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The Inside Track | T.J. SIMERS

USC Fans Get Last Words --and Not Very Nice Ones

October 29, 2000|T.J. SIMERS

Let's everyone take a deep breath here.

Hitching a rope to Traveler and asking the horse to drag Paul Hackett flopping behind all around the stadium, while maybe therapeutic for frustrated Trojans, is not going to happen.

Come on, you can't expect a horse to pull dead weight like that.

The USC season, maybe as you expected it, is over after a 28-16 loss to California.

Too bad.

But hanging over the railing above the Coliseum tunnel where players and coaches exit, waving a "Fire Mike Garrett," and "Take Paul Hackett With You" T-shirt and screaming obscenities at everyone in Cardinal and Gold is worse than anything that took place on the field.

"I can't explain what it's like walking off that field like that," Trojan linebacker Zeke Moreno said. "I see the people--it's not a game, it's life for some of the alumni. . . . I'm ashamed. We've let a lot of the Trojans of the past and present down."

They lost a football game--nothing more. OK, five of them in a row if you have been counting, and the world has not ended.

But it has sure gotten a lot uglier in recent weeks, the despair and frustration blooming into downright anger in the Coliseum.

I guess this isn't just sports.

"I'd be upset, too, as a fan," Hackett said, "because it's not supposed to be like this, but I could never be angry at the young men who are playing football here. They are doing the very best they can, and I believe this is a football team that once it turns the corner, it will just explode."

You have to give this to Hackett, his team has been beaten with regularity, but he refuses to be the beaten man.

Someone in the postgame news conference wanted to know if Hackett was embarrassed for his team, and he answered civilly, as he has every tough question to date, but later in the locker room he became emotional upon reflection.

"Embarrassed?" he said. "I could never be embarrassed by these players--I would never use that word the way I see them work and fight."

It became a farce, however, the way things went on the field--so ridiculous in the fourth quarter that USC was running its punt-return team onto the field and its defense off while Cal was punting on fourth and one.

To say the Trojans had too many men on the field would be an understatement, although that didn't keep the fans in the stands from stating their case for Hackett's dismissal. Even a security guard was shaking his head, telling everyone who walked by: "Hackett's gotta go."

"Cal got me on that one," Hackett said.

Not so funny, I guess, but he has been a good example, teaching his players not to make excuses by taking all the blame himself, and when he says "this is a good football team," but it's making too many errors and "ultimately that's my responsibility," he has written his own farewell news conference.

But while somehow he returns to work each week, most people figure he'll be dismissed at season's end. On a human level, imagine what is going on in the pit of his stomach.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "I won't allow myself to even think about anything like that for a second because I have to give every bit of energy that I have to these young men.

"Sure, I feel things, but if I listen to all that, I'm letting these kids down. The one thing they are counting on is leadership--someone stepping up and telling them it will get better. They deserve that, and they are going to get that and everything else I can possibly give them."

Too bad he has been unable to give them the secret formula to win.

*

LIKE YOU, I WAS just as surprised to turn on "The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh" Saturday morning to find Oklahoma manhandling Nebraska.

*

SO I ASKED Mighty Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg after Friday night's game if he had any idea why fans have not taken to his team, and you would have thought a bunch of us had surrounded him and started chanting, "You can't beat the Kings, you can't beat the Kings," because he just turned and walked away.

I yelled after him--politely making no mention of the fact that he can't beat the Kings--and he still kept going.

*

I THOUGHT THE DUCKS would be thrilled to see one more person at their game, given recent attendance woes. The Ducks sold out 51 consecutive games at one time, have averaged 95.9% of Arrowhead Pond capacity since going into business, and now free T-shirts can't even bribe fans into filling the place.

The team has played five home games this season, including Friday night's promotional give-away game that drew 13,592, and are averaging 13,302 paying customers in a building with a capacity of 17,174.

I mentioned to a Ducks' official that I'd like to chat with Tony Tavares, the Ducks and Angels' big cheese who has been very helpful and informative in the past, and the next thing I know I was confronted by Duck General Manager Pierre Gauthier, whom I had never met before. I believe he was waiting for me to salute.

In Soviet Union terms, Gauthier explained emphatically that he will dictate who I can talk with, and deviating from this will be considered a serious breech of media conduct, and while I can only hope that means I will never have to go to a Ducks' game, I now have an understanding why Hartsburg appeared so uptight. He has probably been told they can always use another hockey coach in Siberia if he says the wrong thing.

*

TODAY'S LAST WORD comes from a 10-year-old catcher, Jett Bandy:

"Mike Piazza was blocking the plate the wrong way in the World Series. He's supposed to be in front of the plate, so the ball doesn't hit the runner, and then those two runs wouldn't have scored. That's what my coach taught me."

Piazza was trained in the Dodger organization.

*

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

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