Pete Carroll's legacy at USC is set. He has presided over one of the most successful decades in USC and major college football of all time. Yet, the true test of the greatness of Pete Carroll is just before him. As impressive as was the rise of Caroll's Trojans to the top of the college football landscape and as was their ability to stay on top, getting back there to do it again after being knocked down would be the stuff of legend.
Since 2001, the national sports media has heaped well deserved praise on Carroll and the Trojans. But, as with our media culture in general, the coverage of USC has been hyperbole filled absolutes. You could always count on death, taxes, and the inevitability of a USC top-five finish.
With a possible USC rebuilding year ahead, most football experts picked USC to finish in the top five or six. The blurbs aside the ranking all said something like: "has to replace most of their defense and a bunch of coaches while breaking in a new quarterback." Words of caution that proved true and didn't account for the rash of injuries to key players.
Picking USC 15th would have been more realistic. Without the injuries to their starting wide receiver, tight end and fullback, all of whom play major roles in the USC offense, 15th is about where they would have finished.
Because of this extreme media view, USC's rebuilding became "The Fall Of Troy!" This is just as absurd as it reflects expectations based on past performance while ignoring the reality of the team as it is.
As gifted are the set of athletes collected around Heritage Hall, wholesale team changes aren't easy. Changing all four of the top four linebackers is not easy and replacing a group that had all four drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL draft a year ago did prove hard. With all the criticism of the offense, much of it deserved, it was the USC defense that ultimately was not as reliable as in past campaigns.
Matt Barkley did play like a freshman. He has great potential and, it appears, a pretty good head on his shoulders. My question about Barkley is about his leadership. How strong is his heart and can he will his team to victory? Watching Tim Tebow lead his team with his character first and his on field play second has raised the bar as to what real leadership and will to win looks like.
However, for Pete Carroll, the question is how does he and the Trojans respond after being punched in the mouth, repeatedly, and dropped from the national gilded stage? Is it back to the future, finding out where it all went wrong? Is it rebuild the whole system? I don't think so.
Pete Carroll and USC will return to the top if a couple of things happen. First, Pete has to remain Pete and keep USC as a place where top high school athletes want to come and play. Second, Pete has to solidify and trust his coaching staff.
Clearly, major personnel changes while also breaking in new coaches was challenging. Third, Pete has to find a creative offensive play caller, hire them and stay out of their way.
USC will be better next year and a one-loss season is not out of reach. Barkley will be a whole year older and more experienced. Same goes for the defense. Their schedule is favorable as they get Cal, Oregon and Notre Dame at home while facing only a rebuilding Irish, Hawaii and Virginia in their non-conference schedule.
That said, an actual return to the national landscape in one to two years would take Pete from being thought of as a great coach to a legendary coach. That's the true test for being Pete Carroll.