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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 13

Hackett Not Shy About Celebrating Big Victory

USC: Embattled coach shares his euphoria with fans who have booed him all season.

November 19, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Paul Hackett hurried across the field, through crowds of reporters and players, rushing toward the end of the Rose Bowl where the USC fans were seated.

At any other time in the last month or so, it would have been a suicide mission.

But on Saturday, after his team's last-second 38-35 victory over UCLA, Hackett went straight to the USC section and waved frantically at band director Arthur C. Bartner, who dutifully stepped down from his ladder so the embattled coach could ascend.

Hackett gave the fans a victory sign and they, the ones who had jeered him after losses this season, responded with cheers.

It was a stunning turnaround--perhaps temporary, but stunning nonetheless--for a man who has spent much of the season as public enemy No. 1 in the proximity of Heritage Hall.

Defeating UCLA does not change the fact that USC has played miles below expectations and finished in a tie for last place in the Pacific 10 Conference. It does not erase the turnovers and penalties, the questionable play-calling and poor clock management. Even Hackett acknowledged that.

But he knows that defeating UCLA is the most important thing a USC coach can do and he wasn't about to let the moment pass, uttering phrases such as "This game is a season in itself," and "How you do against UCLA and Notre Dame sets the tone for the season."

Earlier in the day, rumors flew wild that USC might fire him in the next few days, not bothering to wait for the season-ending Notre Dame game. Though two years remain on Hackett's five-year, $3.5-million contract, the university has an arrangement by which it can buy him out for $800,000.

Critics might say that, even on Saturday, USC showed weaknesses. A lack of discipline led to costly personal fouls. Early in the fourth quarter, on a critical drive, the Trojans had to call time out because they could not get to the line of scrimmage before the play clock expired.

"Critics will be critics," Hackett said.

The coach can take credit for two crucial decisions. First, he stuck by quarterback Carson Palmer, who played poorly a week earlier but mustered a career performance against UCLA. Second, he stuck by his kicker, David Bell, who had missed all three of his field-goal attempts this season but made the winner.

Could those choices save Hackett's job?

Sitting in a booth above the field, USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett said only that he will wait until after Saturday's Notre Dame game at the Coliseum to make a decision.

Down in the locker room, USC players made their pitch.

Offensive lineman Faaesea Mailo, who burst into tears after the game, talked about Hackett never giving up, not on himself, not on his team. Palmer echoed comments he had made earlier in the week.

"It's been tough, all the rumors going around," he said. "I've been hoping and praying it isn't true. Hopefully it's just the media talking."

The sophomore continued: "A guy like Joe Paterno, he's 99 years old. Look at Coach Hackett. He's got a long career left."

As for Hackett, a preternaturally optimistic fellow, he refused to consider the possibility of walking into Garrett's office this week to talk about his job status.

"Very inappropriate, very inappropriate," he said. "We'll have plenty of time to talk. This week is about beating Notre Dame. That's what my focus has to be."

An hour after the game, after the locker room emptied out, Hackett remained in the trainer's room swigging from a bottle of Gatorade. The more he talked, the more excited he became, holding his arms out for emphasis, shuffling his feet, trailing athletic tape from one shoe.

"God, the feeling is incredible," he said. "And we have a chance to do it again next week."

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