Southern Cal; Welcome to Probationville, USA
After all your recent success, I know you don't want to believe what's coming. Back in 1994, I didn't either. I was a 20-year old lad who'd just seen my Miami Hurricanes rack up four national championships between fourth grade and my senior year of high school, while leaving a few more on the field - most notably the 1993 Sugar Bowl beat down by the Crimson Tide when I was a freshman at the University of Alabama.
(Thankfully I'd transferred home before the game and didn't have to face the music after running my mouth all fall.)
Miami set a 58-home game win streak to kick off the '94 season and ended with an Orange Bowl loss to No. 1 Nebraska. The Canes went 10-2 on the season and finished No. 3 in the nation before sixth-year head coach Dennis Erickson hit the road for Seattle with his two national championship rings and 63-9 record.
Sixteen years later the two-title winning, 97-19 Pete Carroll left for the Pac 10 for the pacific northwest after nine seasons in So Cal. Both knew what was looming and bailed out during the calm before the storm.
After a dominant run in the 1980s and a rare 9-3 setback in 1993, the 10-2 season was a step in the right direction for Miami ... on paper. Sanctions were looming as the Canes faced three years of probation, the loss of 24 scholarships and a one-year post-season ban due to Pell Grant fraud. UM docked itself seven scholarships as part of a self-imposed sanction, so in the end it was 31 scholarships lost over a three-year span, sending the program to a three decade low with a 5-6 season in 1997.
Having spent the past twelve years of my life in Southern California, I've gotten to know my fair share of Trojan fans, though not right away.
When I first trekked west, UCLA was all the rage. Cade McNown and the Bruins offense was lighting up scoreboards ... until running into a national title dream killer in Miami on December 5th, 1998. Having only been out west six months, there was no greater joy than Miami taking out No. 2 UCLA, 49-45 after a season's worth of smack talking reigned down on me.
Meanwhile, the Paul Hackett era was underway a few miles up the road in Troy as USC was sucking hind teat.
Pete Carroll eventually took over in 2001, going 6-6 out the gate but making an 11-2 run the following year with senior quarterback Carson Palmer finally finding a groove with second-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Carroll also had a defense that features Troy Polamalu, so the cupboard wasn't necessarily bare - it was simply a team in need of direction and motivation, which Carroll implemented.
While Miami was riding a double-digit win streak en route to a second straight title game in 2002, USC faithful began puffing their chests out, talking about their recent success, referring to themselves as "the best two-loss team in the nation" and feeling they were worthy of a championship game berth - despite the fact that Miami and Ohio State were both undefeated and the Trojans suffered two regular season losses.
It was at this precise moment the stench of USC's arrogance infiltrated the college football landscape and would do so for the remainder of the decade.
Miami's comeback started in 1998 with the win over the Bruins, but not before long-time Canes had to suffer through some very dark years - something the diehards never expected. I mean, how could you? UM hadn't seen days this dark in two decades and while on top and literally playing for a national championship every year, it was a feeling you couldn't fabricate.
Butch Davis began cleaning house in 1995, but opened his tenure with a thud - a 31-8 loss against UCLA at the Rose Bowl, followed by a win over Florida A&M, a 13-7 loss at Virginia Tech (the first ever in the rivalry's history) and a lopsided 41-17 loss at Florida State.
It was the first time the Canes started 1-3 since 1976 under Carl Selmer, the last Miami coach actually fired, instead of leaving for greener pastures. The next Miami coach to get the axe was Larry Coker, but that's another story for another time.
The Canes finished the season 8-3, deciding to take the post-season ban on the chin year one, missing an opportunity to play Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. At the time Davis said he did so in case Miami was in the title hunt the following year. Whether he believed that or was just selling the fans on things not being as bad as they were, who knows.
Miami went 9-3 in 1996, with a few bright spots - but this wasn't your father's bunch of Hurricanes. Hell, it wasn't even the program you knew half a decade back. Due to the loss of scholarships, the talent and depth simply wasn't there. These were unchartered waters for the University of Miami program - and for fans alike.
This was a program that saw freshmen beating out seniors in the 80s. A program where a superstar could miss the national championship game (George Mira Jr.) and his freshman back up (Bernard Clark) could win game MVP.
When you dominate on that level - like Miami did then and Southern Cal sort of did earlier this decade - you cannot fathom the depths to which you'll plummet thanks to probation. It's incomprehensible and you feel invincible.
In 1996, UM had twelve scholarships available, out of a possible twenty-five. When you're dealing with limited numbers, every player counts. There is no margin for error. Miami focused and landed some top talent with those scholarship, including Edgerrin James, Bubba Franks and Damione Lewis - all eventual first round draft pick
A year later it was Ed Reed, Reggie Wayne and Dan Morgan - all first rounders - as was walk-on Santana Moss, who originally came to UM on a track scholarship.
With crafty and focused recruiting, Miami still brought on talent at certain positions, but with the reduction in scholarships simply didn't have the necessary depth to complete on the level it was used to.
Former assistant and defensive lineman Greg Mark chimed in on a recent Sun Sentinel piece that talked of USC's road back from Probationville and he pointed out some things the average superfan might be too blind to see.
"You can't make a mistake," said Mark. "You can't find out later they have some character flaw that you didn't do your homework on. It was a do-or-die situation."
"Obviously, you don't want to turn down a surefire offensive or defensive lineman that's going to make a difference, but you also have to understand you can't make that mistake that you can when you have that full allotment. Margin of error decreases dramatically and that shows."
When you're recruiting limited numbers, you need versatile players; guys who can contribute multiple ways. Where this really hurts you is on the offensive and defensive lines, as those guys are more limited in what they can do. (Not too many tackles are going to help you on special teams.)
You're forced to play freshmen immediately, which is a fate Randy Shannon suffered his first few years as well. Until the depth returns, you're essentially playing with one hand tied behind your back.
Erickson left a mess for Davis to clean up and a decade and a half later Carroll has done the same thing to former assistant Lane Kiffin - who like Davis, wasn't the first choice but had ties to the program and was a good fit. Unlike Davis, Kiffin doesn't have the resume to back up his hefty salary ($4M) or overblown ego.
Davis was an assistant under Jimmy Johnson both at Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys. Like Johnson, he has three rings - one from the Canes and two from the Cowboys, where he served as defensive coordinator in all three championship seasons. He was 43 years old, disciplined, experienced and ready for the challenge while Kiffin is only 35, comes off entitled and is burning bridges everywhere he goes.
Trojan fans praise Kiffin's dare I say "swagger" - but does he have the blueprint and game plan to clean up his old boss' mess?
Anyone could play the role of assistant during USC's dominant run earlier this decade. Even Carroll's initial job was easier than what Kiffin faces today. In 2001, expectations were low and Carroll was shredded when hired. The June 28th issue of Sports Illustrated ("Why Is This Man Smiling?" by Selena Roberts) paints a vivid picture of what Carroll walked into nine years back:
"When he arrived at USC, a school demoralized after a five-year football slump, skepticism abounded. The phone banks were shut down by angry calls asking what the hell Carroll knew about college recruiting."
Winning cured all that (as it will for Shannon as he too wasn't welcomed with open arms at UM), but now the bar has been set and Kiffin, who has ties to the glory days, will be expected to perform.
Miami was missing a quarterback in 1995, which was the biggest reason for the 8-3 skid. Erickson's recruiting put the Canes in a hole, with both Frank Costa and Ryan Collins never reaching the bar set by so many others at Quarterback U. Southern Cal is in a much better position with superstar soph Matt Barkley behind center, so a drop off in 2010 shouldn't be expected. Probation aside, this year's team should perform just as they would've had none of this reigned down... but coaches have to know the hits are coming.
Kiffin says all is well on the recruiting trail, but give it time. Wait until this season is underway. Wait until this team underachieves or loses some games with their new head coach. Wait until the media begins piling on - especially during the post-season when the Trojans are forced to stay home, a month before Signing Day, no less.
Furthermore, wait until there are only a handful of scholarships to dole out next February as seniors are departing the depth takes it's first hit.
Now play out that scenario the next few years and you'll see where this program is headed in the immediate future. USC will still get their fair share of blue chippers, but the lines are going to take a hit as this program needs to now focus on what Mark calls 'versatile players".
As Davis and his staff proved, there is a silver lining if you rebuild the right way and have the ability to weather the storm. 8-3, 9-3, 5-6, 9-3 and 9-4 eventually set the stage for 11-1, 12-0, 12-1 and 11-2 ... and it could've grown from there had Davis not left the program in the hands of the inept Coker, whose lack of recruiting set Miami back half a decade.
"The reality of having some down times is maybe good for a program. There's no question going 1-15 with the Cowboys is one of the best things in my coaching career," said Davis. "You find out what you truly believe in, the types of people it takes to rebuild a program."
Davis' words are one of many reasons this writer adores the college game. Post-season woes aside, the parity and the cyclical nature of the sport are what make NCAA football the be all, end all.
Miami started as nothing, achieved untouchable status in the 80s, were taken down a notch in the mid-90s, rose to superstar level again in the early 00s, fell victim to poor coaching/recruiting a few years later and are now on the rise again.
You never want to be in the valley, but by being there you learn to truly appreciate when you're a top that mountain. You learn to enjoy the journey, not just the destination. At least, I do. I can't speak for that portion of my Canes brethren who want to run Randy out of town or paid to have a an anti-Butch banner flown over the Orange Bowl during the depths of probation.
Right now it's not about USC getting what they had coming. Though it's nice to see justice, it's not about wishing ill will on the guilty. The universe has a way of working itself out and the next few years for the Trojans will make 2002-2008 feel like a lifetime ago.
Trojan fans can't see what's coming and as a Cane who's been to hell and back, I can understand and sympathize with their blindness - but that doesn't change what awaits.
Brace yourself, Trojans. Don't let the 2010 season fool you. Your downfall awaits. Everything Saint Petey built is about to come crashing down. The fall of Troy is underway. Will Lane Kiffin be your Butch Davis? Better hope so or it could take you ten years to do what Miami did in five.
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