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Can't Say Hackett Didn't Give It the Old College Try

November 26, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

For what was probably his last play, Paul Hackett called a sprint. Up the middle. Through the end zone. Into the tunnel.

When Hackett left the Coliseum field for probably the last time Saturday, he did so as a common criminal instead of as a football coach, fleeing to avoid the angry, jeering mob above him.

Considering the clumsy 38-21 loss to Notre Dame and confused 5-7 season, it was entirely expected.

Considering the way he has conducted himself during this time, it was also entirely unfair.

Whenever Paul Hackett is kicked out of the house--an event that could occur as soon as today--it should be done in the same dignified manner with which he inhabited the place.

He is an NFL coach who seemed lost on a college sideline but perfectly tuned to the college mission. His plays rarely worked, but his lessons about character and accountability never stopped.

"This has been the toughest year of my coaching life," he said much later in his cubbyhole office. "I don't sleep. I don't eat. I have worked my tail off."

He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes.

"Am I coming back next year? I have no idea," he said. "I think I will. I think I deserve another year. That will give me four years, two full recruiting classes that become sophomores. I think that is a reasonable timetable.

"There is nothing like regrouping. I will get better. We will get better."

He did not rip anybody but himself Saturday after two interceptions, two blocked punts, a fumble, a huge missed catch and seven penalties doomed his team.

But then, for three years, he has never ripped anybody but himself.

"I'm not going to do that, I need to be an example for this football team," he said. "When you're the boss, you set the tone. These are students. They are trying their hearts out."

He did not battle outside forces after a long week during which he was fired by newspapers and radio shows and alumni.

But then, he has never battled outside forces.

"I hear Dick Tomey talking in Arizona about how hard it is with all that criticism, and I'm not sure I buy that," he said. "Nobody makes you do this job. You choose it. You know what you are getting into.

"USC is a tough, tough animal. But I knew that. I can handle it."

As a result, his players have also handled it. While they had a variety of missed passes and opportunities Saturday, they never pointed fingers at each other. But then, they never have.

They have played foolishly, and carelessly, and sometimes awfully. But, amazingly, they have continued to play hard and together.

"Nobody ever convinced me that, 'I confess, he did it' is the way to coach football," Hackett said. "Take today, when Colbert dropped that pass . . ."

He was talking about what may have been the key Trojan mistake, when they were trailing, 14-7, early in the second quarter. Carson Palmer found Keary Colbert alone down the sideline at the Notre Dame 25-yard line.

Colbert dropped the pass, Palmer threw an interception on the next play, and Notre Dame quickly scored to take a two-touchdown lead.

"Now I was so furious about that dropped pass, that was such a big play, and there was so much I wanted to say," Hackett said. "But then I thought, wait a minute, Keary Colbert is a freshman, last year he was catching passes at Hueneme High School. So I patted him on the butt and told him he would get 'em next time."

On the field, his players never quite responded to that coaching style. But off the field, they learned from it.

"Coach Hackett taught us about character," senior Matt Nickels said. "He stood behind the team, and taught us to stand behind each other."

Of course, coaching big-time football is about something else entirely.

University officials say they want a teacher, but what they really want is a winner. Alumni fill cocktail parties with talk about graduation rates, but their wallets are controlled by winning percentages.

College football is about how the last three coaches to win Rose Bowls at USC were fired.

It is about how a 19-18 record over three years--one fewer win than UCLA recorded during that time--is not even close to being good enough anymore.

It is about how, while Hackett was counting down what were probably the final seconds of his career here, two Notre Dame priests were dancing around the sideline as if somebody had just dropped gold bullion in the collection plate.

College football is also about money. The win that earned Notre Dame $13.5 million in bowl money also reminded everyone that USC, for the second consecutive year, will watch from home.

No argument here. Although academic donations surpass athletic donations at USC, winning football can still help mean winning chemistry facilities, winning computer labs, a winning new library.

There can also be no argument that Hackett has yet to show he can be a winning college football coach. He's too much NFL. Too conservative, unable to focus on the entire program, a sophisticated football mind struggling to understand an 18-year-old.

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