LOS ANGELES — The admission form for USC football practice is a page long. People wishing to stand on the sidelines while the Trojans work out must fill in their driver’s license number, age, phone number, e-mail address and name of employer.
They also must assent to six declarations, including: “You agree not to arrange, provide or promise to provide any benefits to any current USC student-athlete (or their relatives or friends) from yourself or on behalf of anyone else,” and “You certify that you are not an agent (e.g., sports agent, marketing agent or financial advisor to athletes) or any such agent’s employee, representative or affiliate (including ‘runners’).”
If the applicants pass this test, they can stand where actor Will Ferrell, thousands of casual fans and maybe even a few unscrupulous characters stood for much of the past decade. So far during the Trojans’ first training camp after severe NCAA sanctions, the sidelines have been mostly empty and silent.
“I don’t really notice it,” center Kristofer O’Dowd said. “It’s just one of the things we need to deal with in these sanctions. We’ll handle it, no problem. We’re handling everything they throw at us.”
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This is USC football for a new age — more cautious, less boisterous, yet still determined to be the best on the West Coast.
The Trojans can’t do things the way former coach Pete Carroll did, but the men in charge of the rebuilding project still believe there’s something special in the program that has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners — including the Heisman bearing Reggie Bush’s name that was returned last month.
“I do not imagine ’SC fans ever lowering expectations,” coach Lane Kiffin said. “I would be shocked, and I hope they don’t. We didn’t come here for that.”
Kiffin’s practices at USC’s downtown campus sometimes bear little resemblance to the freewheeling affairs run by Carroll on the way to seven Pac-10 titles and two national championships over the past decade. The team that gathered for its first workouts of training camp earlier this month was smaller than any team in recent memory, thanks to transfers brought about by the sanctions.
The Trojans already know they won’t finish their season in a bowl game: USC is serving a two-year bowl ban, four years of probation and several additional restrictions. While a few players left the school, the majority of USC’s top talents stayed, determined to realize the dream Carroll sold.
“I do get a sense from the players that they have an us-against-the-world mentality, that everybody is counting them out,” Kiffin said. “I don’t really look at it that way or emphasize that, but I think it’s helping some of our players.”
Kiffin took over a few months before USC was sanctioned, putting a coach with his own history of NCAA missteps into a possibly awkward situation. Mike Garrett, the athletic director who hired Kiffin and labeled the sanctions as jealousy, was replaced before new school president Max Nikias even assumed his job.
Nikias hired former USC quarterback Pat Haden, a successful businessman and television commentator who believes in building an athletic department with a focus beyond the Coliseum. Right after taking the job, he spoke of his passion for women’s athletics, his desire for students to experience the world outside their sport, and his overriding determination to run a clean department.
“I understand football is the 800-pound gorilla, and we’ve got to feed the beast, but we’re going to have a good overall program,” Haden said. “We’re going to try to be perfect in our compliance.”
To that end, Haden is putting together a nine-person compliance department and stringent controls on nearly everything Kiffin does. J.K. McKay, Haden’s former Trojans teammate, is a constant presence at practice as Haden’s liaison to the team.
Haden and Nikias even met with the football team before its first practice, but anybody expecting an antagonistic relationship between the new administrators and the flashy young coach has been disappointed. Kiffin is warmly supportive of Nikias and Haden, who have expressed optimism about Kiffin’s ability to implement their desires.
“He’s my coach, and I love my coach,” Haden said.
USC appealed some of the sanctions against the program June 25, seeking to cut in half its bowl ban and scholarship restrictions. A ruling on the appeal isn’t likely until several months into 2011.
The sanctions essentially allowed any unhappy players to leave the school without penalties, and several took advantage. Defensive end Malik Jackson transferred to Tennessee, fullback D.J. Shoemate headed to Connecticut and linebacker Jarvis Jones went to Georgia.
Yet Kiffin believes every player who left the Trojans was in search of more playing time, looking to play closer to home or simply not fitting into the USC program.
The players who stayed attacked their offseason conditioning workouts with a new vigor. Sometimes they even got too vigorous: Fullback Stanley Havili and defensive back T.J. Bryant got into a fight on the final day before training camp, leaving Bryant with a fractured cheekbone. The players made up immediately afterward, but Kiffin still suspended Havili for one day of camp.
Until their season opener Sept. 2 at Hawaii, the Trojans will be hard at work in front of tiny crowds on campus. Even with all the disadvantages stacked against them, the Trojans were picked to finish second in the Pac-10, a measure of respect for the talent still wearing cardinal and gold, now practicing in silence.
USC’s roster is still dotted with future NFL Draft picks such as defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, defensive end Armond Armstead and wide receiver Ronald Johnson. Matt Barkley had an up-and-down first season as USC’s quarterback, but he was just a freshman. His potential is enormous.
But the Trojans’ opportunities are limited by the sanctions and the atmosphere around the program is definitely different.“It might be a good thing,” Barkley said. “We don’t know yet. This is all new.”