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NFL DRAFT PREVIEW : Changing Times: USC's Football Factory May Only Be Foundry

April 29, 1986|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

John Robinson, in his days as USC football coach, was irritated when Darryl Rogers, Michigan State's coach at the time, said in 1978 that the Trojans had the best talent in the country, year in and year out.

Robinson considered Rogers' remarks to be self-serving, considering that the Spartans were about to play USC.

If the Trojans won, they did it ostensibly with awesome talent. If Michigan State won, it was a coaching coup by Rogers. It's an old coaches' ploy, the build-up gimmick.

But Rogers wasn't alone in that assessment of USC. Other coaches shared that sentiment. The late Paul (Bear) Bryant of Alabama used to say that he just didn't have the type of athletes that John McKay or Robinson did.

But The Bear had some pretty good, 'ol boys himself. He proved it by coming to the Coliseum and beating USC. Most others, however, couldn't cope with USC's talent.

Given the number of quality teams playing college football in the country today, it's unlikely that one school perennially has the best athletes.

But that's USC's image--or, was.

Some NFL scouts say that the Trojans don't have as many blue-chip athletes as they did in the past, although they add that it's probably not a permanent trend.

What the scouts are talking about is a matter of degree, a school slipping from a grade of, say, A-plus to A-minus, or B-plus.

USC is still the nation's leader in supplying athletes to the NFL. There were 43 former Trojans on 1985's opening day NFL rosters, more than from any other school.

And USC will send some more athletes to the NFL after today's draft, although, perhaps, neither as many, nor as highly rated as in the past.

Only one player, offensive tackle James FitzPatrick, is projected as a first-round choice.

As one NFL scouts said: "It's FitzPatrick and a bunch of other guys. There really isn't an outstanding player at USC other than him."

Of course, that's only one opinion and other scouts differ. They all requested anonymity because any candid observations on their part might affect their relationship with the school.

Some scouts say they just don't spend as much time at USC as they did in the past, but that there are usually enough quality players to command their attention.

"There are just not as many guys to look at, but they still have some top athletes every year," one scout said.

"Four or five years ago, when you went to USC you'd say, 'Wow what a great looking squad,' one of the most impressive looking squads athletically you'd see anywhere in the country. You might have just come from Nebraska or Oklahoma and still you were impressed. There were big guys and fast guys walking through that gate onto the practice field.

"Even the ones that didn't play looked good. We would look at a dozen guys and knew that five or six guys that we rated would make it. It's not quite that way anymore."

Another NFL scout was a bit milder.

"We probably spend as much time at USC as anywhere," he said. "USC is in a little bit of a down trend with not as many prospects as the past. They had so many previously that you even had to look at some of the second team people.

"USC is in a down-slide, but I seriously doubt that it will continue. There's just too much tradition."

The Trojans are being judged against their own high standards, five national championships from 1962 through 1978, nine Rose Bowl victories since 1963 and the annual showcase of talent in the NFL draft.

Many of USC's pros came from two of the most highly drafted classes in college football history--14 each after the 1974 and 1976 seasons. That figure probably won't be matched often because the NFL cut its draft from 17 rounds to 12 in 1977.

Eleven USC players were drafted as recently as 1983, but the numbers have been down the last two years. Only four Trojans were chosen in 1984 and five were picked in 1985, among them two first-round picks--linebacker Duane Bickett and offensive tackle Ken Ruettgers.

It's seldom that USC doesn't have at least one player selected in the first round. There have also been the bonanza years such as 1968 when five Trojans were picked in the first round, and the streak from 1980 through 1983 when three players in each of those years were were accorded first-round status.

But the 1980s have brought a shifting of power on the West Coast and the emergence of UCLA. The Bruins, under Coach Terry Donahue, have won three Pacific 10 championships, going on to Rose Bowl victories after the 1982, '83 and '85 seasons.

Even more gratifying, perhaps, to a die-hard UCLA fan is the reckoning with USC. The Bruins have beaten the Trojans in four of the last six meetings after having lost to USC eight times from 1972 through 1979.

But UCLA's success against USC on the field isn't reflected in the NFL draft. Since 1980, USC has had 43 players drafted, 14 in the first round, compared to 31 UCLA players chosen, 4 in the first round.

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