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Pete Carroll and the Trojans' Climb to the Top of the College Football Mountain
By David Wharton, Gary Klein
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2005 David Wharton and Gary Klein
All rights reserved.
A Defining Moment
It wasn't until midday that a storm blew into South Florida, a damp wind gathering in swirls, rattling through trees that lined the football field. Players looked up, checking the sky, and the next minute it was pouring, streaks of rain splashing off helmets and shoulder pads. The linemen put their heads down, kept sloshing, grunting through drills. The quarterback kept zipping passes to his receivers.
If anything, the conditions at USC practice that day — the last day of 2004 — put a grin on Pete Carroll's face. As if it were the best thing that could have happened. From a purely football point of view, the coach wanted to see his guys deal with a little adversity, trying not to mishandle any snaps or fumble the ball. For entirely different reasons, it seemed like the kid in him got downright excited, sopping wet, gray curls matted against his forehead. Carroll splashed through puddles. He laughed.
"This is great," he called out to no one in particular. And later: "Man, I wish I could put on some pads."
His attitude was infectious, the team growing more boisterous as the afternoon wore on. Anyone who had been around the Trojans knew their practices moved at a rapid clip — nobody, but nobody, ever walked. When the horn sounded, players hustled to the next spot, led by assistants barking, moving even faster. Scrimmages were conducted at full speed. "We're all jumping around," said Reggie Bush, the young tailback. "You would think we're playing a real game." No Florida squall could slow them.
Afterward, in a makeshift locker room, soaked jerseys strewn across an indoor basketball court, the mood remained upbeat as players chatted with family. Shaun Cody, the All-American defensive lineman, shrugged off the weather, saying, "We can play in whatever the conditions." Like buddies having fun in the rain. No hint of worry or nerves, nothing to suggest that he and his teammates were facing the biggest game of their lives.
In four more days, the Trojans would play Oklahoma in the FedEx Orange Bowl to decide the national championship of college football. A meeting of undefeated teams. No. 1 versus No. 2. Fans had waited for this game since summer, watching as the squads dominated tough opponents and, on lesser days, found ways to get by. There had been some squabbling over the bowl championship series, or BCS, the complicated formula that determined the title game. Another undefeated team, Auburn, had been left out of the mix, but it was hard to argue this matchup. Two schools rich in football tradition. Two teams that had led the polls from wire to wire. Never before had there been so much star power on one field.
Start with Matt Leinart, the USC quarterback. He was a remarkable story, a once-pudgy kid who needed surgery to fix his crossed eyes and took up football only at his older brother's urging. Now he was the best player in the land, winner of the Heisman Trophy. The Trojans also had Bush, whose humble nature belied a showman's flair, a propensity for cutback runs and dazzling kick returns. "He has such an ability to create yards, to make you miss, and to make big plays," said Bob Stoops, the Oklahoma coach. The Sooners answered with quarterback Jason White, the Heisman winner from the year before, coming back for one more try at the championship that had eluded him. This time, he had help in the form of Adrian Peterson, a freshman sensation at running back, the sort of talent that came along once in a generation. Both defenses were tough and opportunistic. Both lineups were studded with All-Americans.
"So many great athletes," Bush said. "It could play out to be an instant classic."
The media were already using terms such as "historic" and "best ever" to describe the upcoming game at Pro Player Stadium. If any more hype were necessary, it was provided by a young defensive lineman for the Sooners. Shortly before the teams arrived in Florida, Larry Birdine told reporters that Leinart was "definitely overrated ... he's a good quarterback but not a Heisman-winning quarterback." The big sophomore, known for uttering whatever crossed his mind, did not stop there. He spoke of watching the Trojans on film and deciding, "They're an average team." It was a startling bit of trash talk given that both squads were stocked with veterans who otherwise knew to keep their mouths shut. The USC players brushed it off. "Just a guy talking," Leinart said. "I just kind of laughed." Yet, in an unintended way, Birdine's comments had touched a nerve.
Carroll acknowledged as much on that rainy day after practice. Long after everyone else had gone inside, he stayed on the field to play catch with someone's son, a boy who had come out to watch. He waved a hand and told the kid to go deep, lofted an easy spiral that was caught in clumsy arms. Carroll let out a whoop. Despite the loose atmosphere, everyone having a good time, the coach said, "This is huge for us."
It was much more than one game, one season. The Trojans needed to prove themselves in a bigger way.
* * *
Heritage Hall stands near the center of the University of Southern California campus, a seventies building of traditional red brick set against more flamboyant architectural elements — high arches and slender columns. In the lobby, with its plush red carpeting, display cases hold artifacts of the school's football past, the national championship trophies and six bronze Heismans. Beyond that is a staircase leading to a cluster of offices on the second floor. It was up there, shortly after the regular season ended, that preparations for the Orange Bowl began.
Much of the work was done in a corner office, coaches gathering each day around a conference table. With the lights dimmed, they watched hours of game film on a big screen, pausing, reversing, poring over each detail of Oklahoma's season. In some ways, they were looking in a mirror, the teams remarkably alike, right down to the All-American defensive lineman named Cody — USC's Shaun and Oklahoma's Dan — that each had on the roster. "Our numbers are so comparable in points allowed and all of those areas," Carroll said. "There's just a ton of similarities."
The more film the USC coaches watched, the more they focused on Oklahoma's offensive line, built around Outland Trophy–winner Jammal Brown at right tackle. Most experts figured the Sooners held the advantage in this area. As Shaun Cody said, "They're going to try to pound us." Yet, in private, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron wasn't impressed by the left side of the line and suspected that his stout defensive tackle, Mike Patterson, could raise havoc in the middle. Of course, there was still the matter of tackling that young Sooners running back. "He's not the type of guy you just hit and he'll fall down," Patterson said. "You have to wrap him up ... we have to swarm him."
The other detail that stood out on film was Oklahoma's secondary. Twice, in close victories over Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, the Sooners had given up a slew of long passes. Granted, they were playing without senior Antonio Perkins, who had since returned from injury. And their defense had improved further when freshman cornerback Marcus Walker joined the starting lineup in November. Still, the Trojans' figured to test them deep.
Even after the game plan was finished and given to the team in a series of practices, the USC coaches kept going back to the film room — "The deeper the study, the more you see," Carroll said — looking for tidbits, jotting more notes until the day the Trojans headed east. They touched down in South Florida shortly after dark on December 28, stepping off the plane to a fanfare of music and dancers, potted palms and an orange carpet rolled out on the tarmac. Buses emblazoned with giant photographs of Carroll and former USC quarterback Carson Palmer waited to take them to their beachfront hotel.
Many of the players remembered the Westin Diplomat from a previous stay, when the Trojans faced Iowa in the 2003 Orange Bowl. They knew about the gleaming lobby and art deco architecture, the palatial grounds with a mirrored pool that emptied in matching waterfalls to a lagoon below. Seniors got private rooms, a luxury that came around only once a year, though Cody wasn't so sure he liked the idea. Down the hall, his younger teammates hollered and laughed. "I'm going to be kind of bored," he said. "I'll probably just go and hang out at somebody else's room."
The Trojans began daily practices the next afternoon at a small college campus north of Miami, the coaches realistic about how much could be accomplished. They knew that a good part of the week would be spent dealing with distractions, including a handful of celebrities that hovered around the team. Nick Lachey, the MTV star, was a Leinart pal, and comedian Will Ferrell was a big fan. Tommy Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, stopped by. So did USC legend Frank Gifford, who quipped, "Just don't tell them the year I played ... I don't think their fathers were born." There were Orange Bowl events to attend — dinners, parties, hospital visits — as well as the lure of clubs along South Beach.
Back in 2003, Leinart had taken full advantage. He was a third-stringer then, "hanging out" and doing "all the fun things." This time, he said, would be different.
* * *
The Sooners had arrived in South Florida a day earlier than USC and had gone straight from the airport to another college near the ocean — their training site for the week — where they ran drills until sunset. "Our schedule is crazy," one of the players said, coming off the field. "Straight off the plane we rushed here."
They were back at it the next afternoon, working out behind locked gates, a uniformed security guard standing post. By the time USC arrived that evening, Oklahoma had finished its second full session, including a 35-play scrimmage. The mood was different from practices back home, said Peterson, the running back, "more aggressive ... getting into the right mindset for a big game." Or, as quarterback Jason White explained, "We're down here for one reason."
They had a score to settle.
Oklahoma had won the 2000 national championship at the Orange Bowl and looked for all the world like a dynasty in the making when it returned to the BCS title game — this time at the Nokia Sugar Bowl — only three years later. But at that point, the Sooners' storybook tale took a wrong turn. Facing underdog Louisiana State, they started slowly and fell short with a fourth-quarter rally, losing by a touchdown. "We learned our lesson," said Brown, the offensive tackle. "You can't just roll into the championship game and expect to win."
Attitude wasn't the only problem. That squad struggled to run the ball, putting too big a burden on the quarterback. So Stoops and his assistants devoted their off-season to going after Peterson, the best schoolboy back in the country. They stole him away from neighboring Texas and, by the third game of the season, he was running wild. More than 200 yards against Oklahoma State. Three touchdowns against Baylor. Three more in the Big 12 championship versus Colorado. The quiet freshman had two things going for him. First, he was tireless — hence the nickname "AD," as in "all day." Second, he ran with a bruising, straight-ahead style that forced defenses to make a choice.
"They have to decide whether they're going to try to stop the run or the pass," White said. "It's kind of like, pick your poison."
The Oklahoma players swore they were a different team with Peterson in the backfield. They had a 12–0 record in the regular season to back that claim, but now came time to prove it on a bigger stage. Thus the closed practices and decidedly serious atmosphere. An athletic department spokesman let it be known, from the very first day, that the talkative Birdine was off-limits. Reporters wondered if Stoops might reconsider.
"You want to talk to him today? You can talk to him," the coach said. Then, after a moment's pause, "Well, maybe you can't."
If Carroll was animated and energetic, Stoops was midwestern tough, the son of a high school coach who had grown up amid the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio. His no-nonsense demeanor fit perfectly in Norman, a town on the Oklahoma plains where the university dominated the landscape and football was tantamount to religion. Stoops knew how much this Orange Bowl meant to the fans. Only a few weeks earlier, after the conference championship, his team had arrived home to "thousands of people at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning," he said. "I like the fact that we're expected to win every week."
He also seemed to welcome questions about the previous season's disappointment against LSU, as if he wanted his guys to remember the hurt, to carry a chip on their shoulders. Back in training camp, they had adopted "Finish" as their rallying cry and had worn this motto on T-shirts and bracelets all season long. White had decided to stick around for his final season, in large part, to get another shot at the title. A victory over USC would put Oklahoma back on top of the college game, with two championships in five years. It would make everything right again.
"They want to finish," Stoops said of his players. "They want to rectify what happened."
* * *
The big game was still five days away, the experts still debating over who might win, calling it a toss-up, when an event on the other side of the country changed everything.
Texas Tech defeated California, 45–31, in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl at San Diego. This was the same Texas Tech that had lost decisively to Oklahoma earlier in the season. The same Cal that had come so close to upsetting USC, missing on four chances from point-blank range in the last two minutes. Now came the hue and cry. The Pacific-10 Conference was clearly overrated. USC had built its 12–0 record against inferior opponents.
One after another, sportswriters and television commentators began picking Oklahoma. The Sooners were too tough and too experienced, they reasoned, and Peterson would be unstoppable. The USC players claimed not to care about any predictions. "You can throw all that stuff out the window," safety Jason Leach said. Yet, as the Orange Bowl drew closer, there was another, more tangible reason for questioning their chances.
His name was LenDale White.
While Reggie Bush grabbed most of the spotlight, always showing up on highlight films, White was the other half of USC's tailback combo. He was a more powerful runner, an every-down back who could pound out three yards here, four yards there. He also served as a leader for the team, more outwardly emotional than Bush, thumping his chest, getting guys fired up in the huddle. All season long, the Trojans had alternated their so-called "Thunder and Lightning" sophomores, keeping defenses off-balance with two very different running styles. But White had sprained an ankle against UCLA and now, in Florida, was walking with a limp. Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator, said the team was prepared to go without him in the lineup. "You just have to make adjustments and keep rolling along," he said. "We just have to keep going."
The truth was, USC needed White. Offensive lineman John Drake explained, "If our offense was a courtroom, LenDale White would be the gavel."
Each day brought a new development. White was held out of practice or he ran a few drills but did not take part in scrimmages. The young man grew increasingly anxious. "I'll do anything I can to play," he said. "If I have to suck up the pain for two hours, three hours, that's what I'm going to do." He begged for more work, only to have his coach refuse. He said, "I'm going to get in [Carroll's] ear and let him know I'm ready to go." Finally, Carroll's wife got involved.
It was several days before kickoff, and a group of USC players were standing around the hotel. According to White, Glena Carroll approached and asked about his ankle. She then held her hands in the vicinity of the injury and said a short prayer. It might have seemed crazy, but "the next morning I woke up and it felt great," White said. The day after that, Carroll announced the tailback had his best practice in almost a month.
What were the chances? A big game — if not an entire season — saved by a spontaneous blessing? White wondered aloud if Glena might be his guardian angel. When Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke asked Pete Carroll about his wife's reputed curative powers, the coach could only grin and say, "All I know is, I'm very rarely sick."
* * *
Great masses of clouds rumbled off in the distance — the rains that had soaked South Florida for several days were finally moving on. Carroll stepped outside the team hotel and found an empty veranda overlooking the ocean, a place to sit in the sun for a few minutes. He wore shorts and sandals, a dark pullover. Falling back on a chaise lounge, he began to talk about how badly he wanted to win this game.
"Nobody has beaten them this season," he said of the Sooners. "We'll have to overcome big odds."
Excerpted from Conquest by David Wharton, Gary Klein. Copyright © 2005 David Wharton and Gary Klein. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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