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It's Three and Out for Hackett

College football: Athletic Director Garrett decides to fire embattled USC coach, with announcement perhaps coming today.

November 27, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett has decided to fire football Coach Paul Hackett, sources confirmed Sunday.

Garrett and Hackett have discussed the situation, sources said, and the university will make an announcement as early as today.

The third-year coach could not be reached for comment. Garrett, who spent the afternoon at a women's basketball game, insisted he was still considering the matter.

"I want to protect everyone's interests--the football team, the coaches, the alumni--and make the right decision," he said.

But sources said that, as early as last week, the athletic director had whittled a list of potential replacements down to two names.

Among the coaches perhaps being considered are: Dennis Erickson of Oregon State, Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin, Randy Walker of Northwestern and Norv Turner of the Washington Redskins.

With no official word coming out of Heritage Hall, Hackett technically survived another day despite previous reports in newspapers and on television that had him being fired either last week or Sunday.

Once the announcement is made, he will be paid $800,000--his salary for next season--as a buyout for the two years remaining on his five-year contract. He will become the fourth USC coach fired since 1986, joining Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and John Robinson.

In the previous six decades, the university fired only one coach: Jeff Cravath, who had a record of 54-28-8 and was let go in 1950.

Hackett's record over three seasons at USC was 19-18.

His hiring in December 1997 marked a triumphant return--he had been an assistant during the glory years of the late 1970s, when USC won a national championship and three Rose Bowls.

There was a short stint at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a disappointing 13-20-1. Still, he was heralded as an offensive guru, a longtime NFL assistant who had coached the likes of Joe Montana and Danny White.

His first USC team, in 1998, finished 8-5 but was upset by Texas Christian in the Sun Bowl. Things only got worse from there.

Last season, with quarterback Carson Palmer injured, the Trojans lost five games in a row and slipped to 6-6. This fall, they started with three consecutive victories and a No. 8 ranking before hitting another five-game slump.

The team finished 5-7, tied for last place in the Pacific 10 Conference, the first time that had happened to USC.

Hackett's supporters have argued that he faced unrealistic expectations, fans believing the Trojans could contend for a conference championship, if not a national championship. Yet Hackett helped create those expectations before the season.

"In the third year of a program, when you've had a chance to bring in a couple of classes to be the underpinnings of your team, you ought to be able to show a significant jump in performance," he said.

"We've had an opportunity to do some groundwork for two years. We were disappointed in our won-loss record last year but we're ready to make a significant jump."

By season's end, Hackett was sounding a different note, talking about a team that could not overcome its penchant for turnovers and inconsistent special teams play.

He spoke recently of an offense that had sophomores at quarterback, tailback and receiver. He spoke of a defensive secondary weakened by injury and inexperience.

"It was too ambitious," he said of his preseason optimism. "These are the things you calculate as a coach. You think you can overcome them. Sometimes you do and sometimes you don't."

How much of the slide was his fault?

Some players, such as Palmer, have been especially vocal in their support of Hackett. Others have not.

"A lot of guys want him back," receiver Kareem Kelly said. "There's also a lot of guys who don't care."

Hackett cannot be blamed for the Trojans' youth and perhaps he had little control over the turnovers. Certainly he succeeded in keeping the team playing with tenacity and emotion through difficult stretches, guiding them to a victory over rival UCLA.

But he never seemed to get a handle on dealing with special teams, changing practice routines and strategies right up to the final weeks. And there were other issues.

Numerous times during the season, the coaches signaled plays to Palmer too late, forcing him to waste a timeout or causing the offense to be penalized for delay of game. One such penalty, in a loss to Oregon State, nullified a crucial touchdown pass.

There was also play-calling that elicited boos from the fans, instances when the Trojans seemed to have the momentum but chose to play it safe, running instead of passing, punting instead of gambling on fourth down.

Garrett, though obviously unhappy with the mounting losses, kept his public statements to a minimum over the course of the season. He has been quiet in recent days, perhaps wanting to avoid the bizarre interlude that marked his previous coaching change.

The athletic director was roundly criticized for the way he handled the firing of Robinson in December 1997.

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