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THE INSIDE TRACK | T.J. SIMERS

Hackett's Successor Needs Booster Shot for Alumni

November 28, 2000|T.J. SIMERS

You have to wonder if Mike Garrett knows what he is doing.

Here it is Monday morning on the USC campus, and Paul Hackett is still here, cracking jokes with the media and walking around like it's routine business--the Trojans losing to either Notre Dame or UCLA every year.

I know Garrett has officially fired the guy, but he hasn't even changed the locks on Hackett's office and I wouldn't be surprised if Hackett's in there right now smoking a victory cigar, knowing he will be paid $800,000 next year to do nothing.

Now you take your basic football-crazed USC alumnus--usually the best dressed and most unhappy person in the room--and he's been screaming for Hackett's head for almost three months now. Well, to be honest, for almost three years.

We're talking about full-blown, pent-up cardinal and gold rage here, and what Hackett has done to destroy their mighty football program and what he has done to personally embarrass each one of them--real tar and feathers stuff--like firing is too good for this guy.

And that's the concern here. I believe if Garrett really knew what he was doing, he would have found some way to make a pinata out of Paul Hackett, strung him up on Tommy Trojan and invited the alumni--one-by-angry-one--to take a whack at him in order to vent their frustrations.

The line might have stretched all the way down Exposition Boulevard, but consider the public service.

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WHAT IF TROJAN fans still have those feelings bottled inside, and now they must wait for the guy who hired Hackett to hire his replacement? You don't think that's going to make these boosters, who are already a volatile lot, jittery to boot?

Now you mix them into the Los Angeles area population with down-and-out Bruin fans, who are reminded they could not beat the guy USC just fired the past two years, and it's just not safe out there.

It's like Hackett was saying Monday, the most surprising thing to him after returning to USC--20 years after being a coach on John Robinson's staff--was the "verbal and physical hostility" he felt in the Coliseum from the fans.

"I never experienced that before," he said. "I was with Robinson when we lost our opener to Missouri (1976) and everyone booed us at halftime leaving the field in the Coliseum.

"But this was more vicious, a real angry lack of approval--it was just different--and it was also directed to the players. Crazy."

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HACKETT NOT ONLY lost games, but some of the romance to the game.

During the early part of the season, Hackett wouldn't leave the field until he had kissed his wife, who would greet him behind the end zone. Later, as the team began to lose and the crowd became more upset, he would wave to her while briskly walking to the Coliseum tunnel.

In recent weeks his wife had not come down to the field.

And when it came time for Hackett to make his final exit from the Coliseum, he ran off surrounded by a police escort--you can never tell when you're going to run into a Trojan fan.

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TROJAN FANS MAY never be happy again, of course, because that's the way it seems to be going in college football these days.

"In the NFL, you play all season and the reward is the playoffs in the end," Hackett said. "In college--it's like someone told me here--going into week four we had this window of opportunity to jump into the BCS and we lose to Oregon State, and it's game four and we're out of it. If that happens in pro football, you keep playing with a reward still in the end in mind.

"But here it's the Orange Bowl [for the national championship], which makes college football different, and then you lose in week four, and now you're left thinking it's this bowl, or that bowl . . . "

Or, in this case, no bowl.

*

HACKETT MET WITH a large group of newspaper reporters following his firing in Heritage Hall, and then invited a select group of seven to join him in his office. Although several had been some of his harshest critics, he thanked them for taking the time to better understand what he had been trying to accomplish.

And it was vintage Hackett to the very end in this private meeting--the gentleman with class--candid, emotional and positive about his experiences at USC with the caveat that he had not been given enough time to complete his task.

"I'm revealing something here personally about myself," he said. "I made the decision when I came here to be the CEO--that was my decision. But I need to get my butt back to coaching again--I need to be hands on. All those things that made me what I am--I haven't been doing here. Again, that was my decision. But I need to get in the middle of the fray, work and scream at the players and feel the game again."

Translation: Hackett will return to coaching in the NFL as an offensive assistant.

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HACKETT LEAVES USC with one mystery unsolved: The loss to Washington State. He said it still baffles him, the loss coming a week after playing a great overtime at Arizona State and a week before beating UCLA.

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HIS FONDEST MOMENT, well, make that moments: Beating UCLA.

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HACKETT SAID HE will take time now to recover. "I'm just worn out," he said. "I haven't slept or eaten in weeks."

He said he will attend his son's UC Davis football playoff game this weekend, and will take a vacation trip to Graceland in Memphis.

And then, as so many Trojan alumni had demanded, it could finally be said: Hackett had left the building.

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TODAY'S LAST WORD comes in a call with Charger Coach Mike Riley:

"I have not been contacted by anybody at USC and I don't think the Chargers have either."

They probably figured they'd catch him at the victory parade.

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T.J. Simers can be reached at his e-mail address:t.j.simers@latimes.com

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