A Rose Bowl for the Ages: What 2016 Means for the Fight On Mantra

This was the first season in probably fifteen years (maybe more) that I was unable to do my “weekly musings.” As the “biggest college football lover of all time” (a self-assigned label I used to hyperbolically describe my incredible passion for college football) it was always a lot of fun to close out a weekend with various musings on the weekend’s college football action, particularly what happened with my beloved USC Trojans.  As my business and family have “matured” over the years, Sunday night typing became Monday 4am typing, and sometimes became Tuesday 4am typing, and sometimes weeks got missed, etc.  My business life has me doing more writing and speaking than ever these days, so my sacred 4am start each Monday, Tuesday, etc. was unavailable for weekly college football musings – needing that time for business.  So I scrapped the musings this season, but kept my Saturday passions the same, loving every minute of what was an unbelievable year in the greatest sport ever invented in the history of the universe.

I brought my eldest son with me to Dallas for the opening of the season and the Alabama game.  I have never been more at peace leaving the stadium after getting blown out, because (a) I had the weekend of a lifetime with my 11-year old son, (b) The Dallas Stadium is a masterpiece of football construction, and (c) I knew that Alabama was at their moment of peak achievement in the cycle of these things, and USC was, well, not.  We started off our season losing badly to a team that before this great run they are enjoying began had been put on very fair sanctions (they were cheating, meaning, paying people to come to their school), and had totally collapsed under the sanctions.  USC was now fresh off their absurdly unfair sanctions (never having even been accused of doing anything to gain an advantage, and even what they were accused of doing, which was patently false, was against the best interest of their football team – i.e. supposedly ignoring an agent giving benefits to one player so that player would LEAVE USC).  The Trojans went through their sanctions period with an equal record to rival Notre Dame, a laughably better record than their rival UCLA, and a winning record in the head-to-head to boot.  I have no interest in actually looking this up but I would bet real money (USC money) that the Trojans came out of their ghoulish injustice with a better result than any team in the history of ghoulish injustices.  Plenty has already been written about how absurd and immoral the NCAA sanctions were against the men and women of Troy, and obviously the courts have now sternly had to say the same thing with incredible revelations of truth, but the reality is that the 2011 Barkley-led Trojans don’t get their bowl opportunity back, and year-after-year-after-year of USC playing with 25 less scholarship players and how that affected their pipeline, health, depth, etc. cannot be rectified.

I mentioned we started our season playing against a high profile team who had been fairly decimated by sanctions the decade prior.  We ended our season Monday night playing against another high profile team decimated by sanctions, only contra the situation with USC, the sanctions against Penn State were lifted by the NCAA upon further review.  That whole case is more complicated, as on one hand the actual infraction Penn State was unambiguously guilty of (aiding and abetting a child molester) is exponentially worse than the free airline ticket Reggie Bush got from an agent (I hope we can all agree there, but I am quite sure there are some who will have to wrestle with that).  On the other hand, despite how disgusting I find the fact pattern of the Sandusky mess, it is also true that there is something not right about current players and coaches paying the penalty for the sins of past programs.  When all was said and done, Ohio State and Miami were the two most crooked programs of the last ten years, and they were barely punished.  Penn State many years ago aided a molester, and they were harshly sanctioned, then unsanctioned.  And USC was given a “death penalty lite” sentence for doing absolutely nothing.  And here we are.  I believe USC was unfairly treated, and I believe the student-athletes of Penn State were unfairly treated.  And here we are.

In between our bookends of contests with sanctions-impacted teams (past and present) in Alabama and Penn State, USC had a heckuva season.  The Stanford loss was certainly the low point, as not only was a very mediocre-looking quarterback apparently our offensive leader, but the entire team had very little fight in them, and it looked like we were in for a long season.  Going on the road a week later to lose to Utah and begin 1-3 produced understandable hysteria.  At the time, with Arizona State, Colorado, California, and Washington all undefeated, and other schools certainly appearing to be formidable, calls for 6-6 or  5-7 were very common, and even defensible.  And as is typical of chat room Trojans, the need to terminate Clay Helton post haste was a given.  The clouds were hanging over Troy.

But a funny thing happened in that USC loss at Utah.  We started a new QB named Sam Darnold, and had a really impressive offensive night.  A couple bad coaching decisions in the fourth quarter kept us from winning that game, but we had played Utah to a draw on the road.  The Stanford low light was on the road.  The Alabama blowout was on the road.  Maybe, just maybe, it had gotten as bad as it could get.

And then something just completely and categorically changed.  Aided by a few home games, USC punished and embarrassed an undefeated Arizona State team.  USC beat a top-10 Colorado team in the Coliseum.  USC took care of business with all the teams they should’ve beaten (Arizona, Oregon, etc.).  And into November we ended up with yet another three game stretch that would test the mettle of this team: #4 ranked undefeated Washington on the road, crosstown rival UCLA on the road, and weak national rival Notre Dame in the Coliseum.  The signature win of the season was USC’s dismantling of Washington on the road.  The defense looked like a top-5 defense.  Darnold was effective and poised.  And USC’s confidence and swagger was firmly back.  UCLA was no match a month later, and the absolutely death-defying stat that UCLA is 4-14 against the Trojans in the last 18 years was in full display.  Since the sanctions, USC man-handled UCLA in 2010 and 2011, lost with coaching changes and drama and injuries in 2012-14, and then has decidedly won over the most overrated and inexplicably liked coach (Mora) of my lifetime the last two years.  4-3 in the sanctions era.  Hmmmmm.  The Notre Dame game represented the final win of the closing trifecta, as sanction-free Notre Dame suffered through one of their worst seasons in school history.  A few dominoes lined up right (Washington making the playoff; Colorado falling behind USC in the polls as USC had beaten them head-to-head and Colorado hot thumped by the Washington team that USC had themselves thumped).  And with that star-aligning, voila, USC was in the Rose Bowl, which from now until kingdom come will be the right place for USC to be on January 1 (or January 2, as the case may sometimes be).

I do not choose to focus on the fact that UCLA has not won a Rose Bowl since 1986, a tad before something called the Iran-Contra affair.  I do not think about UCLA football very much.  I do choose to focus on USC’s 25 victories in the Rose Bowl – 25 wins in 34 appearances – and it brings joy to my heart.  There are few stats and realities in all of sports more breathtakingly awesome than that.  But for all of the history, pageantry, memories, and glory of USC’s century-long love affair with the granddaddy of them all, there is nothing like what took place on Monday night.

The young men on this present USC team were recruited by Lane Kiffin.  He was unceremoniously fired as the wheels fell off the bus of his leadership.  They played for Ed Orgeron, a Trojan heart and soul if there ever was one, to see him passed up for the head coaching job.  They bought into the system of Steve Sarkisian, only to be caught up in his own personal demons and yet again lose their leader.  And then they sat under Coach Clay Helton.  They lost badly to Stanford, lost in their 2015 bowl game, and kicked off 2016 with the aforementioned 1-3 start from hell, and calls for yet another coaching change at USC.  There is no way any senior class in history has had to endure more drama in their college careers.  If USC had not been in the Rose Bowl Monday night, the mere running of the table they performed after the 1-3 start would’ve represented a classic USC moment of resolve, determination, and courage.  I would’ve had nothing but pride for their accomplishments even without any sort of icing on the cake, if you will.

But icing on the cake there would be.

I can’t say enough about Penn State.  That receiver (Godwin) was as big of a playmaker as we have seen in years.  Their QB, though mistake-prone, was gutty and effective and pulled some big plays out of his hat.  And their running back (Barkley) was scary good.  Franklin is a good coach, and Penn State is back.  Period.  I actually didn’t spend my halftime Monday night feeling good about the situation USC was in.  We had vastly outplayed them, made some big takeaway plays on defense, but only had a 6-point lead, were ineffective running the ball, and had settled for field goals on several occasions.

And then the second half started.  It felt like the biggest unraveling I had witnessed (and certainly the quickest) in all my years of watching football.  Three offensive plays for Penn State; three touchdowns.  28 unanswered points (going back to the end of the second quarter).  And a 14-point Penn State lead, followed by a USC punt to give Penn State the ball with that lead going into the fourth quarter.  Laughably bad officiating was not helping my feeling, but I can leave that alone now because, well, life is too short.

And as we entered the fourth quarter, the poetry began and all the drama and glory of everything Trojan came to life.  The defense fought and fought and fought, holding one of the best offenses in the country to ZERO points.  And the freshman quarterback of Troy made play after play after play, again without a really effective running game.  It was a sight to behold.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Penn State threw those two passes on their final possession, but I certainly won’t ever complain.  But from the tackle Hutchings made to get the ball back, the 80-yard drive Darnold led to tie the game (Burnett deserves all sorts of praise too), and then the McQuay interception on that ill-fated late Penn State pass, it was moment after moment of USC players making plays. It was Trojans believing in each other.  It was football at its finest.

And then it would all come down to Boermeester.  The poetry in a kicker having missed two long kicks in the first half, but making the game-winner from 46 yards a couple hours later, is just the perfect symbol to the Trojans season.  A 1-3 start.  Calls for the coaches head.  The hangover of sanctions.  The pain of four coaches in four years.  And yet a ball soaring through the uprights.  Victory.  Fighting on.  The sweet feeling, of victory.

It is what the Trojan spirit is, always has been, and always will be.  It defies the imaginations of people all around the country.  Whether they like or hate the Trojans, they are baffled by the resilience, fortitude, and fight on spirit that defines us.  I think that’s fine.  They know now what they know not.  But for those of us who believe there is something powerful, and indeed magical, about the spirit of Troy, there is a living and breathing reality to all that is Fight On.

And the 2016 Trojans defined it, lived it, and showcased it.