“The Death of USC Football.” An Opinion Piece by Rock2112
It has happened. And no, not last night. It happened at an identifiable point of time, though, recently in modern memory. USC Football, as we have known it our entire lives, died. Quietly in the night.
Sometimes you think you know what you’re seeing when it happens, but you realize later that you didn’t truly understand what you were seeing without the perspective of time. People often overreact or underreact, and time reveals all.
There are many who do not want to hear or believe that USC Football has died, and I take no pleasure in announcing that, but hey, we all need therapy to keep us sane and happy, right? I understand that some of you here will disagree with me, saying Clay Helton is just a nightmare that we will eventually wake up from — maybe even sooner than we think. Maybe even this week (though I doubt it — there are still “championships” ahead of us to win, right?). These same folks are likely to point out how quickly USC football recovered from the nightmare 90s, once we got the right coach in Pete Carroll. They will say we are just one great hire away from restoring the glory of Trojan football. I wish that were true, but it’s not.
No, I have never been more certain about the moment the patient died on the table. It wasn’t very long ago. When? It was the moment that USC decided to stick with Clay Helton, rather than going all in, soup to nuts, on an effort to bring in an available Urban Meyer. It was Bohn’s tweet, announcing that Helton would be retained after the 2019 season.
Why was that our death? I mean, we’ve been making bad football decisions at USC for decades. And to appreciate that, at least in terms of performance, there is an argument to make that USC Football in fact died at the end of 1990. We all have explanations for our bad periods: Larry Smith was just bad. Ted Tollner was just bad. Paul Hackett was criminally bad. Pete Carroll proved how bad they all were, and how great we ARE, by just doing USC Football the way it should be done. Just like that.
Then we explain the period after Pete Carroll with another set of lenses: The NCAA fucked us. Kiffin should have been better. Sark was a drunk (who knew? Heh, everybody but us). We failed to see promise in Eddie O. Repenting for that meant elevating an inexperienced goofy Helton, just because he seemed like the only adult in the room.
But here’s the hard reality folks: Pete Carroll didn’t reveal the truth of what USC Football is — he DEFIED it. He defied what it started becoming at the end of the 1980s. His era is now the aberration in over three decades of mediocrity (and worse) for the Trojans. He showed what it could be, if everyone connected with USC Football buys in to the ethos of USC football (the HISTORICAL ethos of USC Football). And he demanded it, by forcing true effort, competition, and preparation. Every player was on notice — they had better give everything they have in every moment on the field, or they will be taken off of it. Plain and simple.
We USC fans can blame the NCAA, or Reggie Bush, or his family for where we are now, and it feels easy because they are probably the principal reason why we had to say goodbye to the Carroll era (though the football luster was fading in Carroll’s last year anyway and he knew it). We can blame a defined set of poor decisions after the NCAA hammer for one bad coach after another, and a lack of true greatness in our program. It gives us defined targets, and those are satisfying to have. But excuses are for the weak. They are for losers.
USC Football historically was bigger than any one coach, or even a series of them. It was, to steal someone’s slogan, all about a tremendous commitment to excellence. We were going to doing everything the best and with the most effort we could: getting the best players, TRYING to get the best coaches, working harder than everyone else, and demonstrating that excellence in a stadium of which we were immensely proud and protective. Losing in the Coliseum was not just losing, it was shameful. It hurt bad.
It is those values of excellence, effort, and the dominance that follows that gave rise to a loyal national fanbase and the vaunted historical image of the program. That’s what made the program attractive to the folks on this board, who I sense are in general also hard-working, committed, serious individuals who have the concept of excellence seared in our bellies. That’s my sense of all of you, and congratulations for that!
Well, Bohn’s 2019 tweet flew in the face of all of it. I said at the time, and it continues to resonate, that tone-deaf tweet was a sad moment in USC history. It was the first time, in my lifetime, that USC stopped TRYING to win for financial reasons. It was inexcusable. A poorly planned surrender (something we’ve seen a lot of lately, not to get too political and all). It was more shameful than any single loss this program has experienced, in the Coliseum or elsewhere. It was a breach of trust for the USC faithful that never happened before, even in all the bad years since 1990.
We betrayed our soul. We destroyed the magic. With Bohn’s white-flag, we knew it was time to hold a funeral but we forgot to hold it. Since then, we’ve just been propping up Clay Helton each weekend like living Weekend At Bernie’s on eternal loop. But hear me clearly: there was a funeral to be had there. In all our outrage, we missed it. We forgot to say goodbye, and to mourn.
Well, for me, NOW is that time. Now I am going to allow myself to mourn. For the second straight non-Covid affected season, last night I made an early season commitment not to watch another USC football game until Clay Helton is gone. But, this morning, I realized even THAT was misguided. Because it is not about Clay Helton, he’s just our Bernie. It is about the death of the ethos. The death of excellence at all costs. I have no confidence that this administration will hire the right person to replace Clay Helton, or will allow the person they do hire to impose the values of excellence that need to be imposed.
In part, that is because the world is changing, in a way that mirrors USC Football (and vice versa). We know what greatness looks like. It is the hardest working guys in the room, leading by example, and giving everything they have, to win. It’s Tom Brady. It’s Nick Saban. It was Kobe. These days, though, the world at large is gradually coming to the view that the “good life” is balance, cruising, being in touch with our casual humanity. A singularly focused ambition on winning is unhealthy, and is to be discouraged. And everyone gets a trophy. It was happening long before Covid, but Covid accelerated it. Now we live in a world where huge segments of the American population, members of a nation that once lead the world in effort, work ethic, accomplishment, and output, are more content to sit on their couches in their small crumbling apartments and collect some stipend or handout from the government to string them along further. All while businesses fail for lack of workers. For USC Football to maintain its historical identity, it has to RESIST these societal trends, but it has instead surrendered to them.
By the way, none of what I am saying is an indictment or disapproval of Clay Helton’s moral and caring character, or an invitation winning through cheating or cold-hearted ambition. It is not. Excellence in winning can and should have the concept of moral excellence baked into it. The problem is that Clay Helton is the quintessential Bible thumping snake-oil salesman. He says he cares about his players, and yet he has killed more budding football players’ careers, and the careers of more assistant coaches, young and old, than anyone has been allowed to kill in all of football history — at least without being fired themselves a few times. Clay Helton KNOWS he is wrong for everyone around him. Instead of resigning to preserve his integrity like a number of other coaches have, he has masterfully played politics to keep his own job and maximize his own income, while watching everyone else around him suffer humiliation, defeat, and a failure to reach their potential. And while watching the income around USC Football diminish in inverse proportion to his (a trend that will now substantially accelerate after last night).
So why is USC Football dead? Why can’t we just fire Helton and start doing things the right way? Because to recover from a breach of trust and a humiliating surrender as Bohn’s tweet was, there has to be a conscious reinvention. You have to start over. You have to look at yourself honestly. You have to prove you are willing to repent, and be accountable, from the top to the bottom. We know perfectly well that this current USC administration, looming like a dark cloud and evil empire over USC Football, is not going to do that. It isn’t interested in bucking the trends of modern society that repel excellence and accomplishment — it is part of the very machinery of that society. And, looking even further, the administrators of the future will be hired and retained by these folks. To put it simply and grimly — Clay Helton is a leach sucking the last blood to be had out of a rotting corpse, but he is NOT the corpse. He is insignificant in the face of the mountain before us.
So this year, I intend to keep my commitment not to watch USC Football. It’s not fun for me. It is self-punishment. I watch it as if I am watching something that is part of my identity, and something that may still have a noble direction, only to be made to feel bad when everything that is done is done in defiance of my identity — to predictable results. I don’t even raise my voice any more at the TV when we suck (even as bad as we did last night). I just lower my head and sulk. Why on God’s Earth should I keep doing something that makes me feel this way? It’s dragging me down. The reality is that my identity and the identity of USC Football have diverged. I remain about excellence, hard work, and the reward that comes from it. USC Football remains about image, marketing, dumb luck, and a general belief that winning isn’t everything — a winning image is enough.
That’s not me. It never has been. It never will be. RIP USC Football. Light a candle with me.