During my time at USC I was fortunate enough to play with some of the greatest players that college football — and even the NFL has ever seen. Guys like Ronnie Lott, Charles White, Marcus Allen, and Anthony Munoz were on a team that won a national championship when I played quarterback. We entered every game, no matter who we played, with a firm belief that we would win.
Thirteen years after I finished playing at USC, the belief that my teammates and I had was pretty much gone. The Trojans had not won any national championships since our 1978 season and USC fans were not happy. The Trojans head coach, Larry Smith responded by saying that you don’t win games because of the logo on your helmet. In other words, the tradition of being a powerhouse football program didn’t count for much when the team stepped onto the field.
Coach Smith was essentially saying that USC could not have that same belief that my generation of Trojans had when we entered the tunnel before games. And for the next eight years, for the 1993 to 2000 seasons, those words rang prophetic as USC went 58-39-2. Respectable for some programs, but nowhere near the national championship level of play that Trojan fans expected from their team.
And then in the ninth year it seemed to get even worse. In its search for a new football coach, USC kept getting turned down by the candidates it was recruiting. They finally hired a guy named Pete Carroll, who had a lifetime NFL head coaching record of 34-33 and had just been fired the previous year by the New England Patriots. Honestly, hiring Pete didn’t inspire much hope among the fans who loudly voiced their disapproval.
By that 2001 season, when Coach Carroll got started, I was in my fourth year as the color analyst for USC football radio broadcasts and I was in the press box on October 13th for a Trojans game versus Arizona State. USC had started the season 1-4 and the announced attendance on that day was only 43,508. When you consider that the Coliseum had over 90,000 seats for football games, you could surmise that the stadium was either half full or half empty. I think it would be safe to say that Trojan fans saw the Coliseum as half empty.
I think most coaches running out onto the field for that game would have begun to lose confidence and start to fear for their jobs, but Pete had already been fired many times before – so what was there to lose? He had learned that you will inevitably have failures in your life, and so, instead of being paralyzed by fear, the best response to adversity (really, the only response) is to trust and believe in yourself, give it all you’ve got, have fun, and don’t let yourself get emotionally married to short term outcomes.
In the year after he was fired by the Patriots, Pete went on a self-imposed hiatus from football where he spent the time diving inward to re-think what his philosophies would be the next time he got the opportunity to coach a football team.
One of the biggest epiphanies that Pete brought with him to USC was to be authentic. He wasn’t going to coach like anybody else. He wasn’t going to be like anyone else. He was going to be Pete and so was his team. Consequently, the culture he created was fiercely competitive where the practices were often more challenging than the games.
Pete also made practice and the games fun! Fans would line up 5-deep at practice to watch the high-octane head coach, assistant coaches and players perform and entertain. Everyone ran around the field with a sense of urgency to get better and to be the best. Pete was insanely positive and upbeat and created an environment that focused on instilling confidence and self-belief over fear of failure as the motivating force for the players.
On that day, October 13, 2001, in front of a half full Coliseum, USC defeated Arizona State 38-17. The team would go on to win four of its next five games before losing in the Las Vegas Bowl to finish 6-6. It did not seem like much, but you don’t have to be a diehard college football fan to know what happened next at USC.
At the conclusion of the 2002 season, the Trojans were invited to the Orange Bowl where they easily defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 38-17. The team finished 11-2 and was ranked number 4 in the nation. The next season USC finished 12-1 with a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan to capture the national title – the first championship since 1978, when the Trojans won it during my junior year at the university. Winning the Orange Bowl and then the national title, with Pete Carroll at the helm, marked the start of a golden era of Trojan football.
The belief had returned.