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Smith Makes a Good First Impression on USC : And That's What His Coming-Out Party at the Town and Gown Is All About

January 03, 1987|BILL DWYRE | Times Sports Editor

It was showtime Friday afternoon on the campus of the University of Southern California. And Magic and Kareem weren't even around.

It was the introduction of USC's new football coach, a man named Larry Smith, who comes to Troy from the University of Arizona, where he was adjudged to have done well enough to be given a chance at ascendancy.

That Smith had been named the coach, that he was standing there before the press, was not news. It had been one of the poorest kept secrets on the local sports scene for the last few days. But, what the heck. Give the press some credit. There are still some Woodwards and Bernsteins left among the ink-stained wretches.

No, this was not a time for facts and information. This was a time for first impressions, for starting off on the right foot, for creating a positive image in the minds of the gathered reporters, who would pass that image on to the masses who buy tickets and send donations. It was a time for niceties, for happy talk and handshakes and pretending to enjoy new acquaintances. Call it window dressing day.

Larry Smith seems to be a very nice man. A lot of people had heard he was. And after they saw him Friday, they were quite prepared to believe it. A lot of people remarked about it, over and over, after the press conference had ended.

And a lot of people did see him Friday, because, at USC, these events tend to be a lot more than simple press conferences. They are more like a debutante's coming-out party, held in a fancy ballroom called the Town and Gown, with chandeliers and carpets and drapes that match.

Some of that stuff, like drapes that match, are probably lost on sportswriters and sportscasters, many of whom struggle to get their socks to match.

But, what the heck. This wasn't primarily for them, anyway. The first real solid indication of that was when Smith was applauded upon his introduction. Reporters do many things, but they seldom applaud those they are trying to get information from.

No, this was for the alumni and the faculty types, standing in their well-cut suits in the back of the room. They are very crucial in the making of a USC football coach. What TV doesn't accomplish as it plays back its shove-the-microphone-in-his-face-and-ask-him-to-smile interviews, and the newspapers don't accomplish in their recitation of his every word and mannerism, they will take care of. After the tube and the printed word, word of mouth is a close third.

The press conference/debutante show is understandable at USC. Probably essential. This one was attended by at least 200 people. At some colleges, that's a big crowd for the game.

And of those 200, maybe half took pictures or wrote words for a living. The rest just formed opinions and are expected to verbalize them frequently.

No, this was not an ordinary gathering of the press for a news story. But then, a new football coach at USC is not an ordinary situation. It is a position in the world of sports comparable to only a few others in the area of tradition, expectations and pressure: manager of the New York Yankees, football coach at Notre Dame, basketball coach at UCLA, basketball coach at Kentucky or Indiana, football coach at Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama . . . maybe a few others.

One wonders if Smith really understood what he is getting into until he looked out from his lectern and saw a crowd that would make the Clippers proud--if not in numbers, certainly in affluence.

First impressions of Smith? Very good, of course. How could they be other? It is difficult to work up a good case of cranky criticism when you are standing on a soft rug, under chandeliers, amid impeccably dressed people who all smell nice.

Smith handled the questions well, said all the right things, stressed that he was a man of basics in football but added that he was also realistic enough to know that you have to have a good passing game.

He paid proper homage to the position he has been fortunate enough to receive, prompting appreciative nods from the back of the room. He talked of setting lofty goals, always an ear-catcher in an academic community. His grammar was excellent, his eye contact strong, his presence with the press friendly but not patronizing.

Oh, perhaps the image was a bit too corporate, what with the soft gray three-piece suit and the almost perfect hint of silver hair near the temples. If you didn't listen carefully to the football terminology, you might have been fooled into thinking this was a press conference for the new boss at Drexel Burnham. And there were moments where you wondered how Woody or Bo would react to this kind of introductory gathering. Would they spit on the floor or call school President James Zumberge Zumbie Baby?

No, not even Woody or Bo. This was clearly not that kind of event.

And it was clearly a resounding success. Afterward, Smith posed for pictures with his wife and two children--just 5/10ths under the national average--and then stood still for the inevitable barrage of interviews and photographs.

He handled it all well. Very well. In the back of the room, there were handshakes and even some hugs of delight. It was a day to remember at the Town and Gown.

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