Ed Orgeron hovered over Southern California in a helicopter, traversing the region in search of prospects.
It was a Friday night, and Orgeron was less than two weeks into his new role as USC's interim coach.
Before Lane Kiffin was fired on Sept. 29, many of the top high school players in the Southland had been up in the air about playing for the Trojans. Now, Orgeron was literally circling above them as part of a mission to reboot local recruiting.
Orgeron is striving to become USC's full-time head coach. But that has not been his pitch to prospects and their parents.
"Whoever the head coach is, they are going to hire the best guy for the job," Orgeron said after practice last week. "So I tell them, 'You're going to get a great guy here, and you're going to love 'SC and the education you can get here.' That's been my deal."
So far, fallout from the uncertainty about USC's coaching situation has been mixed.
Harbor City Narbonne High defensive back Uchenna Nwosu and Gardena Serra linebacker Olajuwon Tucker orally committed to the Trojans this month, several recruiting websites reported.
But in a two-day span, linebacker D.J. Calhoun of El Cerrito High in Northern California and defensive lineman Michael Wyche of East Los Angeles College withdrew oral commitments to USC and announced they were going to Arizona State and Miami, respectively.
Last week, Bellflower St. John Bosco receiver Shay Fields orally committed to USC.
The Trojans' 2014 recruiting class will be the last of three affected by NCAA sanctions, which have limited USC to 15 new scholarship players per year, 10 fewer than the allowable maximum. The Trojans reportedly have eight commitments for a 2014 class that can include 19 players because USC did not use all of its 15 scholarships in 2013.
Players cannot sign national letters of intent until Feb. 5.
In the meantime, Athletic Director Pat Haden is searching for a coach, a process that might not have the choice on campus until December, January, or possibly even February if he were a member of an NFL staff that advanced to the Super Bowl.
"USC's recruiting is very stagnant right now," said Mike Farrell, national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "They lost a couple commitments and people are panicking. But in the long run, recruiting is going to be just fine at USC."
That was not the case on Sept. 7. Recruits uncertain about Kiffin's status after last season's 7-6 finish began chirping publicly and on social media after Washington State defeated the Trojans, 10-7, as fans at the Coliseum booed Kiffin's play-calling and chanted for his firing.
"Washington State just crushed everything that they possibly had going for them," said Erik McKinney, Pac-12 recruiting reporter for ESPN.com. "Even the defensive recruits were saying, 'What's going on here?'"
Haden fired Kiffin after a 62-41 loss at Arizona State on Sept. 28. The move injected "a breath of fresh air" into the situation, according to McKinney and other recruiting experts.
"The rumor of a coaching change is worse than a coaching change itself," said Greg Biggins, national recruiting analyst for Fox Sports and Scout.com. "The rumors were killing USC."
A focus the last few seasons on targeting national recruits also hurt the Trojans locally.
Last year, several out-of-state recruits who had orally committed to the Trojans changed their minds just before and on signing day. Most of the top local talent had already made other choices, so USC opted not to use all of its scholarships. Orgeron, USC's recruiting coordinator, acknowledged that the decision exacerbated an injury-depleted roster this season.
USC can still land a strong class if Haden makes the right hire and Orgeron can fend off UCLA and other schools from swooping in for talent before a new coach is announced.
The Trojans could take a quarterback, though they have third-year sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek and freshman Max Browne at the position. They are relatively deep at running back. They have needs at receiver and tight end, but their primary focus is offensive linemen.
On defense, linemen and cornerbacks are among the main targets.
All of the recruiting analysts anticipate that USC's next coach will retain at least one and perhaps two members of the current staff, to bridge the transition.
Orgeron has been in a similar position at USC.
When Paul Hackett was fired after the 2000 season, Orgeron, the defensive line coach, kept recruiting. He was retained by Pete Carroll and, on a new staff that included a young Kiffin, helped the Trojans return to national prominence.
Now, the Kiffin era is over.
"USC has not been ruined by a bad tenure," Farrell said. "It would take three or four bad tenures to ruin what Pete Carroll built."
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