On Nov. 26, UCLA’s trendy all-white uniforms trudged off the Coliseum field — stained beyond recognition with dirt and embarrassment — and an endless stream of USC players lined up to conduct the Trojan Marching Band.
At that moment, most USC fans wished the 2012 season could start the following Saturday.
Instead, USC fandom entered the offseason with a hint of foreboding and with fear that four key upperclassmen, including quarterback Matt Barkley and safety T.J. McDonald, now seniors, would defect to the NFL one year early.
And as we learned last July, there is always the possibility during the summer that a key starter will drunkenly parade through Hollywood while on TMZ, anoint USC the “University of Sexual Ballers” and earn an early-season suspension.
Thankfully for the program, USC emerged from this offseason unscathed, avoiding the type of embarrassing publicity and negative momentum that could derail its season before it even began.
Other top programs weren’t so fortunate.
LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, one of college football’s most electrifying playmakers, was kicked off the team for repeated disciplinary issues.
Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees kneed a police officer in the chest at a summer off-campus party, finishing the night with four misdemeanor charges.
And TCU saw four of its most enterprising players caught in a campus-wide drug sting.
Amid the horrific revelations from Penn State and the offseason gaffes of notable players from other top programs, USC players represented their school honorably, most notably when Barkley and his family led 15 teammates to Haiti on a humanitarian mission.
Of course, it is insulting to praise USC players for avoiding the police blotter — that’s an expectation, not an achievement.
But what the summer record reinforces is that USC coach Lane Kiffin’s squad continues to understand that no single player supersedes the interests of the team.
USC players either chose to make news for the right reasons or, more cynically, didn’t get caught doing anything bad.
Knowing the upstanding veteran leadership on this team, I choose to believe the former.
Kiffin has shown he will not tolerate players who forget USC’s main objective: To win as a team, not for players to pad their individual statistics in hopes of attracting NFL interest.
For Kiffin, it’s all about instilling a team culture of selflessness.
That’s why left tackle Matt Kalil, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, in addition to allowing zero sacks during the 2011 season, also moonlighted as a kick-blocking specialist, blocking four kicks and sporting massive welts on his arms to prove it.
That’s why redshirt senior Chris Gallipo did not publicly gripe when freshman linebacker Lamar Dawson replaced him in the starting lineup midway through the season, although the move likely cemented the former Servite High School star’s fate of going undrafted in 2012.
Most importantly, that’s why the program jettisoned troubled talents like Dillon Baxter and Markeith Ambles, who bemoaned their inability to pass less-heralded prep prospects on the depth chart and were disinterested in earning Kiffin’s trust.
Despite Kiffin’s reputation as a disciplinarian, he has proven willing to afford his players the opportunity to pay their penance for mistakes and return to the team with a clean slate. Perhaps the greatest testament to this philosophy is redshirt senior running back Curtis McNeal, who, after failing to qualify academically in 2010, developed into one of the elite offensive weapons in the Pac-12.
In a strange way, the sanctions and resulting scholarship reductions have allowed Kiffin to clean house of malcontents. Players who care more about playing for themselves than USC won’t receive any resistance from Kiffin when seeking a transfer. After all, he already has to field 10 fewer scholarship players than other schools.
Unfortunately, selflessness is not always taught to decorated USC recruits who earn a trove of awards and media exposure before ever even arriving on campus.
Yet the majority of them will never achieve the superstardom they once thought inevitable. Some will have to accept unglamorous, ego-crushing roles, such as impersonating the opposing teams’ players on scout team during practice or backing up a young up-and-comer.
On the other hand, the reality of reduced scholarships during the sanctions era is that a lack of depth will force the coaching staff to ask too much of certain star players and count on them to deliver.
In this case, the image of junior wide receiver Robert Woods sustaining a bone-crunching hit on kickoff return, dusting himself off and catching the first few passes of a series readily comes to mind.
It will be USC’s continued ability to preach team over self — to have players accept diminished roles or to take on an unfair amount of responsibility — that will determine whether the Trojans can take care of their “unfinished business.”
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