a great guy to do that.
Davis: Ed was recruiting coordinator and [before camp], he used to get all the new guys in the room in the old auditorium and he ripped their ass.
Carlisle: That first meeting, he says, “What do you do before you get into a fight? You take off your f—ing shirt!” That’s when he takes his shirt off. And he goes, “Recruiting is done! There’s no more steak dinners, no more holding hands! We’re going to work!” He goes, “Your ass is grass and I’m the effing lawn mower!”
Davis: They’re all sitting there like stone. They started the meeting with their feet up. And all of a sudden they looked at each other, went, “Oh, f—.”
Mike Williams, receiver: God bless Coach O. It was never personal. One time he walked by a guy who had on a green shirt. He’s not a small dude. Van Brown at the time had to be 6-4, 260. And O walks up and puts two hands on his chest and rips the dude’s shirt off! “DON’T WEAR THAT NOTRE DAME S— AROUND HERE!” All the newcomers are getting ready to go to study hall and Coach O is having a moment. We’re like, “Holy s—, are we at the right school?” It was subtle, but it represented the pride that you should have toward the university.
Jackson: We had some characters. We had a lot of laughs. [Carroll] gave everybody a voice — like Kiff and Sark, at young ages. He leaned on everybody.
Carlisle: Norm brought in a guy that was working at a computer company, Sarkisian. Then Pete had a buddy, Monte Kiffin, who had a son named Lane. So they brought these two kids in. They were actually assistant strength coaches for a while during the summer so they could be paid. The first day they talked to the athletes. The next day I said, “Why don’t you go upstairs and I’ll call you if I need you.” One day was enough.
Kiffin, assistant: We grew up together in coaching like you would with the kid in your neighborhood. We just worked nonstop back then. We actually rode to and from work together for the carpool lane in L.A.
Davis: Lane and Sark learned from each other. But one of the things I noticed about both of them is they watched a ton of film, and they broke stuff down and pulled it apart.
Kiffin: [Sark and I would] go down to Tampa during OTAs and spend the entire time down there sitting in Jon Gruden’s meetings. Kyle Shanahan was the quality control coach on offense, so we’d sit in the back with him. And after Year 1 at USC, we brought a lot of that back. Coach Carroll wanted that West Coast passing game that he’d seen with Bill Walsh when he was a younger coach. Then he wanted the Denver Broncos’ running game. And Kyle Shanahan obviously knew that. So kind of combining the two. It’s weird to think that that combination is really what USC became in the Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart, Carson Palmer era.
John David Booty, quarterback: You knew there was something special about both of them. It was just a matter of time.
Mark Sanchez, quarterback: Kiff and Sark would dig at one another constantly. Lane would say, “Sark, why is your backup quarterback talking to me? Can you please get this kid away from me?” And I’m just like, what the hell? Sark would motion me over. “Don’t mind him.”
Roth: It was awesome. It was competitive all the way down to my level. But let’s just take it at the highest level — like Steve Sarkisian vs. Lane Kiffin vs. Nick Holt vs. Ed Orgeron and the defensive staff. They wanted to gas each other every day.
Palmer: He had a really good mix of great coaches who were all really different.
Jackson: [Carroll] could put his thumb down when he wanted to and make a decision, but he wanted a collaborative environment.
Williams: Our team was what it was because … if Coach Carroll’s voice didn’t get you going, OK. Maybe it’s Coach Kennedy [Polamalu] who gets you going or Coach O, Kiff or Sark. There were multiple coaches on the staff who you respected. It made it easier for Coach Carroll to be who he wanted to be.
Roth remembers the routine for recruiting: Every Wednesday at 8 a.m. they’d get burritos for the staff, watch film for two hours and offer a bunch of prospects. There weren’t dozens of recruiting staff like there are now. It was just the coaches, and they were intent on turning over an underperforming roster. Roth was in charge of the VCR, putting in and taking out tapes. Sitting next to Carroll, he got a firsthand view of his process of evaluation.
Roth: Everybody was involved.
Carlisle: Lane was kind of the national recruiting coordinator. But Pete wanted to own California. He wanted to put a wall around it and not let anybody out that he wanted. So all the coaches went out to every one of those little desert schools. You got Vacaville and we got Thomas Williams out of there. You got Chino and we got Sedrick Ellis out of there.
Jackson: Pete is a natural recruiter to go out and do well in a family room, but the nuances of Southern California and how do you recruit nationally versus California, all those things like that, Ed had a pretty clear vision.
Davis: [Carroll] loved to interact with the kids. I had the Bay Area, and he came up. We were recruiting some wide receiver and he showed up at the school and then he went inside. I’m talking to the head coach and all of a sudden, where’s Pete? Well, I go outside and there’s Pete in the middle of a basketball game. It was crazy. I said, “Hey, we gotta go on to the next school?” And he said, “No, I ain’t done yet. I’m losing.”
Jackson: Those recruiting war rooms, they were pretty competitive with each coach that had an area. It could be San Diego vs. Nor Cal vs. Orange County vs. L.A. We had four coaches in those areas with a recruiting coordinator on top of it and ultimately Pete making the decision.
Davis: Pete would challenge coaches. You had to stand up there and say, why do you want this guy?
One player who didn’t need much justification was defensive lineman Shaun Cody, who went to high school only 20 minutes from campus and was widely considered to be among the top three players in the 2002 class.
Seto: We were trying to go after the top recruits and, first and foremost, own Southern California. If we could get [Cody], that’s a significant statement to ourselves and to the recruiting community that there’s something going on here.
Jackson: [Cody] was locked in on Notre Dame.
Carlisle: His parents had all Notre Dame clothes already and everything.
Seto: We weren’t necessarily getting those guys at the time.
Jackson: It felt like it was 50-50 we’d get him. My office was next to Ed’s, and the celebration that ensued when he finally committed, it was really exciting. It was just this eruption and dancing and jumping up and down. You could feel the wall shake.
Carlisle: When they turned Shaun Cody from Notre Dame, that was a huge pickup. Because that was the first time USC — this old sleeping giant — beat Notre Dame. That was a huge flip there, which made other people go, Hmm.
Dennis Slutak, special teams coach: He was one of the Infinity Stones.
Mike Williams was one of the first high-profile out-of-state prospects USC targeted, but it was an uphill battle. Williams was from Tampa, and his Chevy Suburban was done up in Florida State’s colors: garnet exterior, gold interior.
Roth: We felt like all of the players that we needed were in our backyard. And then we were going to go out of state — our tagline was, “Go out of state or out of the footprint for a first-round pick.”
Williams: They were baaaad. SC was a brand, a college blue blood, that kind of had fizzled. But it still managed to have a player here, a player there. It would be like, “Oh, that’s the middle-of-the-road team, but that Willie McGinest really is something.” I didn’t know about anyone else, but I knew about Troy Polamalu because he knocked some Kansas State player out. I remember one time I got some of my buddies over and we’re talking about schools and college football’s on, and they had this running back — great dude, by the way — and his name was Sunny Byrd. You know, a white dude from one of the beaches out there, bleach blonde hair. And the USC highlight comes on. It’s like, “Sunny Byrd goes over the top for a touchdown.” (Laughs) My buddies are like, “Yo! You trying to go to a school with a running back named Sunny Byrd?!” It was something.
But Williams saw something with Palmer and Polamalu. “I thought that the team with them two leading, it would be the one going in the better direction.” Williams turned out to be right. As a freshman, he caught 14 touchdowns. Success on the field and the recruiting trail went hand in hand.
Jackson: Recruiting became more national in almost every sense of the word. I think about Mike Williams, I think about Dwayne Jarrett, Brian Cushing, kids coming from all over the country to be a part of this. And granted, SC had all the right ingredients, which it always has, but now it had winning and maybe just next to that we had player development. We had proof of concept. It was just this pipeline of guys. It was just so easy to point to and show this program can be a launching point for anything you want to do.
One player who thrived from the start was a freshman running back from San Diego named Reggie Bush. Kiffin remembers the recruiting battle and how Notre Dame was the early front-runner. Then Bush came on a visit and watched the Trojans dominate the Irish 44-13. “I always think of that,” Kiffin said, “like how that changed college football. What if Reggie Bush would’ve gone to Notre Dame and had not been part of the Pete Carroll era? And would that era have been the same?”
Davis: We put Reggie right in the fire. He was awesome. He was a natural.
Seto: The first time in training camp, he was running around people, catching the ball, like, Whoa. The wheels were spinning for the offensive coaches and Coach Carroll how to use this guy. Sark and Lane and those guys, they started studying Marshall Faulk and the Rams and all that stuff. It was pretty obvious that this guy’s going to be a special player.
Carlisle: He was one of the most hardworking young men I’ve ever dealt with. He had great focus. He came in at 185 pounds and left at 200 and only got faster. The kid was a one-cut wonder who could get from zero to 60 faster than anybody.
Seto: Every day he would break a big run versus us, it seems like. It was very competitive and back-and-forth yelling at each other. I mean, it would get intense.
Davis: Pete treated him like a first-round draft pick. His formula was to put the stars in the light where they could be stars.
Kiffin: When was the moment I knew? He would’ve been a true freshman at Washington, and he takes an R option route and there’s two safeties running. And this is Division I, Pac-12 football. This isn’t high school. And the two safeties are running, and he just runs like Forrest Gump or something, you know? Like he had a totally different speed than everybody as a true freshman. I remember that’s when Sark said, “This is a whole different animal here.”
Roth: We all felt every time he touched the ball, you stood up every single time.
Kiffin: I used to say, if you’re going to have a long run [as a team], you better have a phenomenal player that gets you out of a bad game. Because you’re going to have a bad game — not a good game plan, the weather, whatever. Like USC at Oregon State and it’s foggy and it’s a punt return. Reggie was the guy.
Jackson: That one he was magical. The guy came out of the fog on a punt return, like this eerie night. He was almost like from another planet.
Reggie Bush puts the ball behind his back and switches fields to take it all the way for a TD against Fresno State on Nov. 19, 2005.
Kiffin: Reggie was that player that changed the game and you avoid the upset game. Like even in the Fresno State game, he set the record for most all-purpose yards.
Roth: The run against Fresno where he goes to his left, the ball goes basically behind his back and he weaves across the field for a long touchdown. That was stupid. Like, that was ridiculous.
Kiffin: He did a lot of crazy things.
Slutak: I got to tag along with Tim Tessalone and Reggie to go to “The Late Show with David Letterman” because Reggie was going to read the top 10. We’re in a white passenger van in downtown New York, and there is a guy on foot running, chasing our van, trying to get a signature from Reggie Bush. And it was in the middle of traffic and at stoplights, and the guy just kept going until we arrived. I don’t remember if Reggie was able to sign something for him at the entrance to the Letterman Show, but I just remember thinking, “This is insane, dude.”
In 2005, after rushing for 1,740 yards, Bush won the Heisman Trophy. It was later vacated after the NCAA discovered that Bush had received improper benefits.
Kiffin: Because of the whole scandal, whatever you call that thing, what got lost was Reggie was the perfect player — perfect practice player, worked harder than anybody, never had any issues, never complained, never wanted the ball more or any of that, which is unusual for such an elite player. He was really easy to coach.
Never mind playing in the NFL and winning a national championship. Williams called the 2002 season the “pinnacle of my football life.” Why? Beating Auburn, Notre Dame and Iowa was fun, but he said, “It was cool to be part of that build, the week-by-week confidence, more air getting pumped into the brand, rising on the national landscape.”
Williams: It was exciting and, just like in L.A. fashion and USC fashion, it became the expectation. Ten wins? It’s over with; we’re back. My freshman year we went from no billboards in the city to billboards everywhere. We had an event called Salute to Troy. We were supposed to sit with the alums, and half the tables were empty my freshman year. Then my second year, are you kidding me? I was at a table with like 10 people.
Jackson: You could feel the energy — and keep coming back to that word, energy — in the athletic department, in our donor community, the more that people were exposed to Pete and what he was about. There was an attractiveness to him that people wanted to be around.
Leinart: He had a great way of connecting all of the different bridges of USC and L.A. and the celebrity — everything.
Slutak: I still have the lists, you know, the spreadsheets. It was A-listers, B-listers from the movie world, the music world, the production world. There were TV and movie stars.
Seto: Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Henry Winkler — the Fonz from “Happy Days” — he was there.
Slutak: Every week Henry Winkler would call me up with the most pleasant voice you’ve ever heard and ask if he and his son, Max, could come to the game.
Palmer: My first freshman game there, there was nobody at the Coliseum. And by the time I was a senior, it was distracting. Oh, there’s — you name it — Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie. It was distracting in the huddle. “Did you see Joe Pesci?” “Shut up and listen to the play.”
That word — distraction — comes up a lot in relation to USC, and for good reason. It’s easy to get sidetracked in L.A. But Carroll took that into account, starting with a key scrimmage during every preseason camp.
Williams: They would talk it up, like, “You better strap it up tomorrow! Tomorrow’s going to be crazy!” You get back to your room like, “Let me get ready for this s—.” And then you get to Heritage Hall and there’s like 4-5 buses lined up. And he is like, “We’re going to watch the volleyball tournament.”
Roth: It’s everything that you imagine: music, DJs, bikinis, all the things that come with the beach in August in Southern California. Picture perfect. Then we’d get back on the bus and have our most important scrimmage of training camp that night. I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe we went to the beach.” And then he explained it to the team. He said, “All season long, you are going to be challenged with distractions everywhere we go, whether it’s Arkansas or South Bend or the Rose Bowl here in L.A. And I want you to have the most fun and maximize the fun in your college football experience and what this place can provide for you. But you’re also going to be able to refocus. The skill is not focusing. The skill is refocusing. So tonight after you go have fun, you’re going to come back and have the best scrimmage of your training camp.”
Carlisle: Carroll’s strength is he understood if I put you in chaos, when you get into chaos you can make things happen.
Palmer: [Having celebrities at practice] was weird at first. And then it just became normal all of a sudden, like Snoop Dogg’s at practice and Johnny Knoxville was filming “Jackass.” All of a sudden it went from being distracting to, “Hey, uh, Will Ferrell wants to take a picture with you after practice.” “Ugh, all right, let’s go.”
Leinart: We were used to having 3,000 people at practice every day and whoever was on the sideline was on the sideline. We fed off that energy and used it as an advantage.
Roth: One-on-ones were awesome because you got embarrassed and 500 people either cheered for you or jeered you. And Pete did it all purposely. I think a lot of the misnomer is like, “Oh, he leaned into Hollywood and he just wanted practice to be a party.” No. Even with music, everything had a purpose. We were the first I think to play music at practice in college football and it was all, again, back to, can you handle being distracted?
Palmer: Pete looked at this asset of Los Angeles — and back then there was no Rams, there was no Chargers — and exploited it. He showed off L.A., showed off Hollywood, showed off the connections that USC has to Hollywood and the music industry. He did such a great job of embracing Los Angeles and then putting it out there and saying, “Hey, you either want to go to school in Tallahassee or you want to come to Los Angeles. You want to go to Ann Arbor or you want to come to L.A. and Hollywood.”
Slutak: Growing stale wasn’t going to happen because as upbeat and fun and relaxed as it was, his Rainbow wearing sandals and the hoodie, he was competitive and really serious about the football side of things and our culture and maintaining it. It was about winning for the long haul, not just one year, not two years, not three years. It was winning at a high level each and every year. There was no way he was going to let us slip into mediocrity.
Roth: It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen since. I understand and do believe that Alabama is one of the great dynasties, if not the greatest dynasty in college football history. But they didn’t do it in L.A.
Palmer looks back on his time at USC fondly. Winning the Heisman was great, but seeing what the Trojans became once he left after the 2002 season filled him with pride. Under Carroll from 2003-09, the school went 80-11 with six conference titles and two national championships.
In NFL locker rooms, it was all anyone wanted to talk about.
“California was on fire back then,” Palmer said. “L.A. was so different.”
Then he sighed.
“College football is so much better when SC is a contender.”
The NCAA investigation into USC not only vacated Bush’s Heisman Trophy and the 2004 national title but also hobbled the program by reducing future scholarships. Carroll left for the Seattle Seahawks before the 2010 season, and neither Kiffin nor Sarkisian could recreate their mentor’s success during their short stints as head coach. Clay Helton was fired two games into last season. USC became something unthinkable over the past decade: an afterthought.
But that changed when Riley arrived. A proven winner, he’s given Palmer hope.
Palmer recalled the first phone call he received from Carroll right after news broke that he’d been hired in 2000. He still doesn’t know how he got his number. Carroll laid out his plan for what USC could be — a perennial contender.
“The season’s way, way away at that point,” Palmer said. “But I was like, ‘Let’s go!’ I knew I liked him. I liked what he had to say about the program, the future.
“I didn’t know if he could execute it like he did. I don’t think anybody expected that.”
Palmer brings this up as a way of connecting back to Riley.
“I’ve talked to Lincoln a bunch, and I have the same feeling that I had when Pete got the job,” he said. “I was really excited. Then I called a couple guys that made me even more excited that had worked with him. I talked to him a handful of times, and I finally feel like, ‘All right, I don’t need to stress about it. The program’s in good hands. Here we go.'”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.