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Sunday Punch

Once-treasured Trojans again earn prominence

Published November 30, 2003

In my 20s, back in Jacksonville, about the time Arnold Schwarzenegger was building baby biceps in Austria, late Saturday afternoons across America were abundant with University of Southern California football.

L.A. mesmerized us.

John McKay coached the Trojans, the Dodgers were baseball hotties, Disneyland dispensed unique magic, Beach Boys tinkered with Little Deuce Coupe and national envy bulged for a sunny, flashy SoCal lifestyle we saw in movies, on prime-time TV and from USC's heroes.

McKay won four national championships. It was "Tailback U.," with the dashing talents of Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Ricky Bell and, later on, Charles White and Marcus Allen.

Fifty states were charmed.

In the '70s things began to change. McKay left town to get rich with the Bucs. Los Angeles evolved into a more complex, expensive, smoggy, traffic-clogged, more dangerous, less ideal place. John Robinson would coach the Trojans to some prominence, but then came a slide.

You know about O.J.

Soon we outsiders got less of the Trojans on network telecasts. USC football's visibility shrank. ESPN and CNN favored looking in other directions. In far-flung time zones a captivating USC fight song all but faded from consciousness.

But now the power is being recycled, seeking old McKay levels. The fight song is hot again. Pete Carroll is a deeply experienced, cosmopolitan coach who went 11-2 in 2002 with Heisman Trophy quarterback Carson Palmer.

In '03 the Trojans are even better, ranking No.2 in polls at 10-1 with Matt Leinart producing even more at QB. He has 30 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions but most incredible have been his past six games with 20 TDs and zero INTs. Best of Lefty's catchers is Mike Williams, a 230-pound blazer from Plant High who will be better at USC than Keyshawn Johnson.

Ironically, in worldly eyes the Trojans now get shortchanged. For every USC game Easterners see on TV, we can absorb dozens involving Hurricanes, Bulldogs, Wolverines, Gators, Hokies, Irish, Tigers, Vols, Sooners, Buckeyes and Seminoles.

Heisman thump has been loud this fall for quarterbacks Phillip Rivers of North Carolina State, Eli Manning of Mississippi and Jason White of Oklahoma, but how much do we know of Leinart? With better numbers than Carson, he merits inclusion.

Carroll, 52, has a deep resume as a coach, starting 26 years ago as an assistant to Lou Holtz at Arkansas, for Earle Bruce at Iowa State and Ohio State, then Monte Kiffin at N.C. State, headed for 16 seasons in the NFL, including four as leader of the Jets and Patriots.

Carroll is a defensive whiz and paired at USC with Norm Chow, widely acclaimed as the best offensive coordinator in college football, the molder of Steve Young as well as the Detmer boys at BYU before coaching Rivers as a Wolfpack freshman.

Yep, I'm feeling a bit sorry for USC. Geography has cheated today's Trojans, including the screwy, insufficient BCS rankings.

Finally, a week ago, forced by Ohio State's loss at Michigan, computers and judges in the East put the men of Troy and Carroll just behind runaway leader Oklahoma.

USC plays Oregon State in six days. Unless unexpectedly eager Beavers disrupt Leinart and shock the Trojans, bunglers from the BCS should match Carroll's guys with Oklahoma in a so-called national championship match in New Orleans.

Wrong system ... right twosome.

* * *

QUICKIES: If you like good movies but can do without computer-created bombast, scripts that maim the truth and portrayals of Southerners that are stupid and unfair, do yourself a favor and catch Radio, a warm story with precious performances by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ed Harris. ... Bill Walton, who has romped among history's ultimate basketball talents, says Kevin Garnett is "like no one in the NBA - like no one ever." ... I thought he'd figure out the NFL but, more and more, it seems the pros have figured out Steve Spurrier. ... After a quit-while-not-ahead decision in South Africa, why don't they play the next Presidents Cup in Thailand? ... Wow, didn't Jackie Sherrill, once among America's best college football coaches, go out with a thud and dud at Mississippi State? ... Don't know about you, but Jon Gruden and I had begun to wonder if a Buc is still worth four quarters.

THE LAST WORD: Michael Vick's agonizing healing process, at his kiddie NFL age, makes it more remarkable to observe Brett Favre playing his 12th year without missing a start despite sore knees or an aching back or a bummed thumb. Green Bay's quarterback is a rare study, unquestionably in the durability league of Cal Ripken. More amazing, really.

[Last modified November 30, 2003, 01:16:37]

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