USC staff’s silence only adds more frustration

Julia Poe | Daily Trojan

I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to be quiet anymore when I watch, read about or think about the USC football team.

Most of the time, even the mere mention of the team elicits a curse or a groan from my direction. I’ve reached that point of any overhyped, underperformed season where I’m beyond disappointed — just exhausted by the grueling nature of the week-to-week drama and the effort it takes to cheer even half-heartedly for a team when you know its season is already over.

It’s hard to be too angry at any of the individual players who have struggled this season. There’s been plenty of injuries to go around, and between the beat-up starting lineup and the youth of the players remaining, it’s always difficult to be too hard on young players who just can’t seem to figure it out.

But in the past few weeks, I’ve felt a building resentment toward one part of this Trojan unit: the coaching staff. Head coach Clay Helton remains the indomitably good-natured nice guy of USC, but his responses after stumbling performances and crushing losses have become increasingly weak and vague as the weeks persist.

This problem is even worse, however, in the assistant coaches. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin has been almost infamous in his inability to acknowledge key weaknesses in his offense and insisting that his team is improving from week to week.

But offensive line coach Neil Callaway officially took the cake this week when Los Angeles Times reporter Zach Helfand interviewed him after practice. Crippled by injuries, the offensive line took a brutal beatdown in South Bend last weekend, getting pancaked on almost every play by a smothering Notre Dame defensive line.

Despite this, Callaway acted as if the line performed well. Helfand recorded the following series of defensive non-answers:

Two reporters approached Callaway after Tuesday’s practice to inquire why USC’s offensive line didn’t produce consistently against Notre Dame.

“Who said we didn’t?” Callaway said.

There were linemen who got beaten up front.

“And that’s your opinion, right?” Callaway said.

It’s on the game tape.

“You answered the question,” Callaway said. “You answer it. You answer it then.”

So do you think the line has been playing well?

“I didn’t say that,” Callaway said.

Helton said they lost the physical battle. Why do you think that hasn’t been the case?

“All right, let’s call this thing off,” he said, patting the reporters on the shoulders and walking off the field.

“All right. We’ll see y’all.”

Don’t even try to argue with me — this is unacceptable. If coaches should do anything, they should take responsibility for their team. They mold these young men’s talents and shape them through practices and offensive schemes and in-game advice. Coaches are the ones in charge, from the start of spring ball to the end of the postseason. And it’s time for USC’s coaches to take accountability for their jobs.

What’s worse is that the players — most of whom are under 21 years old — are the ones setting an example for their coaches. After Saturday’s blowout loss to Notre Dame, the players ambled slowly and dejectedly out of the locker room, picking up bags of Chik-fil-A and shuffling past a barricade to greet scattered family before heading to the bus.

Most had to be steered toward the small crowd of reporters anxiously waiting for answers about the primetime meltdown that took place on the field only minutes before. Even redshirt senior safety and team captain Chris Hawkins, who typically greets the media with ease and honesty, hung his head and avoided eyes as he attempted to slip past.

But not redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. When he saw the press pool, he immediately walked over, brushed his hair back and nodded to signal that he was ready. There was an awkward pause, and then we all dove in: What happened with the fumble, with the interception, with the deep pitch to redshirt senior wide receiver Steven Mitchell that just didn’t connect? Was it the offensive line? The receivers? The atmosphere?

Most of Darnold’s answers, like any interview with an athlete, were laden with cliches and vagueties. But the one thing that Darnold didn’t do was make excuses.

He blamed himself for the opening fumble, regardless of the fact that redshirt senior center Nico Falah zipped the snap at his facemask rather than his hands. He pointed to parts of his play that could be improved, gave credit to Notre Dame’s swarming defense and refused to allow himself to brush off the loss.

It was easy to get annoyed by Darnold’s responses, because most of what he was saying was a general reiteration of, “We have to be better,” packaged with a different variety of sports-isms. As reporters, we wanted answers, something concrete to write about. But Darnold still did more than his coaches. He took the blame. He didn’t back down from his mistakes. And he promised that he would at least try to do better.

Martin and Callaway and the rest of the coaching staff should take a page out of Darnold’s book. Being a leader is about taking the blame and being honest. If the USC coaching staff isn’t prepared to admit when it makes mistakes or faces hardship, then it isn’t ready to win championships — or ball games for that matter.

We know it’s been a rough season. So do they. So instead of making excuses or ignoring the issues, make a change. It’s time to cut the crap. That’s the only way this team is going to start to get better.

Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.