Between stuffing my face with beignets, listening to jazz music in Jackson Square and making my way through the chaos that is Bourbon Street this past weekend at the Final Four in New Orleans, I thought hard about USC basketball.
For those who have never been, the Final Four is unequivocally the greatest spectacle in sports, professional or college. It’s the biggest party you’ll ever see, mixed with pomp and circumstance, a wild array of school spirit and an atmosphere that sucks you in the moment you arrive at the host city.
But even as I crossed another sports adventure off my bucket list, something didn’t feel completely right. It’s hard to argue with an NCAA final pitting two of the nation’s premier basketball factories, Kentucky and Kansas, against each other, but I have to admit, after about the 50th chant of “Let’s Go C-A-T-S” or “Rock Chalk Jayhawks,” I longed for just one rendition of the SoCal spellout or a stadium crowd of 75,000 singing “Fight On” in unison.
I hope you get to experience a Final Four, except with the Cardinal and Gold playing on the court.
As the passion of the four fan bases enveloped me during my stay in the Big Easy, I worried whether my school, my program and my rabid fan base would ever get to electrify a venue like the Superdome or the Georgia Dome or the Alamodome.
As of today, I’ve almost made as many Final Four appearances as the USC men’s program.
The Trojans’ only two Final Four appearances came in 1940 and 1954, when the tournament wasn’t the big dance it is today. There weren’t 64 teams or the level of national coverage today’s elite programs receive on a daily basis. If you lived during the time period, the Final Four was only a little more than a blurb and a box score in the newspaper the next day. Let’s just say teams like La Salle and Duquesne were not huge draws.
Fifty-eight years have come and gone, and USC has nothing to show for it. The party has gotten bigger over the years, yet the Trojans seem less and less invested in trying to get an invitation back to a Final Four.
It might seem like I’m trying to have my cake and eat it too. I understand how privileged I am to go to a university like USC where athletics aren’t just another program on campus, but rather an integral part of the fabric.
Who can argue with the history and prestige of the football or baseball programs, the world-renowned recognition our Olympic sports such as track and field, swimming and water polo have received through the years, and the school’s willingness to expand with new sports like women’s sand volleyball and lacrosse.
But until you drink the Kool-Aid that is the Final Four, it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to witness the backdrop of a CBS broadcast in late March filled with the sounds of the Trojan Marching Band and a sea of cardinal and gold.
USC is not a basketball school — that much is for sure. Though the men’s program is the second-biggest revenue sport on campus, you’d hardly notice it given the lack of attention it’s received over the years by fans, the local media and, at times, even the athletic program.
The team has had its share of well-known leaders through the years, whether it be George Raveling, Henry Bibby or Kevin O’Neill. But those names don’t have the same pedigree as a Rick Pitino, a Roy Williams, a John Calipari or a Bill Self.
Despite a tremendous location, a beautiful new arena and a bevy of athletic talent in Southern California, there is a growing sentiment that if the men’s program has a good year here and there, it’s just the cherry on top of the other achievements the athletic department accumulates in a given 365-day period.
Over the years we’ve sort of collectively pigeonholed ourselves as the football school of the city, while leaving the hardcourt duties to our neighbors 15 miles away.
It’s a bad mindset, and whether you believe it exists or not, the proof is in our Final Four-less pudding. More than half a century and not a whole lot to show for it, outside of a few retired numbers and some noteworthy draft selections.
But if you asked Paul Westphal, Harold Miner or DeMar DeRozan, they’d probably tell you the same thing — for a school like USC, with as rich an athletic tradition as any school in the country, it’s disheartening not to see a Trojan team even come close to the first Monday in April.
There is no simple fix, because national championship-winning coaches are not a dime a dozen, injuries cannot be prevented, the one-and-done rule poses challenges in the recruiting process, and, above all else, changing the culture is not as easy as flipping a proverbial switch.
But it has to start from top to bottom. The athletic program needs to slowly but surely — whether it takes three years or 30 — build a program that feels like it has a chance to compete for more than just the occasional NCAA tournament appearance. It’s time to treat the big-revenue sport like it belongs on our campus and not as the awkward, less successful step-brother to the football program.
After all, isn’t it about time we had our own one shining moment?
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