With spring football practice underway at USC, Coach Larry Smith is concentrating on improving his team another notch and not dwelling on negatives.
Since Smith became USC’s coach two years ago, his team has won two Pacific 10 Conference championships, played in two Rose Bowl games and has compiled an 18-6 record.
In sports, however, recent impressions are the most lasting, and USC faltered at the end of the 1988 season, losing to Notre Dame with a No. 1 ranking at stake and then to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
For those who look at a glass as half empty, USC was 0-2. For those, who look at it as half filled, the Trojans had a successful 10-2 season.
Smith is far from satisfied, though. And he won’t be until his team wins a national championship.
“We’re trying to build a championship team, one that is more disciplined,” Smith said. “We’re not an undisciplined team, but we’re not disciplined enough to beat Notre Dame and Michigan because they’re super disciplined.”
Discipline is Smith’s spring message to the team, and not the discipline associated with reprimands for off the field behavior. Just football discipline.
“By discipline, I mean putting that hand exactly on that line,” said Smith, getting out of a chair in his office to demonstrate the proper football stance.
“I’m talking about execution discipline, pulling down the line and staying low, making a read here and there.”
Smith is aware, though, that he has to be careful of any criticism that would affect the morale of his team.
“I didn’t want to go into spring practice with negative thoughts,” he said. “I’m looking for the things that will make us better. We had a taste of it, losing two Rose Bowls and a national championship game. We know what it took to get where we are and we are one step higher than we were a year ago.”
Smith concedes, though, that the last step to the top rung of the college football ladder is the most difficult.
To that end, he and his staff have scrutinized the films of his teams last three games.
“What we saw was that we played a hell of a game against UCLA and were clearly the (Pac-10) champion,” Smith said. “From an intensity standpoint, we came down a notch the next week against Notre Dame. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s impossible to maintain the same peak we had for UCLA.”
The 27-10 regular season-ending loss to Notre Dame seemingly rankles Smith more than the 22-14 setback to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
“People say we were out-coached and not physical enough against Notre Dame,” Smith said. “That’s not true. We out-coached them, out-blocked them and out-tackled them. We made about seven critical mistakes, and Notre Dame, being a good, sound football team, took advantage and turned them into points.
“As for the Michigan game, we were out-coached, out-blocked and out-tackled. And they were more physically and mentally tougher than we were.”
The USC coach said he was uneasy at halftime of the Rose Bowl game, even though his team had a 14-3 lead.
“Our players came into the locker room feeling confident and I thought they were too confident,” Smith said. “They came out in the second half thinking that they would be like all other Pac-10 teams in the Rose Bowl. If they were up by 11 points, they couldn’t be beaten.
“Then, we had about three bad series and they kept cutting the the gap down.”
Smith said that USC’s sloppy tackling was a key factor in the loss. He also said that a personal foul penalty against USC near its own goal line was also decisive.
With 18 starters returning, USC Coach Larry Smith doesn’t have many personnel problems. However, there is one glaring vacancy, the loss of quarterback Rodney Peete, USC’s field leader since late in the 1985 season. Smith evaluated inexperienced Todd Marinovich and Pat O’Hara, who’ll be competing for the starting job: “Both guys like to throw from the pocket and are good, strong-armed passers. Todd is a soft-touch type of guy, while Pat really rips the ball downfield. He has a cannon for an arm. We want to take the pressure off our quarterback next season by going to our strength, which is our running game” . . . The Trojans have also lost All-American wide receiver Erik Affholter. Smith expects to improve the overall speed at the position. He has moved tailback Calvin Holmes to wide receiver, and he said that newcomers Hoel Scott and Larry Wallace, along with veteran Gary Wellman, a sprinter like Holmes, will provide USC with a speed factor.