As one of the most successful and illustrious of college football teams, the University of South California team, known colloquially as the Trojans, has had to rely on commanding and determined coaches in its long and gilded history.
As in any sport, ranking coaches or players is a somewhat self-defeating task. Especially within a single team, and across its history, it is difficult to say that a Pete Carroll could have been better than Gus Henderson, with a span of several decades separating them.
But it is, nonetheless, always worth a try. Hazardous as it may be, it is a fan's job to compare the incomparable, and discusss the taboo. Just who is the best USC football coach yet?
This selection is not in order. Rather, these are the top 10 USC coaches based on their performances and results, on how many Rose Bowls they brought the Trojans to victory in, for instance. After all, it is quite impossible to say that a coach was worse than another; football involves too many other factors for such a judgement to be made.
So here are the best 10, as I may correct my title; read on for a short summary of USC history through its coaches.
As head coach of the USC from 1987-92, Larry Smith was the first coach since Howard Jones in 1925 to have been appointed without former ties to the USC Trojans.
His leadership of USC in the late 1980s was strong from the start, as he led his teams to a record 19 straight victories in the Pac-10 Conference. From 1987-89 his three teams won consecutive Pac-10 Conference titles, while reaching three Rose Bowls, losing two.
The season of 1988, however, was his most prolific, as USC defeated the Oklahoma Sooners 10-0 and the UCLA Bruins, the third- and sixth-ranked teams, respectively. While they would be denied a Rose Bowl title by Michigan, USC would claim the title in the following season.
The early '90s saw the decline in Smith's fortunes, as he took USC, then ranked 23rd, to the Freedom Bowl, a lower-tier championship, only to lose 24-7 to the Fresno State Bulldogs in a stunning upset. His retirement as coach folllowed soon after.
Ted Tollner was Larry Smith's predecessor, coaching the Trojans for four years from 1982 to 1986. Overall he compiled an impressive 26-20-1 winning record, bringing USC to one title at the Pac-10 Conference in 1984, as well as a win at the prestigious Rose Bowl in 1985, defeating Ohio State.
Despite these successes, however, Tollner ended his four-year tenure unable to make an impression on USC's rivalry with Notre Dame, finishing 0-4 against them. Moreover, stretch only saw one win for USC in its equally engaging rivalry with UCLA, finishing 1-3.
Such relative shortcomings would only be improved upon by his successor Larry Smith.
Taking a step back some decades, Jess Hill was the USC Trojans head track coach from 1949-50, and the head football coach from 1951-56.
Overall under his tutelage the Trojans compiled a 45-17-1 record. 1952 was one of his most successful seasons, with USC achieving a 10-1 record, with the only loss coming against their longtime rivals Notre Dame. In that year, too, USC, as the Pac-10 Conference champion, beat Winconsin in the Rose Bowl 7-0, marking the only time in that decade that the Pac-10 champion would defeat the Big Ten champion.
In 1954, however, USC would lose the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, another great rival, although Hill's career as USC coach ended gloriously in 1956, when he defeated two of the Trojans' greatest nemeses, Notre Dame and UCLA, in one of the few years in which Southern California was able to beat both teams.
Coaching USC for over a decade (1925-40), Howard Jones was one of its most prolific coaches, albeit in a much earlier and less developed era in college football.
Over his 16 years as head coach, USC managed seven Pacific Coast Conference championship teams, winning the Rose Bowl championships five times out of five. In the '20s USC won two Rose Bowls, in 1923 and 1930, with the latter victory coming off a 76-0 knockout win over UCLA in what would prove to be the two teams' first meeting in their long and storied rivalry.
Nearing the end of his career with the USC, Jones again helped his team to clinch the Rose Bowl in 1939 and 1940, defeating the Tennessee Volunteers 14-0 en route to victory in the latter.
While he would pass away just a year after his stretch as USC coach, Jones was especially remembered for the camaraderie he encouraged among his players, practicing and training with them in the field.
Coming in just after the end of Jones' long career with USC, Jeff Cravath would prove to be one of the shining lights of Southern California's football heritage.
In the nine seasons he coached the Trojans he would lead them to the Rose Bowl four times: 1944, 1945, 1946 and 1948. Especially stellar among USC's run at the bowl in these years were whitewash victories against Washington in 1944 (29-0) and Tennessee in 1945 (25-0). His 1943 team, moreover, started the season with six consecutive blowout wins, while his 1944 team ended the year ranked seventh in the nation. These are not bad stats.
His later years, however, until 1950, were less prolific—but of course losses are not always the fault of the coach. Indeed, Cravath would end his USC career, nearly terminated five years earlier by an offer from Washington, with a sweet win over USC's constant challenger Notre Dame, 9-7—their 300th victory overall.
To return again to more recent decades, we find the imposing figure of John Robinson, who headed the USC team twice, each over several years, from 1976-82, and from 1993-97.
Robinson had earlier in his career been the offensive coordinator under the John McKay, and his experience with the USC dynamic would prove useful when he became head coach in 1976. Overall, USC managed four Rose Bowl victories under Robinson, thrice in his first tenure (1977, 1979, 1980), and once in his second term, in 1996.
Significantly, his first three Rose Bowl wins came against one of USC's greatest rivals, UCLA. Indeed, throughout his career with USC he would compile an impressive winning percentage of .741, with a 104-35-4 record.
Gus Henderson must be remembered as one of USC's founding figures, and thus a crucial Hall of Famer for American college football in general. While we trace back nearly 80 years we find USC, as the Trojans, only a fledgling team hoping to make its mark on the emerging football landscape.
USC's much-discussed history with the Rose Bowl began with Henderson, who led the Trojans to their first appearance there, and even to a win, over the Penn State Nittany Lions, 14-3.
In his six-year leadership of USC, from 1919-24, Henderson also introduced the team to the Pacific Coast Conference, that great tournament of the western states.
He would finish his USC tenure with a 45-7 record, despite five losses against its rival, the California Golden Bears. Nonetheless, for the paucity of his accomplishments as compared to coaches of more advanced eras, he should be remembered chiefly as the coach who brought the Trojans to prominence.
John McKay was probably one of the greatest coaches in USC history, presiding over a span of about 15 years in which he led some of USC's most prolific teams and seasons.
How might one compare such results as eight appearances in the Rose Bowl Game? Reaching it in 1963, 1967-70, and 1973-75, McKay would bring USC to victory on five occasions, while he would enjoy two of the best years in USC history: 1962 and 1973.
The former team went 11-0, crowned with a victory over Wisconsin, the then second-ranked team, at the Rose Bowl, while the latter team in 1973 went 12-0, and consistently defeated the top teams, having a 22-point margin in five contests with teams ranked 18 or above. Their dominance was such as never to have a game closer than nine points in difference.
Great successes are often spurred on by humiliating defeats. So it might have proved for McKay, who lost 51-0 against Notre Dame, USC's longtime rivals, in 1966. But in the next nine seasons he would scarcely lose to them, going 6-1-2.
McKay would pass away in 2001, but the legend of his coaching was permanently immortalised when his ashes were spread across the playing field at the Coliseum, where he had enjoyed so many triumphs.
In Pete Carroll we find a more recent legend. Becoming head coach of USC in 2000, Carroll inherited a recent history of decline and downturn in the Trojans' fortunes. But how should we remember him in USC history? Why is he placed at the top of the list? Only for one of college football's most dominant streaks in its history.
Despite having a shaky beginning, with a 2-5 record in his first year, Carroll would bring USC to victory in 67 of its next 74 games, going 67-7. Indeed, part of that would include a 34-game winning streak from 2003-05, securing USC's re-emergent dominance.
With renewed emphasis on winning the Pac-10 Conference and winning the Rose Bowl, Carroll would bring the Trojans to four Rose Bowl victories out of five, in 2004 and 2007-09. Moreover, USC came to dominate its rivalries with Notre Dame and UCLA, winning eight years in a row against the former, and eight out of nine against the latter.
Moreover, Carroll would compile an unequalled .814 winning record over a span of 10 years. Indeed, to have won four Rose Bowls in a period of just less than a decade, and to have come to dominate its traditional rivals, are feats in no small way due to Peter Carroll, who raised USC from increasing insignificance in the football world, and restoring its legitimacy at the highest levels.