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September 05, 1987|MIKE DOWNEY | Times Staff Writer

The new coach shows up, and everybody's waiting to check him out.

Is he tall? Is he small? Does he bite? Does he bark? Will we like him? Will he like us? What will he put us through? What can we put over on him? Are we about to play for the best coach we've ever played for? Or are we stuck with a guy who doesn't know a right guard from a can of deodorant?

"They're eyeballing you," said Larry Smith, "and you're eyeballing them."

In this case, Smith already knew something about USC's football players before he became their coach last Jan. 2.

He knew plenty of them from Pacific 10 Conference games during his seven years of coaching at Arizona.

He knew Rodney Peete because the Trojan quarterback's dad, Willie, was on Smith's staff at Tucson, and because Rodney's brother, Skip, played wide receiver for Arizona, and because Rodney himself had once been the ultimate 12th man of any college football team--the water boy.

The quarterback already was familiar with the new main man, already knew what to make of him. "He's a fine man and a great coach," Peete said.

Upon becoming the coach at USC, though, Smith technically found himself in a room full of strangers. To most of the players, he was as anonymous as his name. They didn't know if he would make their old coach, Ted Tollner, seem like a pussycat in comparison, or whether Larry Smith would let them slide and glide into a new season while needing the first few months just to connect faces with names.

If they were expecting camp to be the Big Easy, they were mistaken. Work was hard, right from the snap. There was conditioning, running and pumping iron. The Trojans got stretched as far as they could go. Compared to what some of them went through, Rocky Balboa was a guy who did a couple of pushups.

"The conditioning was probably the toughest they've ever faced," Smith acknowledged. "We really pumped it to them. And at the beginning, it was a real disaster. Guys weren't used to what we wanted. They lifted four days a week and ran four days a week. There was one swing day when they did both."

Since the coach's first game was scheduled for Labor Day, he was making the team look forward to the holiday as a day of rest from practice.

Workouts got tough and then got tougher. Smith, a notorious early riser, determined that his players should follow his example if they truly wanted to catch the worm. When the full squad assembled in August, two-a-days began with practices called for 8:30 in the morning. Defensive players got to warm up for hitting opponents by first giving forearm shivers to their alarm clocks.

Smith's intention was to be hard, but fair. "We're not going to try to run roughshod over these kids," he said. "We're not here to try to cut down or wipe out what's been done in the past. We're not into rolling heads when guys make mistakes, or telling players that they aren't worth dog (leavings). Screaming and yelling and ramming stuff down players' throats isn't what it's all about.

"But, we believe we have a good teaching staff, and we're out to teach these guys a different way of doing things. We're trying to teach fundamentals, teach hitting, teach intensity, and do whatever it takes to become winners, but we also realize that we haven't joined a bunch of losers here. We've come into a program that is not rock bottom. All it needs is re-direction."

Questions, of course, will soon be answered. How the Trojans will play for Larry Smith and his staff will become evident beginning Monday, when they open the season with a nationally televised game at Michigan State. How Smith will do in the hot seat of USC football is something that will be judged over the course of years, not days, but a fast start would make things considerably easier.

The more immediate question, meanwhile, of how USC's players have accepted Smith as their new coach is getting a little more obvious with each passing day. He is no longer a stranger to them, that is for sure. His manner, his mannerisms, his face, his voice, his graying hair, his Teddy Kennedy eyeglasses, his Clark Gable ears, his bark, his bite--they are all part of Trojan football now. Larry Smith has arrived.

There was, for example, the "Rookie Show" that took place recently on the campus of UC Irvine, where the stadium-less USC players were working out. Similar to the talent contests and hazings familiar to first-year players in pro football, the rookie show invites USC's new players to get up in front of the squad and do a little something.

Walk-on defensive back Frank Hearst stepped to the front of the audience of teammates and gave them the once-over. He pushed a pair of eyeglasses toward the tip of his nose, Teddy Kennedy style, and ordered the players to attention.

They knew that look and that sound. They had seen and heard it from Larry Smith just about every day. And when they laughed, "Coach" Hearst warned them about outbursts in team meetings.

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