USC Football: A Timeline of the Decline and Fall of the Trojan Empire
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When Pete Carroll lifted the glistening crystal football over his head on January 4, 2005, the college football world knew this much: the USC Trojans were here, they were for real, and they were not to be messed with.
The mighty Trojans—in a reversal of historical events—looked their enemy, the Oklahoma Sooners, in the eye, gave them the business and emerged victorious, 55-19.
Then a scandal involving one of the greatest collegiate athletes of all time burned Troy to the ground.
In the years since Carroll reestablished the USC football program as the nation's best, the lens through which we view the Trojans has cracked and shattered, with Saturday's 10-7 loss to Washington State the latest reminder where USC now stands.
To some, USC is the University of Smug Cheaters, and it got what it deserved.
Others still view the Trojans as one of the greatest, most dynamic powerhouses in sports, and they are left bamboozled by the state of mediocrity and underwhelming football that Troy finds itself in today.
To understand how USC's legacy has been so scorched, here's a look at the matches that lit the fire over time.
Prelude: The Recruitment of Reggie Bush
Reggie Bush is the source of both incredible memories for Trojan Nation and devastating ones.
Back in 2003, he was one the most talented, promising prospects in the country. Given a five-star rating by Scout.com, Bush committed to USC in July 2003 and never wavered, and the next fall he went about cementing his legacy.
His time at USC became the source of an NCAA investigation, but before that, he was torching teams for 500-plus yards and hurdling over his rivals. The human highlight reel, Bush's crazy athleticism helped propel USC to the top of the college football rankings, and he was adored by USC fans for it.
But it was the ultimately controversial nature of events that took place while he was a student at USC that initially spurred the dark clouds that loom over Troy to this day.
For some, Bush remains a god, one of the greatest Trojans—and collegiate athletes, period—of all time. But for the majority of fans, He Who Must Not Be Named is the most infamous of all, even more than O.J.
And that's saying something.
Sept. 15, 2006: The Yahoo! Sports Investigation
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An eight-month Yahoo! Sports investigation has revealed that Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush and his family appear to have accepted financial benefits worth more than $100,000 from marketing agents while Bush was playing at the University of Southern California.
The Yahoo! Sports special investigative report went on to outline specific violations committed on behalf of Bush and his family, such as weekly payments of $1,500 to the family, thousands of dollars in hotel stays and car payments, and most notoriously, "$54,000 in rent-free living" for a year in the Spring Valley, Calif., home of Michael Michaels, one of the marketing agents pursuing Bush at the time.
Though we know now that it was damning, at the time, the attitude around USC was pretty "meh."
Dec. 2, 2006: USC Loses to UCLA 13-9
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The Trojans' hopes of returning to the BCS National Championship for a third time in 2006 were dashed when they lost to crosstown-rival UCLA.
The unranked Bruins bested No. 2 USC at the Rose Bowl, and with it, served the Trojans the biggest upset of the season. USC had previously lost to Oregon State 33-31 in 2006, but just one loss was not enough to keep them out of title contention. But to lose to UCLA in the final game of the season? Neither the voters nor computers could overlook that one.
USC players shuffled out of Pasadena dejectedly while the Bruins partied on.
The Trojans would go on to smack Michigan in the Rose Bowl 32-18, but this season marked the first of three years in a row where a careless effort against an inferior opponent cost USC a trip to the promised land. To this day, many still argue that USC should have played in the title game this year over Florida, and that it would have killed Ohio State.
Oct. 6, 2007: Stanford Stuns USC at Home
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Of all the losses USC has sustained over the past decade, this one had to hurt the worst. Stanford—then the lowly Cardinal—beat the Trojans at home on a last-minute play that shocked the world
To say the Trojans were stunned is an understatement.
Prior to this, USC had won 35 games in a row at the Coliseum, 24 of them against Pac-10 opponents. It had beaten Stanford five years in a row. The Trojans should have dominated the Cardinal, but they absolutely dropped the ball (literally—USC had five turnovers that game).
For the second year in a row, a loss to a vastly inferior opponent blemished the Trojans' season and prevent them from seeking a title. USC returned to the Rose Bowl, and dominated Illinois 49-17. As in 2006, many contend USC should have gone over LSU to challenge Ohio State (again) and that the Trojans would have been successful, too.
As satisfying as owning the Rose Bowl was, the trend USC continued to display was indeed troubling.
Sept. 25, 2008: USC Loses to Oregon State 27-21
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The Beavers got the best of the Trojans in 2008, and similar to with Stanford in 2007, this one hurt: it had been 41 years since Oregon State knocked off a No. 1 team, and the upset dashed USC's title hopes in just the third week of the season.
Like the other losses that came back to haunt USC in the postseason, this one was a close game and the Trojans shot themselves in the foot with careless mistakes.
Oregon State had bested the Trojans also in 2006, and the "Oregon curse" was born. USC was not successful in the state of Oregon until 2011, and each time it lost in the five years leading up to that, it tarnished what could have been a perfect season.
The 2009 Rose Bowl then saw USC dismantle the Penn State Nittany Lions 38-24 in what was the Trojans' fourth consecutive Rose Bowl win. Winning the Rose Bowl is always great—and Pete Carroll's squads certainly owned the stadium during his tenure with USC—but they seemed somewhat like consolation prizes for missing the BCS National Championship three seasons in a row.
Jan. 15, 2009: Mark Sanchez Leaves USC Early for the NFL
When Mark Sanchez decided to leave USC after his junior year—and having started only one season—Pete Carroll did not hide the fact that it irked him.
In fact, Carroll said in the press conference that Sanchez "is going against the grain in this decision. We know that, and he knows that." Carroll threw Sanchez lots of shade for his decision, and it was one of the few times we saw him come unglued while he coached at USC.
Carroll tried to play it off as if USC would move on just fine without him—and with Matt Barkley waiting in the wings, the team kind of did—but Sanchez leaving early was yet another wrench in the plan for USC to return to and win another national championship.
Sept. 19, 2009: USC Loses 16-13 to Washington
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The 2009 Trojans were nothing to write home about. Ranked No. 3 in the country, they fell to the Washington Huskies on the road 16-13, and looked all kinds of average in the process. It was the fourth year in a row USC had lost to an unranked team, slinking farther and farther away from returning to a national championship.
Considering USC had just come off a one-loss, Rose Bowl-winning effort the season before, losing to the Huskies was a huge blow.
USC would go on to lose three more times in 2009, the beginning of talent decline for the Trojans.
Nov. 27, 2010: USC Loses 20-16 to Notre Dame
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On a drizzling evening at the Coliseum, USC came up short against rival Notre Dame, losing 20-16. The fact that the Trojans could have, should have, won made it that much more painful: Mitch Mustain hit Ronald Johnson for what would have been a wide open, game-winning play, and "RoJo" just dropped it.
On its own, this loss was just one of five that USC suffered that season. But the fact that it was the third time that USC lost the game in the final minutes—the Trojans lost to UW and Stanford in back-to-back weeks on late field goals—made it that much harder for USC fans to stomach.
USC had beaten the Irish eight times in a row, and this loss signaled the end of the Trojans' dominant hold of the rivalry.
Jan. 11, 2010: Departure of Pete Carroll to the NFL
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After the mediocre 2009 season, beloved head coach Pete Carroll bolted for greener pastures in the NFL.
At the time, it seemed to some that he was just walking away from his decade of dominance; the talent of the Trojans was on the downswing, and after an incredible streak of leading the Trojans to six wins in seven straight BCS Bowl games, Carroll was ready for a new challenge.
However, many speculated then—and in hindsight, it is more obvious—that Carroll got a whiff of what the NCAA was planning and abandoned ship before the program could really take on water.
Jan. 13, 2010: Mike Garrett Hires Lane Kiffin
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Then-Athletic Director Mike Garrett wasted no time finding a replacement for the charismatic Carroll, but he couldn't have chosen a more opposite figure to take over the helm at USC.
Where Carroll was charismatic and engaging, Kiffin is guarded and dry. Where Carroll is generally perceived to be victorious, Kiffin was coming off a disastrous stint as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in the NFL that ended in 2008, and a so-so year in Tennessee rife with controversy.
Kiffin didn't have the best track record from the beginning, but having coached at USC before, Garrett believed in him and gave him another chance.
Garrett said in a statement to ESPN:
We are really excited to welcome Lane Kiffin back to USC. I was able to watch him closely when he was an assistant with us, and what I saw was a bright, creative young coach who I thought would make an excellent head coach here if the opportunity ever arose. I'm confident he and his staff will keep USC football performing at the high level that we expect.
Funny, that's pretty much the exact opposite of what happened.
June 10, 2010: USC Gets Slapped with "Lack of Institutional Control"
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A day that will live in infamy for USC fans the world over.
Four years after the Yahoo! Sports exposé reared its ugly head, the NCAA punished the USC Trojans for what it determined to be a "lack of institutional control." USC got hit with the LOIC charge not only for the Bush scandal, but for one involving basketball star O.J. Mayo and former hoops coach Tim Floyd, as well as a minor scandal with the women's tennis program.
The worst of the sanctions are still coursing their way through the Trojan program, but these were the most damaging to the football program:
• A postseason ban in football following the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
• A loss of 30 total football scholarships over the 2011, 2012 and 2013 seasons.
• A vacation of all football victories starting in December 2004 and running through the 2005 season. This includes the national championship win over Oklahoma on Jan. 4, 2005.
• All statistics vacated for Bush in the games which the NCAA deemed him ineligible due to rules violations.
• Bush disassociated from USC athletics.
• Four years of probation.
July 20, 2010: USC Fires Garrett, Replaces Him with Pat Haden
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While the Wall of Troy slowly began to crumble, former USC AD Mike Garrett did not appear to be concerned at all.
“As I read the decision by the NCAA, all I could get out of all of this was … I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy, and they wish they all were Trojans,” Garrett told USC boosters.
It was that attitude of arrogance, of larger-than-life power that the NCAA wanted to quell in the first place.
Ultimately, Garrett's combativeness regarding the sanctions would lead to his demise, and USC president CL Max Nikias had no choice but the part ways with the man who was the end of the line while the NCAA violations took place.
Dec. 4, 2010: USC Finishes 2010 Season with 8-5 Record
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As part of the sanctions, juniors and seniors in 2010 had the option to transfer from USC penalty-free, though no starters opted to do so.
Having just been rocked by sanctions, the Trojans did pretty much as well as anyone would have expected of them: they went 8-5, which was pretty on par with the team's success in the last two years under Pete Carroll, and not too shabby of an effort from Kiffin in his first season as the head coach.
The season gave many fans the hope that the sanctions hadn't been too bad after all.
If only that had been the case.
Oct. 29, 2011: USC vs. Stanford: Triple-OT Thriller in the Coliseum
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The Trojans lost this epic clash of the Titans, but you wouldn't have known it based on the electricity coursing through the Coliseum.
Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck squared off in a showdown for the ages, with both teams really putting on a show in front of a sold-out crowd. When cornerback Nickell Robey jumped the route in front of Chris Owusu and returned it for the pick-six, the home crowd exploded in excitement.
At that moment, the atmosphere in the Coliseum was one of vindication. USC was back, and nothing could be done to keep the team down.
Luck eventually propelled Stanford to tie the game, and three OTs later, the Cardinal emerged triumphant when it recovered a fumble by Curtis McNeal.
Though they lost, the Trojans showed that they had the heart to fight on through adversity, something they regularly embodied through the 2011 season. It was arguably USC's strongest showing in 2011, though they did not win.
This game—and the entire 2011 campaign—helped dispel the notion that USC would struggle due to sanctions. As we know now, however, that was merely an illusion.
Dec. 22, 2011: "Unfinished Business"
When Matt Barkley elected to return to USC for his senior year, he sent Trojan fans into a tizzy. Taking a cue from the holiday season, Barkley delivered what was thought at the time to be the greatest of all gifts to USC fans.
Just two years after being crippled by the NCAA, USC had survived. Not only did the program not fall off the map, but it thrived in 2011.
USC stood a team loaded with talent and looked poised to make an incredible comeback in its first season back to bowl eligibility.
Times in Troy were great. It had the media back. It had the fans' support.
Little did everyone know the disappointment that was to come.
Sept. 1-Dec. 31, 2012: USC Implodes All Over Again
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The 2012 season was a disaster of epic proportions. It was a fail to end all fails.
By December, everything that could have gone wrong for USC did. The Trojans fell from grace in startling fashion; three months after being slated for a national title appearance, the Trojans found themselves unranked.
Their shocking demise left fans dazed and analysts baffled. How could a team that performed so well a season ago struggle so much the next year, with essentially the same players?
Though statistically USC did not fall off nearly as much as their 7-6 record would suggest, the tally in the loss column was far more than expected for a team so loaded.
Soon enough, people began to point the finger at Lane Kiffin.
Oct. 24-Nov. 8, 2012: Off the Field Distractions (DeflateGate, JerseyGate, Etc.)
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USC had a number of offseason scandals that ultimately served as major distractions for the team.
First there was Jerseygate, where he had quarterback Cody Kessler, who normally wears No. 6, switch to 35 on a special teams play, which is usually worn by the punter.
Then there was the deflated balls controversy, where a USC team manager allegedly slightly deflated the balls used on game day.
These silly little things got magnified by the LA media, and became major distractions for the program.
Oct. 27, 2012: Trojans Lets Victory Slip from Their Grasp vs. Arizona
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This loss was the most baffling of the 2012 season, and one that really caused a lot of animosity to be thrown toward Lane Kiffin.
USC was beating the Wildcats 21-13 at the half, and Marqise Lee deftly tore apart their secondary to the tune of 345 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
Despite Lee putting the team on his back, the Trojans took their foot off the gas and ultimately collapsed at Arizona.
This game embodies everything that was wrong with USC in 2012: once the going got tough, the Trojans just gave up. Suffocated by lofty expectations and finally feeling the impact of the scholarship losses, USC just crumbled, and it crumbled hard.
Dec. 31, 2012: Trojans End Season on Three-Game Skid
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After the Arizona loss, it was clear USC had lost its mojo in 2012. It couldn't muster the strength or the will to finish the season strong, with a failure of leadership being the obvious problem. However, the players themselves did not show up for each other either, and a team full of talent devolved into a group of individuals playing only for themselves.
USC would go on to drop five of its last six games, including to rivals UCLA and Notre Dame.
The Trojans, after rising from the actions of NCAA sanctions the season before, had fallen once again.
Nov. 2012-Feb. 2013: Recruits Abandon Ship
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When the Trojans fell from grace, a handful of their most promising commits abandoned ship.
USC still signed a class heavy with talent—talent that is already paying dividends—but the losses of guys like Eddie Vanderdoes, Kylie Fitts (whose decommit was controversial) and Jalen Ramsey surely make the Trojans uncomfortable.
While it's common for recruits to flip flop between the fall and National Signing Day in February, the fact that USC struggled so much seemed to play heavily into the decision of those who turned their back on Troy.
At the time, the loss of so many recruits (seven targets ultimately decommitted from USC) was another body shot. Kiffin's credibility as a top-notch recruiter came into question, and the fact that he led USC in the disastrous season didn't help matters.
The saga of USC's 2013 recruitment ended up being another dark mark for the Trojans, already hurting from the scholarship reduction imposed by the NCAA.
July 25, 2013: Lane Kiffin on the Hot Seat
Since the 2012 season, the seat that Lane Kiffin perches on has only gotten hotter.
An essentially losing effort by USC's standards and more pettiness from Coach Kiffin than the fans could tolerate, a loud portion of the fan base began calling for his head.
Pat Haden released a video statement standing behind his coach. He made it clear in the video that he backs Kiffin fully, despite how ugly 2012 was. Each time he is asked about it this season, Haden stands by his word. However, Haden said similar things about basketball coach Kevin O'Neill, whom he ended up firing midseason.
If the Trojans struggle again in 2013, it is entirely possible that the USC boosters influence Haden to pull the plug on Kiffin as well.
July 30, 2013: USC Closes Practices
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In another shocking change for USC, Lane Kiffin closed all practices after fall camp to the media. Though other Pac-12 schools practice this, USC has always been one that is particularly media friendly.
After last season however—and with his job, in theory, on the line—it would appear that if the ship is going to outright sink, Kiffin wants to do it on his own terms.
Though rather inconsequential overall, this move has rubbed the media the wrong way and has further caused Kiffin's image at USC to deteriorate.
Aug. 29, 2013: Quarterback Position in Flux
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USC had months to develop Cody Kessler and Max Wittek into a starter, but for whatever reason, that didn't happen.
Not only did it not happen, but neither QB demonstrated anything in the first two weeks of the 2013 season that would suggest either is really capable to get the job done.
Kiffin wanted to give either the opportunity to showcase why he should be the new face of Troy, but in doing so, he ended up crippling them both. It was obvious that Kiffin did not trust either of them entirely, and that lack of confidence came through in their performances.
Sept. 7, 2013: USC Loses to Washington State
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That long, twisting, roller-coaster ride that USC has been on since 2005 culminated on Saturday, Sept. 8, when the Trojans lost in embarrassing fashion to Washington State at home, 10-7. USC had beaten the Cougars seven times in a row (not counting one vacated due to sanctions) leading up to Saturday. On average, the Trojans dominated the Cougars, winning by an average score of 44-11.
USC had not lost a home opener in 13 years and as fate would have it, that loss came at the hands of the Cougars as well.
Looking listless on offense and utterly impotent (the defense, on the other hand, looked incredibly dominant), the Trojans failed once again.
Where Do We Go from Here?
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2013 is supposed to be the season where USC vindicates itself from last season's woes, but so far, that is the opposite of what's happening.
Kiffin is still being Kiffin, and the team is doing very uncharacteristic things, like losing to Washington State. Going into week three, USC has chosen a starter, but is it too little, too late?
USC has been through an ordeal over the past eight years, and it is still trying to pull out of a downward spiral that is threatening to plunge Troy into obscurity for the foreseeable future.
Pat Haden recently said that it's going to be a while before USC is back to full strength, estimating another 10 or 11 years of struggles for the program. It's not what fans want to hear, but in taking stock of everything that contributed to the slow burn of Troy, it makes sense.
The Trojans still have a long season ahead of them to put some of the fires out that currently engulf the program. The eight years of scandal and grief that USC has already endured weigh heavily on the program, but the easiest way to shrug some of that off is to just win.
The verdict is still out on whether or not that will happen, and even if it does, it will still be a long, long time before USC resembles anything close to the program that dominated college football what seems like ages ago.