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COLLEGE FOOTBALL WEEK 3 | T.J. Simers

It's Three the Hard Way

Hackett looks confused, but his job is really simple--just never make a mistake.

September 10, 2000|T.J. Simers

We know this much 27 games into his tenure as head coach: Paul Hackett always looks befuddled standing on the USC sideline.

What we don't know is if he's really lost, or if he's somebody who should never wear a baseball cap tucked tightly down on his head.

As some of us know, looks aren't everything, but Hackett has a lot to overcome if he's going to inspire confidence in the USC faithful.

A 17-14 last-few-seconds win over Colorado allowed everyone to leave the Coliseum Saturday night feeling good, but you know someone suggested on the way home that the Trojans were lucky to win.

That's a problem for the coach of a wannabe national powerhouse that has impatient fans expecting a smooth ride over every speed bump, and not much less than a win over UCLA, a win over Notre Dame and season-ending victory in the Rose Bowl. After all, times have been tough around here for a school that has to beat Louisiana Tech in the final game to finish .500.

It's just not a good thing coming off a 6-6 year at USC, and the Newsweek/Kaplan College Guide is released, suggesting with a dubious wink that "USC has morphed from a jock school to a serious contender for top students."

It was always understood that USC was a fine academic institution, but it gained its real notoriety from its charismatic head coaches, Student Body Right tailbacks, or quarterbacks who would go on to become Rhodes scholars. Now there's the kind of top student that raises the goosebumps in the alumni.

The TV closeups on the sideline unfortunately work against Hackett, and a 12-20-1 record in his only previous stint as a head coach at the University of Pittsburgh sits there as an ugly reminder of what might be with every mistake. There is very little wiggle room for disappointment here, which makes this test-filled semester so important.

When he agreed to match wits with Joe Paterno on the East Coast against a Penn State team favored to win, it appeared as if he had overextended himself. After acing the first test, it was all but tossed out a week later because of Toledo: Ohio--not Bob, and then further overshadowed by UCLA's romp over Alabama.

This brought Hackett and the Trojans home for the first time under the scrutiny of students and alumni in a game everyone expected them to win. But for the coach it was another significant exam--this one a test on how to overcome human nature, a failing grade wiping out everything accomplished in the first win.

Could he ready his team to play after an emotional win, a week off and not fall into the trap of a classic letdown?

He threw his team off the practice field a week ago in an old-school attempt to get their attention, tried to scare them by telling them Colorado would be charged up by the embarrassment of losing to Colorado State much like they might feel losing to the Bruins, and then called his seniors together asking for their leadership and good example.

The pressure wore on him this week, observers noting that he walked around uptight like a man who had been told all his recruits had opted to sign with UCLA. He feared this game might get away. On Thursday he broke the Trojans' routine and conducted a full practice in the Coliseum, going so far as to show the team how he wanted them to come out of the tunnel and take the field. It also gave the team's shaky field goal kicker a chance to feel what it was like to miss field goals at both ends of the field on newly laid turf.

"I think it all worked--we were ready to play," said Hackett, and maybe he does know what he's doing. "We had a chance to put this game away early."

His players responded to the coach's concerns with impressive play on the opening drive until wide receiver Kareem Kelly failed to catch a Carson Palmer pass in the end zone, the ball bounding off his hands to Colorado for an interception.

USC marched right back into position to score, but instead of trying to seize the moment, Hackett made one of those decisions that cuts down on alumni donations. On fourth-and-one from the Colorado 13-yard line in a scoreless game, Hackett made an NFL-like move, sending in the field-goal team.

But this was a college game in an emotional setting with USC's strength being its defense, and worst-case scenario, if failing to gain a first down, the Buffaloes were pinned deep. He went for the field goal with a shaky field-goal kicker, and the attempt wasn't close.

But that's a failed problem within an overall test, and a victory no-matter-how-achieved gives Hackett a passing grade. The shaky kicker hit from 24 yards with 13 seconds remaining, and if he misses, who knows how everyone feels about Hackett today, but then he didn't miss.

A smiling Hackett, and yes he can do that, disappeared from the crowd after the game, and began slapping the pads of his players as they walked up the tunnel. He had them grinning, and responding with shouts of joy, one of them wrapping his big arms around the coach.

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