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Hackett, Davie Share Ground

College football: Trojan coach knows Notre Dame coach survived rumors of firing and has Irish rolling.

November 22, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All the rumors, all the talk about their coach getting fired after the season, has worn thin among USC players.

"Like the presidential election," fullback Charlie Landrigan said. "You can only hear so much before you tune it out."

But, like the election, the speculation over Coach Paul Hackett continues unabated as the Trojans head into the final game of the season against No. 11 Notre Dame at the Coliseum on Saturday.

Even the man at the center of the storm, Hackett, took a moment Tuesday to put in his two cent's worth.

Asked about his relationship with Notre Dame Coach Bob Davie, he praised his compatriot for weathering a rough stretch.

"My goodness," Hackett said with a slight smile, "there may have been some rumors swirling around him last year?"

It is a somewhat reasonable parallel. Davie took his team to bowl games in his first two seasons, then had fans calling for his head when the Irish stumbled to 5-7 in 1999.

Hackett took USC to one bowl in his first two seasons, and now is on the hot seat with a 5-6 record.

Of course, Davie survived to coach a fourth season at Notre Dame. His team of mostly juniors and seniors has reached 8-2 by way of a strong offensive line, sturdy defense and dangerous special teams.

At a news conference in South Bend, Ind., he talked about what Hackett is enduring.

"Knowing Paul as well as I do, he is a grinder," Davie said. "He is a guy that loves Xs and O's. I doubt he is spending any attention at all worrying about that."

Hackett has repeatedly insisted his job status is not a distraction. His players, meanwhile, say they have resisted the temptation to wonder if a season-ending victory might save their coach.

"You're pretty much forced to put it to the back of your mind," receiver Steve Stevenson said. "What happens in the off-season happens . . . the players have no say-so."

Besides, there are other reasons to be motivated when it comes to playing against Notre Dame.

Earlier this week, the Trojan running backs gathered for a meeting and, when the coaches left the room, they turned on a videotape of the 1974 USC-Notre Dame game.

They watched Anthony Davis lead USC to a 55-24 comeback victory. They got excited about the history of the rivalry.

"You grow up as a kid, you hear about Notre Dame," Landrigan said. "You know the colors and 'Touchdown Jesus.' "

Saturday's game will be nationally televised--the first time the Trojans have played before a national audience since their season-opener against Penn State. It will be played on a weekend with an otherwise sparse college football schedule.

In other words, it puts USC center stage with a chance to save face.

"This team isn't as bad as our record," Stevenson said.

The players also know this game is as close as they will get to a bowl game.

"I'd much rather play this game than the Sun Bowl against TCU," Landrigan said. "This is better than playing so-and-so in the Aloha Bowl."

Another bit of motivation comes in the form of cold, hard cash. With a victory, the Trojans can knock Notre Dame out a $13.5-million BCS bowl berth. The Irish lost out on lucrative bowl bids when they lost to USC the last two times they came to the Coliseum with a high national ranking.

"Six million," linebacker Markus Steele said, naming the approximate dollars that will pour into Pac-10 coffers if the Irish slip down the BCS rankings and Oregon State takes their place.

Said Hackett: "You have all the drama and all the excitement right here."

Not to mention a few rumors about the coach's future. Hackett--hoping to remain for a fourth season--ended Tuesday's news conference with another allusion to Davie.

"He had a rough year last year but I think he may have bounced back," Hackett said, adding, "What year is this for him? How many?"

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