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NO. 5 USC (10-1) VS. UCLA (4-7) : COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Truth is, USC misses Chow

December 05, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE | Plaschke is a Times staff writer.

It is a truth that most USC fans have either avoided or denied, and who can blame them?

In the last eight years, it has been their toughest loss. Since the Pete Carroll era began, it has been his biggest miscalculation.

Nobody really talks about it anymore, it exists far across town and deep in the standings, it's nearly disappeared under four years of obscurity and disappointment.

But it's still there. And Saturday, from high in the Rose Bowl press box, for the first time since becoming painfully evident, this truth will be staring them directly in the face.

The Trojans miss Norm Chow. They miss him bad. They miss him historically bad.

"We miss all of our coaches who have left," said Carroll.

No, they miss him worse. They miss him national-championship bad.

The truth is, if Chow did not leave USC in 2005 after a personality clash with Carroll, they could have played for three more national titles.

The truth is, in each of the first three seasons after Chow left, in three games they should have won, the Trojans offense slipped into a confused funk that led to three defeats.

"Norm was a wonderful coach here, but he was replaced by other great coaches," said Carroll. "Over the years, I believe our coaching staff has maintained its standard of excellence."

But truth is, while Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian were consistent winners, neither had Chow's savvy to survive the big moments.

You think Chow could have prevented the late offensive meltdown in the national championship game against Texas?

With Chow in the booth, there is no way Reggie Bush would not have been on the field on that infamous fourth-and-two play on the Texas 45-yard line. If Bush is on the field, at least one more defender is occupied, and LenDale White probably gains the extra yard that would have clinched the victory.

You think Chow could have figured out a way to score on that last drive against UCLA?

With Chow in the booth, there is no way that USC's attempted game-winning march -- with 5:52 remaining and three timeouts left from their 29-yard line -- would have consisted of a dozen John David Booty passes and just one C.J. Gable run. It was so predictable, UCLA was waiting for that pick.

You think Chow would have screamed when Booty tried to play the second half against Stanford with a broken finger?

Chow was always the one coach who was unafraid to challenge Carroll. He was the curmudgeonly uncle that every young staff requires. He would have fought Carroll hard enough that Booty would have been benched before throwing four second-half passes for interceptions.

Three bad losses, three offensive failures, all of them preventable.

(No, you can't blame this year's loss to Oregon State on Norm Chow, not when Jacquizz Rodgers gained 186 yards rushing against a shrugging defense).

One of the themes this week is that, since leaving USC, Chow has fallen from grace. He was fired from a Tennessee Titans team that has only lost once. He has joined a UCLA team that has won only four times.

The truth is, Chow's place in Trojans history has only grown stronger.

"I want to say something about USC," Chow said when I phoned him Thursday.

I grabbed my pen. I braced for the vitriol.

"I want to say that I will be forever grateful to Pete for allowing me to coach in the Pac-10, which led to me going to the NFL," Chow said. ''He's a tremendous coach. His staff is filled with tremendous coaches. I have nothing but the greatest respect for USC, I have many friends there still, from Mike Garrett to Don Winston to many, many others."

Typical Chow. He will never publicly admit any hard feelings about anyone. He will never publicly ask for credit. At the height of his USC fame, he was so intent on staying off the big stage, I once had to literally chase him for a quote.

"Norm was great, he did a lot for us, he made a lot of money after he left, he's done very well for himself," said Carroll. "It was a pleasure to work with him."

So what happened? It's been written before. There was no one incident. There was no bloody fight.

It was a battle of perception, and the guy with the disheveled white hair and wire-rimmed glasses lost.

Chow became so popular, folks began referring to the Trojans attack as "Chow's offense." Worried this might hurt recruiting, particular if Chow left, Carroll wanted it to be known as "USC's offense."

This theme carried itself out to the field, where, the more Chow succeeded, the more Carroll wanted to be involved in that success.

After the victory over Oklahoma for their second consecutive national title, Carroll intimated to Chow that he was going to be calling more of the plays, or at least giving more authority to young Kiffin, who was being created in Carroll's image.

Chow worried he was going to be pushed aside, so he left before that could happen, becoming the offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans.

This, even though he owned a South Bay home and had children who would be attending USC.

No, even at $1 million a year, Chow didn't want to go, but he didn't feel he had a choice.

"Norm and I never had any problems, we got along great, we worked together great," said Carroll.

But in the end, they didn't really trust each other's intentions, so the partnership ended, and the burgeoning Trojans dynasty hasn't won a national title since.

However, with Thursday's news that Sarkisian will be offered the head coaching job at Washington, there could be a way for Carroll to salvage Chow's loss.

Two ways, actually.

Pick up the phone. Hire him back.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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