Smith Is Cautious, Wary for Good Cause


It was as hot and sticky as after-a-rain New York gets when the football squad from USC ran an actual Statue of Liberty play Thursday, making like tourists on the eve of tonight’s Kickoff game against Syracuse at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.

The temperature, like the decade, was in the low 90s, and the Southern Californians came prepared for both.

From a noontime visit to the brokerages along Wall Street to a late-night supper at Mamma Leone’s restaurant on West 44th, the army of Trojans from our western shores spent much of the day together, doing a little deliberate male bonding before entering into another 12-game season of needing to depend on one another to achieve success.


In the gallery above the floor of New York Stock Exchange, 75 USC players burst into song.

“Fight on for ol’ SC!

“Our men fight on to victory!”

The startled traders looked up and pointed.

“Fight on and win for ol’ SC!

“Fight on to victory! Fight on!”

New goals, new season, New York. Next, the Trojans took a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, looked her majesty over, then took turns buying bogus jewelry from street-corner hustlers. You know, got themselves into a real New York state of mind.

Later they strolled over to the Downtown Athletic Club, home to the Heisman Trophy. Charlie White, the 1979 winner who is back working with the team, posed in front of his painting. Bruce Luizzi, the sophomore safety from Burbank, posed in front of Vinnie Testaverde’s painting, because Bruce thinks he looks like Vinnie. The late Tom Harmon’s painting had a memorial sash across it.

College football--yesterday, today and tomorrow.

In the East, college football generally conjures up images of trembling fans huddled beneath blankets, sipping from thermos jugs of coffee and wearing thermal drawers to keep frost away. Around the tri-state--New York, Connecticut, New Jersey--area today, however, an aerobics instructor would qualify as overdressed. USC’s season opener is definitely going to be a hot one.

Was it only a year ago that Larry Smith and his coaching staff wondered when or if they would finally win a Rose Bowl, or if the freshman quarterback they were pressing into service far too soon, Todd Marinovich, would have what it took to take them there? Was it only a year ago that Illinois stung the Trojans, 14-13, in the opener, then promptly got slaughtered by Colorado, leaving USC’s followers fretting that they might be in for a long, long season?

It turns out there were serious doubters even on USC’s roster as to Marinovich’s ability to replace Pat O’Hara, whose season-ending leg injury left the coaches with little other choice. Marinovich may have been “Robo-QB,” the programmed prepster, but he was as green as his hair was red, and he was overanxious and underqualified and profoundly human.

As quarterback coach Ray Dorr acknowledged after the fact, “We weren’t ready to give Todd the job.”

Well, Todd was not particularly impressive on opening day, but neither was USC. But before he and the team were through, Smith was being carted Cleopatra-style on his soldiers’ shoulders, having won the Rose Bowl, and Trojan football experienced one of its finest hours.

Now, we come full circle to a new season, one in which Marinovich has gone from question mark to exclamation point. He is the very reason USC is projected to be a team to watch. Smith sounds apprehensive about Marinovich’s consistency and motivation, but he knows as well as anyone that college football’s freshman of the year could very well be the National Football League’s hero of tomorrow.

The only trouble with quarterbacks is that they get too much attention.

Smith has a coach’s worst-case scenario on his hands: A team deserted by the very players who figured to be coming into their prime. When linebacker Junior Seau and defensive back Mark Carrier went Nos. 5-6 in the NFL draft, Smith officially waved bye-bye to two guys who could have still been his. And eight more of his men wound up drafted, which is enough to make a grown coach cry.

Were that not rough enough, only two starters are returning on defense, and fewer than half on offense. This is no way to confront a schedule that provides the likes of Syracuse (8-4, Peach Bowl winner), Penn State (8-3-1, Holiday Bowl winner), Washington (8-4, Freedom Bowl winner), Ohio State (8-4, Hall of Fame Bowl participant) and Notre Dame (12-1, Orange Bowl winner), not to mention those Westwood guys who give USC trouble in good times and bad.

All of this “makes this the toughest coaching challenge of my career,” said Smith, who is as wary and cautious as most of the men in his profession and clearly has reason to be.

USC should be pretty good. Scott Ross is an inside linebacker who deserved a percentage of the raves that went to Seau last season, and Don Gibson is a defensive lineman who, now that his broken ankle is better, might just go out and make people forget that Tim Ryan is gone, a tall order.

Also look out for Gary (Ghost) Wellman, who grabbed the “phantom” touchdown pass that saved the day against UCLA. Gary is about as tall as a Gatorade bottle, but he is sneaky fast and has those Steve Largent crazy-glue hands that he must have ordered from some wide receiver’s catalogue.

And then there is human cannonball Ricky Ervins, the running back who is built like a helmet. You’ll be able to identify Ricky easily. He’s the one carrying the football who looks as though the football is carrying him. He’s also the one nobody seems able to bring down.

Jamie Crimmins of the Downtown Athletic Club, who gave the Trojans their guided tour, thanked the team for coming.

“Hopefully, we’ll see one of you again soon,” he said. “Maybe even Todd or Ricky.”

Yeah, maybe.

New York, new season, new goals.