CBS’ TV football analyst John Madden likes to talk about the best way of finding good places to eat while traveling the country in his Maddencrusier.
“Never go to the places by the highway,” says Madden. “They usually look good, nice and shiny, but it’s a bluff. Go in to town, usually on the wrong side of the tracks. Find a greasy spoon, and that’s usually the best food.”
Another thing that is a bluff is USC football, 2000 edition.
The Trojans’ had everybody, including me, hyped to the gills when they beat Joe Paterno and Penn State, 29-5 in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Like restaurants by the highway, SC looked nice and shiny, led by running back Sultan McCullough against the Nittany Lions’. McCullough’s pounding running had everybody thinking that “Tailback U.” was back.
Oh, how wrong were. Southern California had their hands full against winless Colorado, but escaped with a 17-14 win. Their lackluster performance against the Buffalos’ was attributed to a two-week layoff.
Next came San Jose State, and again SC had to dig deep to escape with a win. This second-rate effort was also attributed to another two-week layoff, but the spin was also that the Spartans’, who beat Stanford (who beat Texas) were an emerging power.
San Jose State is still just San Jose State. SC, it turns out, is the team that is emerging. In fact, they emerged—as an also-ran—years ago, but every season the faithful believe This Is The Year.
It is not this year.
USC went to Oregon State, and it was a replay of last season, when penalties and on-field mental errors plagued their 6-6 campaign. That record had been blamed on quarterback Carson Palmer’s injury, but now Palmer is healthy and, well, he is just not all that good.
Palmer is a solid quarterback, but not the Heisman hopeful this scribe thought he could be. My bad.
“We have stumbled,” was head coach Paul Hackett’s assessment. “We have a lot of work to do. Right now, we have to avoid overreacting. It’s pretty obvious what the glaring issues are, so we have to keep working, to keep making progress, and if we do things like bowls will be our reqard at the end.”
Another factor is that the Pacific-10 Conference has become, overnight it seems, the most rugged in the nation. Surviving the Pac is like reaching a top slot in the Soviet Politburo during Stalin’s time.
“We must demand perfection on every play,” says Hackett. “Every single play is important. So fr, we’ve wasted some good efforts.
“When you don’t run the ball, it’s the nature of the quarterback to feel he has to make the play. The pressure is now on the offensive line.”
Certainly, anybody who still thinks of Oregon State the way we all used to think about Oregon State is ripe for a rude awakening. Dennis Erickson has the Beavers’ playing at a fever pitch, and they can beat anybody on a given Saturday.
Nevertheless, USC had them beaten at Corvallis, but penalties, fumbles and missed field goals did them in.
That loss was particularly galling in light of the national picture. Ranked eighth coming in, USC could have benefited from a slew of undefeated teams taking it on the chin the last few weeks, if only they could have stayed unbeaten themselves.
On October 7 at the Coliseum, however, it all fell apart. USC looked like a team that had all the air taken out of them, a team that felt like there was nothing left to play for, now that the National Championship was no longer realistic.
Arizona led 21-0 before the potato salad was gone in the Coliseum press box. It was like a morgue up there, the LA writers’ realizing that they had little more than mediocrity to cover from here on out.
In an odd way, losing so badly to the Wildcats’ was cathartic. Losing by way of penalties and terrible mental miscues had a brutal, galling effect on SC’s supporters. Just getting whipped by a superior team is, in a strange way, easier to swallow. That said, USC must confront the fact that th players’ appear almost to have given up mid-way through the season.
As Hal Holbrooke said in “Wall Street” (1987), “When a man stares into the abyss, that’s when he finds himself, and that’s what keeps him out of the abyss.”
The problem is, some Trojans’ may find it easier to fall into the abyss than to apply the mental discipline and physical pain associated with preparing to beat quality football teams the rest of this season. They will be up for traditional rivals UCLA and Notre Dame just because the hype for those games pumps anybody up, but they could be so low by then that nothing can get the ship back on course.
This whole thing has just become “wait until next year,” but next year never happens anymore.
So, who is to blame? Well, Hackett is getting his share of fingers pointed at him, but he is not the culprit. He may not be the best coach in the country, but the man is hard-working, a good recruiter and salesman, honest and forthright with the press, experienced—in essense, he is everything one could ask of a Division I head coach.
The whole concept of firing coaches before their contracts have expired is not a good policy. The Dodgers’, for instance, jumped the gun by axing Davey Johnson with a year left. Whoever replaces him will be under a lot of pressure, during a time when he is still implementing a new system that may or may not be a fit with this team.
The same thing applies to the Trojans’ situation. If Hackett gets the boot, somebody will have to be brought in, amid much promise and pressure, a new man with a whole new style. Nobody can say whether that style will be any better than Hackett’s, John Robinson’s or Larry Smith’s.
Even Ted Tollner is starting to look kind of good at this point, God forbid.
One thing that still is obvious, however, is that USC is not losing for lack of good athletes. Their roster is loaded with blue chip recruits with size and speed.
The Trojan mystique is long gone. The players put on the Cardinal and Gold, however, and somehow think that the spirit of O.J. Simpson (okay, bad example)—the spirit of Charles White or Marcus White or Pat Haden somehow takes over. Perhaps the program is a victim of their own past success. In one way or another, programs like Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma have gone through similar experiences, but they have all rebounded better than Southern Cal.
ONES TO WATCH
To be Petros Papadakis, that is the question
It looked like Petros was going to be a big story this year, but luck, as usual, has not gone his way. Papadakis suffered a debilitating injury that kept him out all of last year, and still makes him vulnerable. However, early on he looked like the guy who could be counted on not to fumble the football.
That is, until his fumble deep in Oregon State’s territory proved to be the final nail in USC’s coffin.
Petros has been slowed by more nagging injuries, but remains a colorful character on the team.
“I wasn’t even recruited out of high school,” he says.
Papadakis played at Peninsula High School, where he starred but apparently did not impress enough people to warrant big-time offers.
He went to the University of California, but left Berkeley just before school started his freshman year. He took the semester off, and entered USC in the spring, following in the footsteps of his father, John, who played for John McKay back in 1970-71, and older brother Taso.
“I just wasn’t ready for college,” remarks Petros.
Petros is unsusually erudite for a jock. He comes from a colorful Greek family, which operates the wonderful Papadakis Taverna restaurant in San Pedro, and his life has been about sports, singing, dancing, Greek Mythology, and Shakespeare.
“I don’t know all of Shakespeare’s plays,” says Petros, whose brother is an actor , “but I can quote `MacBeth’ backwards and forwards.”
It would be nice if the witch who directs MacBeth’s destiny could be located and made to direct USC to a winning season, but it now seems they are headed towards the same star-crossed fate as MacBeth.
Backs against the Wall
He is a freshman, and he might be USC’s last resort. David Newbury has been so ineffective that Wall was brought in and kicked a field goal for USC vs. Arizona.
“We will go with John Wall for the rest of the season,” says Hackett. “He and I talked about being mentally prepared to start, and he’s back in the groove.”
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism