USC: GREATEST FOOTBALL PROGRAM, ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT IN COLLEGE SPORTS HISTORY
The 2004 college football season has come to an end with Pete Carroll's University of Southern California Trojans having completed the most perfect season in collegiate football history. There have been many "perfect" teams; that is, teams that went undefeated and untied en route to a consensus National Championship. USC itself has enjoyed their fair share of these kinds of wire-to-wire perfect seasons. But the stars have never been aligned for any team quite like the 2004 Trojans. First of all, they are the sixth team to be ranked number one in the nation from the pre-season polls through the bowl games. USC is the only team to do it twice. The 1972 Trojans, considered by many to be the greatest team of all time, accomplished the feat. But SC was also ranked number one from the end of the 2003 regular season through the bowls, and carried that right through 2004 without interruption.
The 2004 Trojans also boast the Heisman Trophy winner, two-time junior All-American quarterback Matt Leinart. His teammate, All-American sophomore running back Reggie Bush, was a New York finalist for the award. USC won a repeat National Championship, a feat rarely done. They are in the middle of a 22-game winning streak. They beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, a game that was previewed as the greatest game in college football history. The 1944-45 Army Cadets featured a similar winning streak and two Heisman winners, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. There are other teams that compare, but nobody has done it quite the way Carroll's team is doing it.
A few came close. The 1983 Nebraska Cornhuskers featured an undefeated regular season that included winners of the Heisman and Outland Trophies. They lost to Miami in the Orange Bowl. The 2003 Oklahoma Sooners looked to be on a similar path, but their Heisman winner, Jason White, faltered in the Big 12 championship game as well as the Orange Bowl.
In light of USC's recent dominance, it is worth considering their place in history. Not just the current Trojans, but USC's football program going back to the beginning of the 20th Century. It is time to take the mantel of "greatest program in the history of college football" away from the struggling Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and lay it squarely with the deserving new champions from USC. Furthermore, USC continues to lay claim to the greatest historical athletic program in college history, as well.
The two-time defending National Champions are a dynasty. If Leinart returns for his senior year in 2005, they will be better than they were this season. Leinart will be a senior, the Heisman favorite (as he was all of this year), and a three-time All-American. He will walk away from his career with more honors than any player ever; three National Championships (?), two Heismans (?), the Johnny Unitas Award, the Walter Camp Award, the Maxwell Trophy, the Davey O'Brien Award, et al. He will probably be the number one pick in the NFL draft.
The 2003-04 Trojans are very possibly the greatest two-year dynasty ever. If they win a third title in 2005, that will be a first. They lose a couple of linebackers, but aside from Leinart, Bush will be a junior, running backs LenDale White and Herschel Dennis return, the whole offensive line returns, the tight ends and receivers are back, and the defense will be, for the most part, experienced. The 2005 Trojans have the potential to be the greatest single-season team ever assembled, better even than the 1972 Trojans. Soph-to-be Jeff Byers was the nation's best lineman coming out of high school and could win the Outland Trophy before graduating. Soph-to-be linebacker Keith Rivers was the top prep at his position and may garner a Butkus trophy some day. If Leinart leaves for the NFL, USC will re-tool at quarterback with one of two blue chip recruits.
In 2005, John David Booty will be a red-shirt sophomore. He was the top prep quarterback in America at Louisiana's Evangel Christian High School. His competition? Mark Sanchez, the top prep quarterback in the U.S. at Mission Viejo High (the nation's number two team) in Orange County, California in 2004. USC has had the number one recruiting class in the country for three years in a row. Last year's was considered the greatest of all time. The 2005 class, which will be finalized in February, promises to be just as good. The pipeline is endless. In light of the fact that they will enter next season ranked number one, favored to win their third National Championship in a row, they are worthy of continued hype. Consider that if Troy runs the table in '05, their winning streak will probably be 35. With either Booty or Sanchez living up to the challenge, maybe with senior running back Bush winning the Heisman and starring with a cast headlined by juniors Rivers and Byers, the 2006 Trojans could challenge Oklahoma's 57-game winning streak of the 1950s. Now we are looking at four National Championships in a row, but wait, there is more. Booty could quarterback the team in 2006 and 2007. Sanchez would be a red-shirt junior and senior in 2008-09. Considering that the last two SC quarterbacks (Carson Palmer in 2002 and Leinart in '04) won the Heisman, USC could conceivably come away with four more of the trophies before the end of this decade. The scenario could be:
2005: Senior quarterback Matt Leinart, USC.
2006: Senior running back Reggie Bush, USC.
2007: Senior USC quarterback John David Booty, USC (Oklahoma running back Adrian Petersen will be a pro by then).
2009: Senior quarterback Mark Sanchez, USC.
Number one NFL draft picks? Leinart, Bush, Rivers, Byers, Booty, Sanchez…these are just the obvious possibilities.
Let's go back to Carson Palmer and the 2002 Trojans. Palmer won the Heisman and was the NFL's number one draft choice. He is currently starting for the Cincinnati Bengals after signing a $14 million bonus. The 2002 Trojans finished 11-2, were co-Pacific 10 champs, and won the Orange Bowl. They finished fourth in the nation, but the pundits were in agreement that by that season's end, they were the best team in the country, even though Ohio State defeated a lacklustre Miami squad in the BCS title game. Had their been a play-off, SC would have won.
In 2003, USC won the National Championship when the AP voted them number one following a victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Considering that they had a spectacular wide receiver, Mike Williams, a comparison of the 2003 and 2004 teams may very well favor the '03 squad. The '05 team, however, will be better than anybody - ever!
How good is SC? Consider that the All-American Williams had his NCAA eligibility taken away prior to 2004. Had he played, he would have been in New York instead of Bush, and he may well have won the Heisman. Bush just took his place and the beat went on. Speaking of number one picks, if Williams shows enough at the combines, he could be the first player taken in the Spring of 2005. The draft promises to be an SC highlight film. Every year. But wait, there's still more.
Coach of the Year? In 2003 year it was Carroll. The only reason he does not win it every year is because they like to spread those kinds of things around. Give it to him every second year. This guy has gone through Troy's old nemeses, UCLA and Notre Dame, like Patton's Army charging through the Low Countries. In four years, he has presided over (through January 4, 2005) back-to-back National titles, two Heisman winners, one NFL number one draft pick, two Orange Bowl titles, one Rose Bowl title, four bowl appearances, three Pac 10 championships, three national-best recruiting classes, a wire-to-wire number one perfect season, a 22-game winning streak, a number one poll ranking for 15 weeks running (and still counting), three straight undefeated Novembers and (take your pick) records of 25-1 (2003-04), 36-3 (2002-04) or 33-1 (since October, 2002). Those are the facts. After that comes the speculation, the predictions, the hype. Has any coach ever done more in his first four years? Probably not.
When a team is this good watch not just for undefeated seasons and National Championships, but watch out for college kids reading their press clippings and being shot at from all sides by a nation of teams out to beat them. It happened to the aforementioned Cornhuskers and the Sooners. In 1979, USC entered the season as the consensus number one. Experts were saying that team, like next season's, could contend for the title "greatest college football team ever." They were the defending co-National Champions and heralded that season's Heisman Trophy winner, Charles White, along with other stalwarts like Anthony Munoz. Not quite mid-way into the season, they took on Stanford at the Coliseum. At halftime the Trojans led 21-0 en route to another stomping. In the second half, freshman quarterback John Elway directed the Cardinal to three touchdowns, SC's offense stalled, and that 21-21 tie (before the advent of overtime) was just enough to deny them the national title along with the "greatest ever" label.
In 1980, the best prep quarterback available was Escondido, California's Sean Salisbury. SC legend Sam Cunningham told his alma mater about his brother, Randall, in Santa Barbara, and asked if he would start. He was told Randall would be offered a ride but the job was Salisbury's. Randall went to UNLV and then made millions with the NFL's Eagles. Salisbury was a bust. SC lost coach John Robinson to the Rams, went on probation, and took 20 years to recover fully.
Troy thought they were back when, in 1987-88 under Larry Smith, they went to back-to-back Rose Bowls, were 10-0 going into the '88 Notre Dame game, featured Junior Seau, and recruited the all-time prep passing leader, Todd Marinovich. By 1990, Marinovich was a problem child and in '91 they lost to Memphis State!
Notre Dame under Lou Holtz won it all in 1988, and seemed on the verge of a real dynasty. Then came Ron Paulus, who never won any of the "two or three Heismans" Beano Cook predicted of him.
In January, 2003, defending National Champion Miami rode a 34-game winning streak into the BCS Fiesta Bowl. Had they won, they would have achieved the rare back-to-back championship and been a team for the ages. So close, yet so far. Ohio State beat them, and in the last two seasons the Hurricanes have been human.
These are just two of many examples that USC should look to and consider cautionary tales. It does not take much to derail a team when they are riding in the clouds. Bad recruiting (will Booty and Sanchez be another Salisbury and Paulus?), drugs (Marinovich), coaches leaving for the NFL (Robinson did and some say Carroll considers his pro work undone), NCAA violations (their first-half '80s teams), or just a slip against great competition ('79 SC, '83 Nebraska, '02 Miami, '03-'04 Oklahoma) can be enough to derail a team and separate the great from the legendary.
Unlike the NFL, a single loss (or tie) can upset the apple cart. USC is the hottest ticket in America's hottest town, the toast of Hollywood, the biggest thing in a media hothouse that does not have a pro football franchise and whose NBA team is yesterday. They set the all-time USC attendance record in 2003 and broke that in 2004. For 20-year old student-athletes, this is a major challenge, but they overcame it in 2004 and, under Carroll, appear capable of continuing their focus.
It is fun to talk about, and at SC, a school that went through a long (13 years or 20 years, depending on your standards) down period, it is especially fun. Their fans are about as giddy as the Republicans when Dwight Eisenhower saved that party after 20 years of the New Deal in 1952.
In light of USC's new status, below is the All-Time College Football Top 25 rankings, followed by the Top 25 Greatest Single-Season teams in college football history. The greatest college football teams are listed chronologically; the best team for each decade; the best single-season team each decade, followed by great programs in back-to-back, three-year, five-year, 10/15-year and 20/25-year periods; the most prominent dynasties and the coaches behind them; and for good measure the Top 25 Collegiate Athletic Programs of All-Time, the Top College Basketball Programs, and the Top 20 College Baseball Programs ever. A few prep dynasties are mentioned for good measure.
It is subjective and opinionated. It is meant to stir debate, controversy and argument. It is not written in stone. Extra credit goes to the more modern powers. Miami's success in the 1980s is more impressive than Cal's "Wonder Teams" after World War I. Oklahoma's current run is as impressive as the one they accomplished in the 1950s. The game has changed. Competition, money, television, scholarship limits, NCAA rules, recruiting violations and parity all play a part in this evaluation. To the extent that the so-called "modern era" began, trace it to 1960, which is subjective, yes, but as good an embarkation point as any. It was in the 1960s when the players starting getting bigger, the equipment up to speed, the coaching techniques improved, and the color of the player's skin became increasingly something other than white.
Based upon history, one is increasingly impressed with USC. Overall, Notre Dame's ranking as the greatest college football program of all time has to take a back seat to their biggest rivals from the West Coast. The Irish still have the most National Championships (SC now has 11), the most Heisman Trophy winners (seven to SC's and Ohio State's six), holds a 42-29-5 lead over the Trojans in their inter-sectional rivalry, and trace their glory days back to when Knute Rockne invented the forward pass in time to beat favored Army in 1913. However, Notre Dame has struggled too much in the modern decades.
Notre Dame was the best college team under Rockne in the decade of the 1920s and under Frank Leahy in the 1940s. They had another major "era of Ara" (Parseghian) in the 1960s and '70s, and are listed among the top two-year dynasties (1946-47), 5-year dynasties (1943-47, 1973-77) and have three dynasties that are included among the 10/15-year period. Furthermore, they are Notre Dame, and all that that stands for: "Win one for the Gipper," the Catholic Church, "Touchdown Jesus," Ronald Reagan, "Rudy," "subway alumni," the Four Horsemen outlined against a blue-gray October sky, "wake up the echoes..."
Notre Dame's fans are the most intense and loyal. They are the team that played in Yankee Stadium, in Soldier Field, at the Coliseum. Many of their historic games were against SC. The tradition of these two teams are the best and the oldest.
For decades, the number two team was Southern California. This was not a coincidence. No rivalry in sports (or politics or war, probably) has done so much to elevate both sides as the USC-Notre Dame tradition. It put both schools on the national map. It pits, as SC assistant coach Marv Goux put it, "the best of the East vs. the best of the West." It matches the Catholic school with their Midwestern values against the flash 'n' dazzle of Hollywood, and it has never failed to live up to expectations.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, SC dropped while Notre Dame stayed at or near the top throughout the Lou Holtz era. Other contenders emerged. Miami and Florida State ascended to the top. Nebraska left opponents in the dust. Programs like Alabama and Oklahoma had, like SC, faltered, but regained their footing. Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and other teams, many in the South, rose in prominence. This was a direct result of integration and its impact has been very positive, but a school like Southern California could no longer lay claim to black athletes that were spurned by the SEC or the Southwestern Conference.
SC began to win awards and recognition for its academic excellence, and it became an article of faith that this was the trade-off; great football teams and great students are not mutually compatible. All of it was B.S. Pete Carroll proved that.
Five years ago, a Top 25 listing of the Greatest College Football Programs of All-Time would have shown USC to have slipped. However, in light of their National Championships and continuing favored status, Troy is now ahead of Notre Dame and in the top spot.
Long dynasties are hard to come by in college football, but as the following lists show, SC has a long history of doing just that. It is for this reason, combined with the glow of being Notre Dame's biggest rival, its great inter-city tradition with UCLA, and a history that goes back farther than almost any program (Michigan and Notre Dame are the only schools that go back as far and are still powers) that Southern California is not just first all-time in football but first among all athletic programs (and first by a wide margin in baseball).
The Greatest College Football Team in history is generally considered to be John McKay's 1972 Trojans. Just ask Keith Jackson, who ought to know. In addition, SC claims the best single-season team in the 1920s (1928), '30s (1931) and 2000s (2004). They are considered the best team of the decade of the 1930s, 1960s, 1970s, and now the 2000s.
Further proof of SC's ability to maintain a tradition is their consistency. The top dynasty period in history was the John McKay/John Robinson era lasting from the early 1960s until the 1980s. The Howard Jones "Thundering Herd" teams of the 1920s and '30s also ranks highly.
The best back-to-back teams ever? How about USC (2003-04), Oklahoma (1955-56), Nebraska (1994-95), Notre Dame (1946-47), Army (1944-45), Nebraska (1970-71) and Alabama (1978-79)?
Among the best three-year periods ever, none is better than SC's run from 1972-74 (how about SC from 2002-04, or after next year from 2003-05?). Oklahoma deserves mention from 1971-73, or 1973-75. Among 5/6-year periods, consider three of Troy's eras (1967-72, the best of anybody, followed by 1974-79 and 1928-32).
The best 10/15-year period? USC from 1967 to 1979, but that is not all. Also ranked is the period 1962-72 and 1928-39. Among great long-term dynasties (20/25 years), nobody beats Southern California from 1962-81, when they won five National Championships and four Heisman Trophies. The Trojans easily have the most professionals, the most first round draft picks, the most Hall of Famers, the most Pro Bowlers and the most All-Americans. They are, undisputably, a football factory. The empirical evidence cannot be argued against.
On top of all this, USC counts the most Major League baseball players, the most baseball Hall of Famers, the most All-Stars and various dominant players. Despite not being known for basketball, a disproportianate number of Trojans from the 1940s and '50s are considered hoops pioneers. The "triangle offense" was invented at SC, and such stalwarts as Bill Sharman, Alex Hannum and Tex Winter played together before induction in Springfield. USC also boasts (along with UCLA) the most Olympians, the most Olympic champions, and if they had been a country in 1976, they would have placed third in total medals at the Montreal Games.
Alabama fans certainly would argue against Trojan football hegemony, and they have plenty of ammunition. They were a national power as far back as the 1930s when Don Hutson starred there. However, they slipped until the Bear Bryant era. Bryant's dominant period, lasting from 1961 to 1979, parallels McKay's (and Robinson's) and is as impressive as any ever. However, the Tide was all-white until SC's Sam "Bam" Cunningham showed them, in Bear's own words, "what a football player looks like" in 1970. After SC's 42-21 victory at Birmingham, L.A. Times sports columnist Jim Murray welcomed 'Bama "back into the Union."
The Crimson Tide experienced a down period after Bear departed, regained its place with the 1992 national title, but inexplicably fell from grace for another decade after that. Their recent embarrassment in hiring Mike Price only to fire him for cavorting with strippers is indicative of their malaise.
Oklahoma's teams in the 1950s dominated as thoroughly as any in history, but that is a long time ago. They were not a major power prior to that decade. The Chuck Fairbanks/Barry Switzer teams of the 1970s and '80s were as impressive as any that have ever taken the field (and pockmarked by scandal and probation), but they became downright mediocre after Brian Bozworth's departure. Bob Stoops, however, has them right back where they were before, and then some.
Miami is rated highly based purely on unreal dominance in the 1980s and for maintaining an 18-year run from 1983-2001 ('02) that approaches SC's 1962-81 dynasty. However, until Howard Schnellenberger (by whatever means he did it) made them a power in '83, they were a college football lightweight, plus their championship rosters too often resembled police reports.
Ohio State is sixth and could be higher. However, until Woody Hayes came along, Michigan, not Ohio State, was the dominant Big 10 team. Woody's long tenure is very impressive, lasting from his 1954 National Championship (split with UCLA) until Archie Griffin's second Heisman campaign (1975). The 1968 Buckeyes are one of the most storied teams in history, good enough to dominate O.J. Simpson and defending National Champion USC in the Rose Bowl. But Woody's teams always fell short after that. They would go undefeated, average 40-plus points a game, and make Sports Illustrated covers, but in Pasadena every New Year's Day, it seemed, their "three yards and a cloud of dust" offense was no match for Pat Haden, John Sciarra, or whoever SC or UCLA threw at them.
Penn State (7) has been a consistent national power under Joe Paterno since 1968, when they were in the middle of a 30-game winning streak. Their "weak" East Coast schedule cost them a couple of national titles, but the 1980s were Joe Pa's time. They have fallen precipitously in later years, and while they have played football in Happy Valley a long time (the Lions lost to USC, 24-3, in the first game at the modern Rose Bowl stadium in 1923), they do not have a tradition that goes back like SC or Notre Dame, either.
Nebraska is a relative Johnny-come-lately. Nobody knew much about the Cornhuskers until Bob Devaney's mythical 1970-71 National Championship squads. The Devaney/Tom Osborne era is unbelievable, starting with a long winning streak in the early '70s, but not devoid of criticism. Osborne may be just below Jesus Christ in Nebraska today, but Big Red fans took the Lord's name in vain aplenty when he consistently lost big games in the 1970s and '80s. Still, the 1971 and '95 squads rank as two of the top three teams in history, and Cornhusker dominance from 1993-97 was extraordinary (60-3, three National Championships).
Michigan has a hallowed tradition. They were college football's first powerhouse, beating Stanford in the first Rose Bowl, 49-0 in 1902. When the Big 10 started playing the Pacific Coast Conference after World War II, Michigan laid waste to the "soft" West Coast teams, which included pastings of some very good Pappy Waldorf teams from Cal in the Rose Bowl games of the late '40s. However, the Wolverines lost their place to Woody until Bo Schembechler came along. The Michigan teams of the 1970s mirrored Woody's - often unbeaten with gaudy stats until a pick-your-choice Pac 8 team (Stanford, USC, Washington) would dismantle them in Pasadena. In 1997 they finally won a National Championship and are a program of the first rate, but not number one.
Texas is a bit of a mystery. Darrell Royal's Longhorns won two National Championships (1963 and 1969, the last all-white titlist), and had a big winning streak that ended against Notre Dame in the 1971 Cotton Bowl, but Earl Campbell's team lost to Joe Montana when the Irish "stole" the 1977 National Championship (going from fifth to first on January 2, 1978). Texas has never repeated despite occasionally being favored, but they usually are slightly disappointing.
Florida State was a girl's school until Burt Reynolds broke the gender barrier in 1952. Tennessee has a great tradition. The Heisman Trophy is named after their coach in the 1930s, and they won the title in 1998. LSU has two titles. Florida made a bid for supremacy under Steve Spurrier but seem to lose the big game more often than not.
Michigan State under Duffy Daugherty from 1965-66 broke color barriers and challenged for greatness, but Gary Beban and UCLA beat them in the 1966 Rose Bowl, and they tied Notre Dame in the 1966 "game of the century." Georgia's fans are nuts, and the team is darn good most of the time. Auburn and UCA are two of a kind. They each have won one National Championship, and have all the advantages - weather, facilities, recruiting, talent - only to labor in the shadow of historical behomeths (USC over UCLA, Alabama over Auburn).
The Arkansas Razorbacks are always fun. The 1991 Washington Huskies were the 22nd best single-season team ever, the Don James era was terrific, but they usually only go so far. Cal is so yesterday. Brick Muller's memory died an ugly death when the school became the de facto staging grounds of American Communism circa 1964-70. The Pitt Panthers were great in the 1930s and in Tony Dorsett's 1976 Heisman season. Minnesota is forgotten except for a five-year stretch prior to World War II. The Army Cadets once dominated whenever there was a world war being fought (?), and Stanford has Pop Warner, Ernie Nevers, Jim Plunkett, John Elway, Bill Walsh and the "Vow Boys." BYU won the 1984 National Championship and sports a long tradition of "bombs away" quarterbacks, led by Jim McMahon and Steve Young.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism