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Local recruiting is key to USC's national prowess

December 01, 2006|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

It was a simple equation that Pete Carroll settled upon when he arrived as the new football coach at USC six years ago.

The struggling program needed an influx of talent. Southern California ranked among the national hotbeds for young players.

So he would scour the local high schools.

"It seemed like common sense," Carroll said. "And it seemed like an opportunity to prove our work ethic."

Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football, an annual dance by which coaches scramble to restock their rosters. In Southern California, it takes vivid form in the rivalry between USC and UCLA.

Most fans judge their annual matchup, which reconvenes Saturday at the Rose Bowl, by the final score. But before the teams even reach the stadium, the outcome is influenced by how they fared in the battle for recruits.

In 2000, Carroll and an assistant, Ed Orgeron, visited a dozen or more schools each day, driving from the Westside to San Bernardino, from Lancaster to Orange County, meeting players and coaches.

"We would go and watch guys work out at 6 in the morning and go till 9 or 10 at night," recalled Orgeron, now the coach at Mississippi. "It was a buzz saw."

Winning this behind-the-scenes competition helped Carroll remake the Trojans into a national powerhouse. Now a similar effort has begun in Westwood.

This time, it is UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell trying to invigorate a beleaguered program by winning hearts and minds at local schools. "That's the challenge," Dorrell said. "It's a process of trying to make inroads."

Keeping 'em at home

Texas high schools fed 389 players into major college football last summer, according to Scout.com. Florida accounted for 341 and California -- in a statistically off year -- 232.

"Those are always going to be your three biggest states," said Allen Wallace, the website's national recruiting editor.

Though USC and UCLA traditionally have subsisted on home-grown talent, they have had to compete against each other and against schools such as Notre Dame, Miami and Oregon to sign these athletes.

The Bruins held the upper hand in the late 1990s as former coach Bob Toledo led them on a 20-game winning streak. But soon after, UCLA appeared to shift its focus to the national scene. "You talked to the City Section coaches and they said they never saw UCLA on campus," said Greg Biggins of StudentSports.com.

Carroll filled the gap.

Shortly after taking the USC job in December 2000, he and Orgeron drove to Palm Desert to visit Marv Goux, a USC assistant coach during the program's halcyon days in the 1960s and '70s.

"He gave us the plan," Orgeron said of Goux, who died in 2002. "He let us know how they did it."

Carroll wanted to "put a fence" around Southern California, keeping all the best players at home. His staff turned recruiting into a contest, assistants returning to the office late at night, comparing notes on how many schools they had visited.

Mike Christensen, the former Lakewood High coach now at Carson High, said he wasn't used to seeing USC on his campus unless he had a big-time prospect.

"That's when we knew it was going to be a big change," Christensen said. "With Carroll, they were going to keep in touch no matter what, in case you had a player down the road they wanted."

By knowing every campus -- and hosting instructional clinics for high school players -- the Trojans not only formed relationships with top recruits but scouted gems such as LaJuan Ramsey, who went from mediocre college prospect to NFL-caliber defensive lineman.

Add to this method two key elements. Carroll enticed recruits by promising them a chance to play as freshmen. He also brought a strong dose of personality and energy.

"The difference is Pete, in that he hasn't rested on his laurels," said Bill Walsh, the former San Francisco 49ers and Stanford coach. "USC's had the top recruiting class in the country five straight years. There's a level of athleticism and talent at USC that maybe Ohio State has. Maybe. We'll find out."

If USC beats UCLA on Saturday, the Trojans probably will play Ohio State in the national championship game Jan. 8.

The City haul

In the 1990s, as Robert Chai grew up in Newport Beach, UCLA regularly defeated USC. That's when the promising young center decided to play for the Bruins.

"You want to go with the school that's winning," he said.

By the time Chai got to Westwood in fall 2002, however, Carroll had begun to turn the tables.

Now the Trojans were on the upswing, the Bruins sagging.

Dorrell arrived in December 2002, after Toledo was fired, and focused immediately on recruiting. He didn't have far to look.

Inner-city schools -- some only minutes from Westwood -- complained the Bruins had ignored them. They suspected UCLA did not trust their kids to succeed athletically or academically.

"It's like red-lining your automobile insurance," said Robert Garrett, the coach at Crenshaw High. "The attitude had to change."

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