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THE RIVALRY / No. 2 USC 47, UCLA 22 | COMMENTARY

Hire Power Leads to a Great Day for Garrett

November 23, 2003|Bill Dwyre | Times Staff Writer

You don't hear a lot about Mike Garrett these days, which is how he likes it.

There is no denying the obvious. The once-beleaguered USC athletic director has built it, and they have come.

Saturday, 93,172 came to the creaky and venerable Coliseum to watch Garrett's Trojans go through a late-season drill against a once-feared rival, UCLA. This was listed as an official game on the schedule, but clearly was a misprint. This was the varsity versus the frosh-soph squad, less a game than a loosening-up scrimmage for Oklahoma.

This football team, one of the two best in the country barring a collapse against Oregon State here Dec. 6, is Garrett's legacy to his school. Also, his quiet answer to critics.

Garrett, 59, won the Heisman Trophy here as an All-American running back in 1965. His No. 20, commemorating one of the five school Heisman winners, is displayed in a huge block on the Coliseum's peristyle end. He took over the athletic director's job in 1993, and his 10-year road to this point, one victory from a shot at his school's first national championship in 25 years, has been anything but smooth.

While the overall Trojan athletic program grew and prospered almost from the moment Garrett took over, the gauge by which he would be measured was the football program. This was, after all, Tailback U. And he was, after all, one of the U.'s great tailbacks.

So when it didn't quite hap- pen to the level expected by those who buy the tickets and write donor checks, a new campus sport was born. Garrett Grumbling.

John Robinson was here when Garrett arrived, and the veteran coach, in his second tour with the Trojans, got USC a Rose Bowl victory over Northwestern in 1996. But Robinson was gone soon, reportedly fired with a message on his answering machine. And when Garrett's first football coach hire, Paul Hackett, struggled through three mediocre seasons, the Garrett Grumbling rose to a roar.

Even before Pete Carroll landed on the USC sideline for the 2001 season, Garrett had seemed to struggle. Before making the Carroll hire, Garrett seemed successful mainly in being used to get nice pay raises for Mike Belotti at Oregon and Dennis Erickson at Oregon State. At the time, Carroll seemed more like a compromise hire than the real answer.

Now, it is three seasons later, Carroll's record is 26-9, with last season's Orange Bowl victory in his pocket and a likely trip to this season's bowl championship series title game in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4.

No Garrett Grumbling these days.

The architect of this watched from the haven of his booth in the press box Saturday, one level away from the crowd of media and VIPs. At halftime, he talked about what was quickly becoming one of the best days of his professional life.

He said that winning the Heisman was not comparable to this, that being involved with something that touches so many people, and that is so hard to achieve, is an entirely different emotion.

Even with a 33-2 lead, he was cautious.

"It is nice to win," he said, "but we aren't to the dance yet."

And he truly was not talking as much about having to beat Oregon State as he was worried about a UCLA comeback in the second half.

"I've learned over the years," he said, "that just when you think you have everything under control, the unexpected happens."

He called Carroll "a gift," and said that getting the right coach along the sidelines for this football-crazed school has not been the easiest of tasks.

"I inherited the first guy [Robinson]," he said, "and with the second guy [Hackett], it just wasn't the best of circumstances. But with Carroll, I didn't have to rush."

So did he honestly think that when he brought Carroll on board, he had acquired the savior?

"Yes, I did," he said. "I thought he was the guy that would do it. What I didn't

figure on was him doing it this fast."

Garrett has done what his critics were certain he could not. Clearly, the spoils of victory for this Trojan football season do not belong only to Carroll and his team.

But for Mike Garrett, the Trojan who brought the Trojans back, quiet caution still serves best in a culture where the grumbling is never far away.

"Things can turn on you just like that," he said. "It's still a daily struggle."

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