The Trojans' rock'n'roll coach is one excited Baby Boomer.
"I've got my `Jerry Garcia hat' on." Nobody at Pac-10 media day knew what Paul Hackett meant by that, but he is a child of the 1960s, who installed a vintage jukebox in his Manhattan Beach home.
The third-year Trojan coach cannot help making historical analogies with his 49er mentor, and USC legend John McKay.
"Bill Walsh's first two years were losing years," he says, "but they knew it's not about them, but about the process. The third year's the one at SC," he said of McKay's losing records in 1960 and 1961, followed by the Trojans' undefeated National Championship in 1962. Hackett's first two years were sub-par, too.
SC has great defense, led by senior linebacker Zeke Moreno, a 2000 Butkus Award contender.
"We've put a great group together, and as far as were concerned we want to win a National Championship," he says. "Our strength is in our experience with each other."
"Moreno's had two great seasons, and he has the experience to take it to the next level," says Hackett.
SC brings in a superb freshman class, led by Mater Dei's Glenn Davis Award-winning Matt Grootegoed.
"He has an opportunity to play strong safety immediately, he's one of the most advanced young freshmen we've ever recruited," says Hackett.
6-4, 300-pound senior defensive tackle Ennis Davis is completely recovered from nagging injuries, and promises to be a dominant All-American on an SC defense that is expected to be one of the best in the nation.
6-4, 220-pound senior linebacker Markus Steele is another Butkus nominee. Between Davis slowing runners up at the line, combined with Steele and Moreno in the middle, teams should find it tough running on SC.
All-American cornerback Antuan Simmons is out, but SC has terrific speed--the great equalizer--to replace him.
1999 Freshman All-American Darrell Riddeaux is a track star, and one of the best athletes on the team.
"Kris Richard is our most consistent cornerback," says Hackett of the 6-0, 180-pound senior who will play when they go to the nickel defense. Ifeanyi Ohalete will play a lot, too.
USC has speed everywhere. Sophomore tailback Sultan McCullough, another track star, will operate behind a dominant, experienced offensive line, led by senior Brentt McCaffrey.
"The offensive line believes in itself, they've taken the steps towards dominating," is Hackett's assessment.
Petros Papadakis is back from an injury.
"I'd a like to see a guy take the tailback position and `choke' it," says Hackett. "Petros Papadakis is amazing. He's focused on the season, zeroed in, a leader with real passion to lead the team."
Quarterback Carson Palmer (see related article) will have plenty of targets to throw to.
6-1, 185-pound sophomore Kareem Kelly was the state's 100-meter champion at Long Beach Poly, and last year was Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a Freshman All-American.
Marcell Allmond is another track star who was all-everything at St. Paul High School, and promises great things at the other receiver spot.
6-4, 250-pound fourth-year starter Antoine Harris is an All-America candidate at tight end.
"Early in the season, we'll rely on our defense to win," says Hackett.
That includes the Kickoff Classic opener at The Meadowlands vs. Penn State.
"We’re honored as a university and as a football program to open the season in New York," says Hackett. "The defense is made up of a core of fourth and fifth-year seniors who sense the opportunity to make a difference. Last year was painful, but we finished the season with three wins, so the momentum carries over to this year."
Hackett was asked about the pressure of opening the season against the powerful Nittany Lions.
"Pressure?" repeats Hackett. "I didn't come here to sit on my butt in Manhattan Beach and look at the sunset. In New York, we'll be carrying the mantel of our conference into the first game. We've got fifth-year guys who were there when we lost to Penn State in 1996. Penn State will have 68,000 fans and we'll have 5,000, but it's a `neutral' site," he adds, tongue in cheek. "If we're behind by 21 points in the second quarter we're in deep #@%*! It will be a serious measuring stick. Scrutiny? I'm well prepared from the 1970s for the level of it. I'm a Trojan, and a Trojan fan. Am I nuts? Probably."
Hackett is working the team hard in preparation for the Eastern heat and humidity at the Kickoff Classic, like he did in 1998 when he had the team prepared to outlast Drew Brees and Purdue in the Pigskin Classic opener, on one of the hottest days in Coliseum history.
"The great news is we don't play Washington," Hackett deadpanned when told that Huskie coach Rick Neuheisel said he "felt no remorse at all" about not facing SC.
"We're happy to get Washington State in LA this year," he added.
6-5, 280-pound Servite Super Prep All-American offensive tackle Joe McGuire "will be the most obvious first year player to make an impact" says Hackett, although Grootegeod and Banning High's 1999 All-American running back Chris Howard will make their bids.
"We have lots of new energy in our coaching staff," says Hackett of some changes made over the off-season. "Some guys were out of place before, but they're all workaholics. It's important to change after going 6-6.
"We were not disciplined enough last year. We had 16 penalties against Oregon, and made errors in judgement. People are counted on to be solid. We addressed the issues, and it won't be tolerated. How quickly will we improve? We expect to improve, the nature of SC is that we expect to win National Championships, we expect to win.
"We should have won the Stanford, Oregon and Notre Dame games <all lost after leading by 21>. We had missed assignments, lack of discipline, missed tackles."
Still, Hackett denies that was a consideration in the change of coaches.
All the stars are aligned in SC's favor this year. They have the talent and the schedule to have a great season, but if they fail again, Hackett will be feeling all the pressure and scrutiny he can handle!
Causes Steven Travers Supports
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