Larry Smith was introduced as USC’s football coach Friday, as expected, and he said all the right things.
The former Arizona coach was with his family at a press conference at Town and Gown on the USC campus and talked of the tremendous challenge and opportunity that he has in his new position.
“I’m anxious to get working,” he said. “I’m a goal-oriented person, and we’ll be shooting for the stars.”
Smith, 47, became the 19th head coach in the school’s history, replacing Ted Tollner, who was fired Dec. 8 and who coached his last USC game Thursday in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
More significantly, Smith is the first non-connected USC person to get the job since Howard Jones was hired in 1925. Jones coached the Trojans until his death in 1941.
Smith agreed to a five-year contract, but the financial package was not disclosed. It is believed he was earning at least $200,000 at Arizona, and USC most likely improved on that figure.
Smith, attired in a three-piece suit with a red tie, said he never would have been a candidate for the USC job had he been given a multiyear contract by Arizona last September.
Coaches in Arizona were previously restricted to one-year contracts by state law. Although the law has been rescinded, Smith indicated that the school’s board of regents wasn’t prepared to give him a long-term contact until July of this year.
USC’s offer, meanwhile, was on the table, and Smith took it. He said that Athletic Director Mike McGee formally offered him the job Thursday night.
McGee had said in the press box at Orlando, Fla., Thursday that he hadn’t offered anyone the job. Technically he was correct, because the offer, according to McGee, wasn’t made to Smith by phone until 6 p.m. Eastern time. McGee said that if for some reason Smith had second thoughts about taking the USC job, he had another candidate in mind, Iowa Coach Hayden Fry.
It has been speculated that Smith was in place for the USC job for some time, but the new coach and McGee denied that such was the case.
In any event, The Trojans have hired a coach who won seven or more games in each of his last four seasons at Arizona.
The Wildcats finished with a 9-3 record this season and beat North Carolina, 30-21, last Saturday in the Aloha Bowl.
Smith, who was once an assistant coach under Bo Schembechler at Michigan, said that Schembechler told him the USC job was one of the great ones in the country.
Smith talked about USC’s tradition and its class, citing a game in 1981 when his Wildcats upset the then No. 1-ranked Trojans, 13-10.
“I was really impressed that the president (James H. Zumberge) and some of the players came in to congratulate me,” he said. “They did that knowing that they had just been knocked out of a number one ranking. You like to be around those types of people.”
Smith said he is bringing most of his staff to USC, although Chuck Stobart and Chris Allen, Arizona’s offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, want to be interviewed for the now-vacated Arizona job.
There aren’t many openings on Smith’s staff. But he said he planned to interview some former members of Tollner’s staff, notably Artie Gigantino, USC’s defensive coordinator.
Smith said he made his first visit to the USC campus Sunday, meeting Zumberge, among others, and came away with a favorable impression.
McGee said his first contact with Smith was on Dec. 11, three days after Tollner was fired.
Dave Levy, the San Diego Chargers’ offensive line coach and a long-time assistant under John McKay, was also a candidate for the job.
Levy said he was supposed to telephone McGee Wednesday in Orlando, which he did. McGee didn’t return the call; he said the phone message from Levy was mistakenly put in his son’s mail slot at the hotel.
McGee said he telephoned Levy Friday morning, informing him, of course, that he was no longer a candidate for the job.
Levy had received considerable backing from USC support groups, including the Football Alumni Assn., and from such former players as O.J. Simpson, Mike Garrett, Anthony Davis and Pat Haden.
McGee said he was interested in hiring someone with a USC background but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hire a proven head coach such as Smith.
McGee identified Smith as a man of high integrity, a proven winner and the type of coach who can make USC a consistent Top 10 team and a challenger for the national championship.
Recruiting has obviously lagged in the interim between the announcement of Tollner’s firing and Smith’s hiring. That factor is high on Smith’s priority list.
“We’ll now go after some players that I couldn’t go after when I was at Arizona,” Smith said. “Some of the top recruits save their visits for USC.”
Asked about his relationship with players, Smith said: “I’m a 50-50 guy. You give me 50, and I’ll give you 50. But I’m the coach, and you’re the player.
“If a player wants to be treated like an adult, that’s the way I’ll treat him. If he wants to be treated like an immature child, then I would treat him that way.”
Smith will be reunited with USC quarterback Rodney Peete, who was a prep star in Tucson and was once a ball boy for the Arizona football team.
Smith said he has known Peete since Rodney was 7 years old and had tried to recruit the quarterback for Arizona.
The new USC coach was reminded that he’ll be inheriting a veteran team. The cupboard isn’t as bare as it was when Tollner succeeded John Robinson in 1983.
Smith said he doesn’t know that much about USC’s personnel to make a sweeping evaluation.
“When you play a team once a year, that’s not enough for an evaluation,” he said.
Smith has been influenced by a variety of offensive systems and coaches since he started his career as a coach at Lima (Ohio) Shawnee High School in 1964.
A former end at Bowling Green (Ohio), Smith was an assistant under Schembechler at Miami of Ohio and at Michigan.
When a coaching colleague, Jim Young, became Arizona’s coach, Smith went with him as defensive coordinator from 1973 through 1975.
Smith became Tulane’s head coach in 1976, and in his last season at the school in 1979, the Green Wave had a 9-3 record along with an appearance in the Liberty Bowl.
Then, Smith went to Arizona for a seven-year stay and an overall record of 48-28-3. He has coached the Wildcats to winning seasons in six consecutive years, the longest streak of that type at Arizona since 1923.
Moreover, his teams have beaten rival Arizona State five straight times.
Smith has used a variety of offensive systems, but this season his team was in the I-formation, an alignment that has been a USC tradition since the McKay era in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
LARRY SMITH’S CAREER RECORD
Year School Record 1976 Tulane 2-9 1977 Tulane 3-8 1978 Tulane 4-7 1979 Tulane 9-3 1980 Arizona 6-5 1981 Arizona 6-5 1982 Arizona 6-4-1 1983 Arizona 7-3-1 1984 Arizona 7-4 1985 Arizona 8-3-1 1986 Arizona 9-3 Arizona 48-28-3 Overall 66-55-3