Forty-eight hours ago, it was a foregone conclusion. Paul Hackett was on his way out the door.
Then his team defeated UCLA, giving him two victories in a row over the Bruins, the first USC coach to achieve that since 1988. If the Trojans defeat Notre Dame at the Coliseum on Saturday, he will be the first to sweep the rival schools in almost two decades.
Add to that some very public support from the star quarterback, Carson Palmer, and Hackett has a chance to stay, right?
Not so fast.
There remains a stoic silence around Heritage Hall, where Athletic Director Mike Garrett has insisted all along he will not make a decision on his coach, one way or another, until after the season.
The record speaks a little louder.
After a disappointing 1999 season that included a five-game losing streak, USC has not improved this fall.
The Trojans tumbled from an early season ranking with another five-game losing streak. They suffered embarrassing losses to California and Washington State at home. They tied for last in the Pacific 10 Conference, their worst conference finish ever.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, the rumors began.
Oregon State Coach Dennis Erickson has been the focus of most of the speculation. A few weeks ago, he angrily declared: "I don't want my name linked with anything like that. I'm happy here." But talk has persisted because he has not reached a contract extension with Oregon State.
Even if Erickson wanted to come south, he presents a problem for USC. Could Garrett get him past USC President Steven Sample?
Sample has made it clear he wants his athletic department to play by the rules and avoid bad publicity. Erickson comes with baggage--an infraction-riddled program at Miami and a drunk-driving arrest when he was the Seattle Seahawk coach.
Part of the reason athletic administrators have remained patient, and quiet, in regard to Hackett is a belief that, if he is fired, other candidates will surface. No one has named names, but there are intriguing possibilities:
* Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin. Alvarez has a five-year rollover contract but was considered a candidate for the Notre Dame job when Bob Davie was on the hot seat. Now that Davie looks secure, could USC step in?
In more than a decade of coaching the Badgers, Alvarez has molded a program that recalls the glory days of "Tailback U."--powerful runners and tough defense. He has made this style work against pass-happy Big Ten opponents such as Purdue and Northwestern.
* Dennis Franchione, Texas Christian. Franchione turned the Horned Frogs into a nationally recognized program, bulldozing USC in the 1998 Sun Bowl on the way to respectability.
At this point, Franchione's name is most closely linked with the opening at Arizona State--his TCU contract contains a buyout clause specifically for that school.
* Mike Riley, San Diego Chargers. Riley is still fondly remembered as a USC assistant in the mid-1990s. But would Garrett hire a coach who never had a winning record at Oregon State and is coming off a dreadful NFL season?
* Sonny Lubick, Colorado State. USC fans have begun a grass-roots campaign for Lubick. In 1993, he took over a Colorado State program that had been to one bowl game in 37 years. Since then, he has guided the Rams to a string of postseason games.
A drawback: He is 63--too old to stay around for a long tenure.
* Tom O'Brien, Boston College. His winning percentage is hardly spectacular but he fits Sample's play-by-the-rules dictum. Known as a disciplinarian, O'Brien rebuilt a program that had been devastated by a gambling scandal.
The Golden Eagles now have a 90% graduation rate and are bowl eligible for the second consecutive season.
If USC wins Saturday, maybe the decision to switch coaches becomes a little trickier, maybe not.
The game has implications that extend beyond mere rivalry. The Trojans can knock Notre Dame out of a $13-million BCS bowl game, just as they did with a 10-0 victory two seasons ago, in Hackett's first season.
Also, if the Irish fall out of the championship series, Oregon State will probably take their place. That means every Pac-10 team--including USC--shares in the Beavers' payday.
The money would be almost enough for USC to cover the $800,000 required to buy out Hackett's contract.
UP NEXT FOR USC
Saturday vs. Notre Dame
at Coliseum, 12:30 p.m.
Channel 7, XTRA (690)
MORE COLLEGE FOOTBALL
A NEW NO. 2: Florida State will move past Miami--which defeated FSU--into the No. 2 spot in the BCS rankings. D10
SMITH SACKED: Former USC Coach Larry Smith, 3-8 this season, was fired after seven seasons as Missouri coach. D10