By Joey Kaufman
LOS ANGELES -- Pete Carroll strutted across the Bovard Auditorium stage, because Pete Carroll always struts. Wearing a black suit with no tie, he jumped out from behind a cardinal curtain, circled around a makeshift coffee table and waved to the capacity crowd of about 1,200 in attendance. He nodded his head just slightly and smiled. Many then promptly stood and hailed their old coach.
"Big Balls Pete, Big Balls Pete," they cheered.
Like old times.
The Seattle Seahawks coach, fresh off a Super Bowl victory, was back at USC on Wednesday night for his first public appearance on campus since leaving for the NFL four years ago. This was billed as part of a lecture series on entrepreneurism hosted by USC's business school. But this easily felt like a reunion. It felt like affirmation.
Carroll notably bolted for Seattle five months before the NCAA placed USC on four years' probation, where it lost 30 scholarships and was forced to serve a two-year postseason ban. He got out in the nick of time, some sneered. Since then, the Trojans have gone a pedestrian 35-17.
But in case there was lingering doubt as to whether the USC fan base would eagerly welcome him back to campus, the evening served to erase them. Nobody here seems to harbor any sort of ill-will.
"I wasn't worried," said Carroll, in his patented upbeat demeanor, about a possible less-than-desirable reception. "My expectations were just whatever, and I was coming here to have fun, share with people that are here. It was really cool."
He was greeted throughout the two-hour event with several standing ovations. Will Ferrell showed up on stage, where the two friends tossed jokes back and forth and laughed. At one point, with Carroll serving as the holder, Ferrell kicked a football into the upper balcony. Toward the end, one student blurted out, "We love you, coach."
To cap it off, the marching band walked and joined the coach on stage in a rendition of "Conquest." Carroll lingered, raising two fingers to signal "Fight On" and waving his arm back and forth as if he was a part of a post-game victory celebration. Here, he is still Caesar, and this still looks his empire.
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Southern California's affinity for Carroll is so lasting, in part, because of his résumé.
At the beginning of the evening, the moderator David Belasco lists off his accomplishments, beginning with the fact that Carroll led the program to seven consecutive BCS bowl berths from 2002-08. It prompts a handful of enthusiastic cheers before Belasco cautions: "It's a long list to cover, so don't clap after every one."
Carroll went 97-19 (if you don't count the vacated victories), won back-to-back Associated Press national championships, won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, went 14-2 against archrivals Notre Dame and UCLA and saw 60 of his players selected in the NFL draft.
You could argue -- and many do -- that it marks the best stretch in program history. But it's also so staggering when contrasted with the era that preceded it.
From 1980 through 2000, USC was just 151-92-7 with no national titles. And the relative futility was capped by the Paul Hackett era from 1998-2000, when USC went 19-18 and never ended a season ranked in the top 25. In 2000, the Trojans finished tied for last in the Pac-10 at 2-6.
"The worst team in USC history," Los Angeles-based radio host and former team captain Petros Papadakis tells anyone within earshot.
As USC sunk to the bottom of the conference, the balance shifted to the Pacific Northwest. In 2000, Washington, Oregon State and Oregon went a combined 32-4, finishing Nos. 3, 5 and 9, respectively, in the final USA TODAY Sports coaches poll.
Once branded as "Tailback U," USC was chided as "Yesterday U."
"The program was in the dumper," said Steve Bisheff, who authored the book Always Compete: An Inside Look at Pete Carroll and the USC Football Juggernaut.
And the prevailing opinion was parity in college football, with the scholarship limits had caught up USC. After a loss to Fresno State in the 1992 Freedom Bowl, then-coach Larry Smith tried to drive that point home in his post-game press conference, pointing out that logos no longer matter.
"That's not what you say to USC boosters," Bisheff said. "The logo is sacred."
Heads were hanging so much that in the fall of 2000, before Carroll accepted the USC job, Hackett took out a piece of paper from his desk drawer that pointed out the 20 reasons why you couldn't win at USC. Carroll then not only won; he breathed new life into the program and made USC a hot ticket again in L.A.
For his first game as the Trojans head coach in 2001, the Coliseum wasn't even half full with an announced attendance of 45,568 for the opener against San Jose State. But by 2005, it was averaging more than 90,000 per game with sold-out crowds awash in cardinal and gold.
"Pete's personality was perfect for Los Angeles," said Yogi Roth, a former assistant under Carroll and currently an analyst for the Pac-12 Network.
Hard-hitting practices at Howard Jones Field were played out in front of overflowing crowds in postcard sunshine. Celebrities and former Heisman Trophy winners lined the sidelines. Pranks were performed often in the middle of practice, including one time in 2008 with Ferrell as "Captain Compete" when he rescued a videographer who fell off a mechanical lift while filming practice.
It was a bit like Showtime on grass, and those years are etched into the memories of many.
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After questions from several students raging from his "Win Forever" philosophy to his Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch, the 62-year-old coach ends his talk on one last note: "Tonight I really felt the Trojan love. I love this place. It's good to be back."
USC can welcome back Carroll now, naturally. The probation is near end -- this June to be exact. This month, he also joined the exclusive fraternity of just three coaches to win a Super Bowl and a college national championship. He's as big as ever, and so it's not a shock that he is re-emerging within the USC community at this point.
But how does USC properly reconcile the Carroll years?
When it comes to the balance between forgiving for leaving and embracing for winning, the fan base eagerly leans toward the latter. It's been only five years since he had the Trojans playing in Rose Bowls on New Year's Day.
But the school, for one, seems caught in a bit of an awkward middle ground. How far do you go to celebrate Carroll? On the one hand, it's attempted to replicate the Carroll era with former assistants, once with his former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, and now another try with Steve Sarkisian at the helm. But mementos and images of Carroll aren't easily found, either. The "Got Pete?" T-shirts are no longer sold in the bookstore. The vacated BCS national championship, of course, no longer sits in the newly renovated lobby of Heritage Hall, the athletic department headquarters. And the primarily tribute to the coach is one of 18 simply silver plaques honoring "legendary coaches" on the second floor of Heritage Hall.
But at the same time, you don't really need keepsakes. After all, his shadow still looms plenty large here, and for many, that's perfectly fine.
He's still "Big Balls Pete."
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