How do you sum up four years in 1,000 words? With a collection of loosely related memories? An overarching thesis that tries to tie them all together?
For almost every one of the 120 or so weeks that the Class of 2017 has been at USC, I’ve had the pleasure and challenge of trying to break down the state of Trojan athletics in the space of this column. How can I cram all of those moments — every game, every play, every questionable call, let alone every football head coaching hire — into one column? (Granted, this one’s a little over 1,000 words).
It’s natural for any USC graduate to look at the history of Trojan athletics within the context of a student’s four years at the University. Of course, these four-year blocks overlap with others, and it’s hard to frame any one period separately from all the tradition and history that led up to that point. It’s not like breaking down presidential terms or cycles of Olympic Games. But nonetheless, I have one last argument to make in these columns, as I try to wrap my head around all the nostalgia and memories from my time here at USC.
The Class of 2017 witnessed the craziest four-year turnaround of Trojan football in its history.
This is certainly not to say that we witnessed the best four-year period in USC football history, even the greatest four-year turnaround or the craziest single four-year period. But we have seen a remarkable change in the direction of the football program from our freshman years, and it will be generations until the Trojans ever wind down a road wilder than the one we watched to get to this point.
Granted, my memory of USC football doesn’t include anything prior to 2000, so I qualify that any of my grand superlatives may sell short the accomplishments of the program under Howard Jones, John McKay or John Robinson. But you would have to go all the way back to the 2000 season to have anything which to really compare USC’s current turnaround.
That was Paul Hackett’s last year at the helm in the Coliseum. The team went 5-7. You almost have to stop and double-take at that record to really process it: USC football, at one point in the 21st century, finished a season below .500. Petros Papadakis, then a captain of the team before starting his career as a broadcaster, proudly refers to the group as “the worst football team in USC history.”
Then comes along a guy named Pete Carroll, quarterback Carson Palmer turns into a Heisman trophy winner and by the 2003 season, the Trojans have won an Orange Bowl then a Rose Bowl, the latter earning them an AP Poll National Championship.
So the 2000-2003 four-year block probably deserves the distinction as the greatest actual turnaround. In that span, the football program literally went from “worst” to first. Much ink has been spilt on this paper surrounding the legend of Pete Carroll during that window — the only thing that can really do it any justice at this point is ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary about the program. Whether the greatest four-year period of USC football should include the 2005 season or end after the 2004 national championship, well, I’ll leave that up to you — but hey, one could even make a case for the string of four consecutive Rose Bowl appearances ending with three wins in a row from the 2005-2008 season.
When solely looking at the wildest, craziest, most bizarre and unbelievable four years at USC, these past four make a great case. But the real wildness within the USC program started just before we got here.
You could include the sanction seasons. You could include Carroll’s departure after the 2009 season and Lane Kiffin’s unremarkable first year in 2010. Almost everyone forgets how amazing Kiffin’s 2011 season was with the Trojans, when the postseason ineligible team went 10-2 — vaulting Matt Barkley into the top of the Heisman watch list and the Trojans to the No. 1 spot in the 2012 preseason AP Poll.
But that’s when I would consider the beginning of the single craziest four years ever of USC football. This was my senior year of high school, just as I was deciding if I would follow through on the lifelong dream of attending USC.
And the Trojans went 7-6. There was the first loss to UCLA in six seasons, what could have been Barkley’s legendary fourth season ending with an injury, coming just short of knocking Notre Dame out of the national championship game — the first time I thought I was going to storm the field at the Coliseum — and then the still unfathomable loss to Georgia Tech’s triple option attack on the windiest day ever in El Paso, Texas in the Sun Bowl — the one where the Trojans forgot to show up on time for the bowl game’s honorary dinner.
Then you can throw in every ridiculous turn that happened between 2013 and 2015 — the ones we on the Daily Trojan spent every week talking about. Kiffin’s us-versus-the-world mentality worked in the last sanction season of 2011, but then crashed on the LAX tarmac after the ASU blowout. Coach O cemented his place in the Interim Football Coaches Hall of Fame, putting the “southern” back in Southern California. But as much as I loved interviewing him — and I must say that my impression of his Bayou drawl was spot-on by the end of that 2013 season — he seems to have finally found his proper home back at LSU. Sarkisian was the final nail in the coffin of the Ghosts of Carroll, proving it was finally time to move on from that phase of USC history.
So concluded the strangest ever four-year stretch in USC football history. The Class of 2016 that got to witness it all will hold that distinction for a long time.
For us seniors, though, we got to watch the story unfold for one more year.
I don’t think anyone from the Daily Trojan was really sold on Clay Helton. It’s impossible to separate his legacy at USC from the performance of Sam Darnold — and I’d like to peddle one last 20/20 hindsight theory that if Helton had waited until after last year’s Utah game to replace Max Browne with Darnold, the Trojans might have played for the national championship this year. But the 2017 season proved that the Trojans have found a leader they can trust in Helton — one who can hopefully bring that elusive consistency that this program has always needed along with its ethos of Southern California swagger.
To put into perspective how remarkable of a turnaround we got to see, we need to look only at the two games that book-ended our four years.
My first USC home game — the first one I ever really tailgated, the first one I witnessed from the student section surrounded by the guys who would turn out to be my best friends, the moment I had spent all of high school looking forward to — was a 10-7 loss to Washington State. Not the respectable Washington State of the new and competitive Pac-12, but the Washington State I had grown up watching USC automatically beat. The Washington State that finished 2013 under .500 held a USC offense to single digits.
My last ever USC football game ever was Rose Bowl win. I had seen four growing up. This one was easily the sweetest.
And there you have it. The craziest four-year turnaround in USC football history.
A lot has changed personally over the course of those four years. I came into USC dreaming of a career covering sports. Now, I think any “job” I’ll have in the sports world will involve coaching them. I would challenge any aspiring sportswriter to never conflate the two. We write to inform fellow fans, not to challenge the coaches we cover. Coaches don’t read sports columns — or at least they shouldn’t — but every fan who loves their team does. If you really think you could have put together a better game plan, give it a try. There is an endless number of opportunities to get involved with youth sports coaching around the country.
To all of my sports editors, it’s been a pleasure. To Jake, the ever reliable ying to my yang in this space these past eight semesters, we’ll have to find something else to disagree about after we graduate. To TrojanCBB and BenFactor, my first-ever comment trolls on the Conquest Chronicles blog, you’re right — I’ll never be a real sportswriter — but to Chris Dufresne, thank you for making sure that I got published in the Los Angeles Times sports page at least once. To Mom and Dad, for the endless support at every different twist my career track, much love.
There will always be a hole in my heart until the Trojan dynasty brings back the national championship it let slip away to Texas. The 2017 season honestly may be the best chance in the foreseeable future for USC to do so, but I have no bold prediction to offer on next year.
If USC can turn that dream into a reality, it will be someone else’s story to tell.
Luke Holthouse is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development and print and digital journalism. His column, “Holthouse Party,” ran on Wednesdays.