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BILL PLASCHKE

Pete Carroll is pushing it

The competitiveness that has lifted USC could also lead to its downfall, unless the coach plays by the rules.

August 08, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

As the USC football team opens fall practice today for the ninth season under sprinting and shouting Pete Carroll, somebody needs to ignore him.

Somebody needs to slow down, back off, pull his punches, watch his step.

Somebody needs to act contrary to every philosophy that has been preached to every corner of the USC program during its every step to greatness.

That somebody is Pete Carroll.

As the Trojans begin another autumn already steaming under a magnifying glass, I'll just say what even some of the most loyal USC folks are thinking.

If Carroll is not careful, the aggressiveness that has lifted his program to historic heights is the same aggressiveness that is going to sink it.

The harder he pushes the envelope, the closer his program comes to disappearing beyond it.

The best thing about Carroll is also the scariest.

Always compete? Maybe not always.

Nine years later, his mantra for a rebuilding program has almost become a millstone for this championship one.

When it comes to the NCAA rules, maybe you don't always compete. Maybe you stop trying to figure out loopholes and loose ends. Maybe you quit interpreting the stupid rulebook -- and it is a stupid rulebook -- and just follow every syllable of the dang thing.

Or maybe not.

"One of our mottos is, a relentless pursuit of competitive advantage in everything we do," Carroll said Thursday.

Um, Pete, that attitude is exactly what has landed USC in trouble.

"We're not in trouble," Carroll said.

Yes, you are. By college sports definition, any time NCAA investigators are hanging around, you are in trouble.

They showed up for the Reggie Bush stuff, and apparently they are going to stay for the Pete Rodriguez stuff, this special teams consultant who admitted he attended USC practices, which is a direct violation of those stupid rules.

Seriously. No offense to Pete Rodriguez, but if Carroll is going to get in hot water over sneaking in an extra coach, shouldn't the guy be, like, Knute Rockne?

This is what I'm talking about. Even if Carroll's interpretation of the rules is correct and Rodriguez is cool, why risk your program over a couple of kickoff returns and the occasional field goal?

Many Trojans fans were upset that the most condemning quote in The Times' story about the possible Rodriguez violations came from a former NCAA investigator named J. Brent Clark.

This is because Clark also happens to be the author of the book, "Sooner Century: 100 Glorious Years of Oklahoma Football."

Only in college football could passions run so deep that Clark's statements indeed reek of regional bias, but there is an easy way for Carroll to avoid allowing any Sooner or Gator or Longhorn to speculate on his future.

Stop pushing the envelope, and just close it.

"Over the years we continue to find ways to tighten the focus on everything we can possibly think of," Carroll said. "We have to do everything right. . . . You have to find your way to compete within the boundaries of it all."

He knows it. His coaches know it. His team knows it.

Then why do silly little issues keep coming up?

It's because, from the first whistle of today's practice to the final one of their January bowl game, Carroll's competitiveness has no boundaries.

He doesn't ask any more of his players than he asks of himself. It's exhausting to watch USC practice, even if you're only watching the coach.

His players are pushed to both NFL and personal riches, some guys leaving to play on Sunday, other guys leaving with the sort of personal accountability and work ethic that plays well in corporate cultures on Monday through Friday.

On the field, the program is all about testing limits, and it succeeds.

Off the field, if Carroll keeps testing those same limits, it is doomed to fail.

"It's so important for us to do right, this is such a tremendous program, it's worth it, it's worth learning, digging in, figuring things out," Carroll said.

Fine. Check the angles. Work, dig, figure. But in the end, at some point, Carroll has to just throw up his hands and gently comply.

It drives him crazy. If this were any other college job, I bet all this NCAA fine print would have pushed him back to the NFL by now.

"If this wasn't such a great place to work, maybe it would drive you out of it," Carroll admitted.

But he has chosen to stay because he has been given full control of one of the marquee teams in America's marquee sport.

Carroll loves it at USC because his football acumen is rewarded with NFL money and responsibility while his personality thrives in a college football environment.

For him, this is the best of all worlds.

But it's still not his world. It belongs to the NCAA, and maybe he should just chill out and let them have it for a while.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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