USC interim coach Ed Orgeron congratulates his team during a game against… (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles…)
It was just a few ticks of the clock before midnight Thursday when Ed Orgeron blended his own feelings into those of USC football fans.
"Today, I woke up happy," he said, "and I'm not a happy guy."
Friday morning, most USC fans, who had been like Orgeron, woke up the same.
Orgeron called USC's 38-31 victory over Arizona "an A-plus." In most ways, he was right.
The Trojans needed to win. Period. Be it a fluke, or by a bad call. Even the lights going out and changing the momentum. It didn't matter. Any port in a storm.
The Lane Kiffin run had ended in the wee hours of the morning at LAX 12 days ago. Trojans fans had been in an uproar. Arizona State hadn't just beaten USC; it had slapped it down with a 62-41 embarrassment. A proud Trojans world, its image and psyche always riding grandly on that white horse, head held high and sword thrust forward, can suffer occasional defeats to UCLA and Notre Dame. Those are rivals, blood brothers in scope and hope.
But never 62-41 embarrassments to somebody else.
It had gotten so bad that fan anger became irrational. Athletic Director Pat Haden had done what had to be done, what the fans wanted. But they were still angry. Why did he wait so long? Why had he hired Kiffin in the first place? (He hadn't. Mike Garrett had.)
Into this forest fire of emotion was thrust Orgeron, a 52-year-old with a classic coach's gravelly voice; three years' experience, with mixed results, as a head coach at Mississippi; a background as a key assistant under Pete Carroll in the pre-Reggie Bush magic kingdom days; and even a bit role in the hit movie "The Blind Side."
The choice, an emergency stopgap for Haden, was as perfect as it was logical. To many USC fans, Orgeron was, and is, a modern-day Marv Goux, the late and beloved USC assistant who symbolized and practiced tough football and tough love.
Fair or not, Kiffin's symbol had become a blank look and a laminated play sheet. Internally, he was not disliked. Externally, he was never understood.
Or, perhaps more accurately, he never understood.
He was a Silicon Valley guy in a world not quite ready to live and die with Google. USC fans embrace, but expect to be embraced back. They wanted anger, emotion, fire and brimstone along the sidelines. Or, in Carroll's case, little kid's enthusiasm.
Kiffin gave them composure, Xs and O's. Carroll had made daily practice a trip to Disneyland for fans and the media. Kiffin closed it.
Kiffin frequently missed the point. When he'd go to speak at a Trojans function, he often would show up minutes before and leave fairly quickly afterward. His speeches would be good, enlightening, motivating. But there was no real embrace back.
This is still, and always will be, the football program of John McKay. It demands quips, smiles, tears, anger, classic one-liners, unabashed joy in winning and total disgust at losing.
John Robinson followed McKay in 1976, went to the Rams, came back and produced an overall record of 104-35-4. He got it. Still does, and analyzes it perfectly.
"Pete Carroll started running for mayor the first day he arrived," Robinson says.
He also says, with his ever-jovial chuckle, "I go out to events and people are still hugging me. They're all 80 years old, of course."
Orgeron earned a collective hug Thursday night.
"I was really proud of the team, obviously," he said. "We started fast, and they bought into what we were telling them."
The Trojans are referring to everything post-Kiffin as "our eight-game season." They are 1-0 in that, and were they to keep that going, they could look back at two moments from Thursday night as season-savers.
The first was Nelson Agholor's stretching, juggling 62-yard touchdown catch from Cody Kessler just 2 minutes 39 seconds into the game. Later, the scoreboard replayed Tre Madden's 63-yard scoring pass from Kessler 10 minutes into the game and called it the play of the night.
It wasn't. Agholor's was. The Trojans needed to start fast, to get immediate belief. Kessler-to-Agholor did that.
Then, when USC's scary secondary turned a rout into a one-touchdown game with more than four minutes still to play, the previously injured Silas Redd and a newly challenged offensive line — "We talked to them about getting nasty," Orgeron said — took over.
In the last 4:15, Redd carried seven times, gained 43 yards and killed the clock with three first downs. Arizona's rally was snuffed.
"We had some fun, and that's all that matters," Orgeron said.
He knows, of course, that that is not all that matters in Trojans World.
Next up is Notre Dame. Good but not great Notre Dame. Then comes Utah and Oregon State. Also good but not great.
The final four include games at California and Colorado, both seemingly winnable, squeezed around home games with Stanford and UCLA, both very good, possibly great opponents.
Five wins from that stretch would have many Trojans fans waking up happy. Seven would have Orgeron getting lots of hugs.
Maybe even one from Haden.