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Trojans Show Smith the Door : USC coach: In the wake of 24-7 loss in Freedom Bowl, he resigns under pressure.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Larry Smith’s six-year tenure as football coach at USC ended ingloriously, not with the Trojans appearing in a New Year’s Day bowl game but with Smith clearing out his office in Heritage Hall.

Smith resigned under pressure Friday, three days after the Trojans were upset by Fresno State, 24-7, in the Freedom Bowl, one of the most embarrassing defeats in USC’s storied history.

Smith, who had three seasons left on his contract, said that Wednesday morning, only hours after the loss to Fresno State, he was given the option of resigning or accepting another position within the athletic department.

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“I’ve always preached to my players that you never quit, and I want to make sure that comes across: I didn’t quit,” Smith said, breaking down near the end of a news conference at Heritage Hall. “My biggest regret is that I won’t be able to coach this team next year because I was really looking forward to it.”

He won’t have that chance, Smith said, because of Tuesday night’s loss at Anaheim Stadium.

“I felt before (the game), in my conversation with the (university) president (Steven Sample), that we should win the Fresno State game,” Smith said. “He didn’t tell me that . . . but I just drew my own conclusions.

“I knew there was a lot of pressure both on (Sample) and on Mike (McGee, USC’s lame-duck athletic director). And I just knew, for my own situation, a victory over Fresno State would maybe ensure me of another year.”

According to a source, Sample ordered McGee to pressure Smith after the Freedom Bowl loss.

McGee, who announced Nov. 30 that he was leaving USC to become athletic director at South Carolina, was reluctant because of his allegiance to Smith and his own lame-duck status, but obliged.

Sample, vacationing in Arizona, was unavailable for comment.

McGee would not acknowledge that Smith had been forced to resign. He said that talks between Smith and Sample, initiated by the athletic director, had been ongoing for several weeks before the Fresno State game, adding that “it wasn’t any one game” that led to Smith’s resignation.

McGee said that “there was a general erosion of confidence” in Smith’s ability from inside and outside the university, and that Smith was aware of it.

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McGee added that it will be his responsibility to recommend a replacement for Smith.

A replacement for McGee has not yet been named by a search committee headed by former USC and Ram quarterback Pat Haden, and is not expected to be for at least two more weeks.

“This is not the best of situations, certainly, but I am the University of Southern California’s athletic director right now and that will continue until such time as a staff has been hired and oriented,” McGee said.

Later, McGee added: “The relationship between (athletic director) and football coach is very important, but that’s something we’re going to have to work around. I don’t know any other way to do it. We are where we are.

“The president is comfortable with that. He has made the point (to McGee): ‘You are the athletic director. You will continue in that responsibility.’ ”

McGee said the Trojans hope to act quickly to choose a new coach.

“I’d like to get that done, absolutely, at the very earliest possible time,” McGee said.

Two USC juniors, linebacker Willie McGinest and split end Johnnie Morton, are considering making themselves available for the NFL draft. Another junior, flanker Curtis Conway, declared for the draft Wednesday.

But a more important consideration is recruiting. The national signing day is Feb. 3.

If Morton and McGinest stay, USC has 16 scholarships to offer.

John Robinson, the former USC and Ram coach, is thought to be a leading candidate to replace Smith, but McGee declined to speculate on any candidates.

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Smith was 44-25-3 during his six seasons at USC, leading the Trojans to the Rose Bowl game after each of his first three.

During the last three seasons, however, the Trojans were 17-17-2. Their record of 3-8 during the 1991 season was their worst since 1957 and they were 6-5-1 this season, losing four of their last five games after a 5-1-1 start.

Also, Smith was 0-6 against Notre Dame, 1-2-1 against UCLA during the last four seasons and 1-4 in bowl games.

“You look at the last six years and you really segment them into the first three years and the last three years,” said McGee, who hired Smith from Arizona before the 1987 season. “I think we could look at some circumstances from which the program did not rebound. There was kind of a malaise from a year ago that was created.

“There has not been much (positive) in the last 2 1/2 years to focus on. We were not as successful as we would have hoped. There are further restrictions on academics and some of those kinds of considerations, but I think the problems of the last several years are not related to admissions or those other kinds of considerations.”

McGee said that he and Smith had “hard talks” after the 1991 season, which ended with a six-game losing streak.

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“Larry and I had spent a good deal of time in discussion a year ago with (regard to) changes that were to occur,” McGee said. “The program needed to turn around and start heading in a positive direction quickly.

“So, when you go all the way back, you’re looking at discussions that have occurred over a long period of time, not just the last couple of weeks.”

Smith got the message.

“When I came here six years ago, I understood what I was getting into,” he said. “It’s real simple: At USC, you’ve got to win 80-90% of the time. If you don’t, I think you can expect something like this. I came into it with my eyes open. . . .

“It’s one of the realities of the business and I think it’s one of the realities of coaching at a school (where) football means (as much) as it does at USC.”

Smith said he feared that if he lost to Fresno State, his record would not save him.

“It’s not what you did three or four years ago,” he said. “It’s ‘what have you done lately?’ As a coach or an athlete or as a team, you’re only as good as your last game, and that’s the way most fans remember (you).”

McGee said that he will meet this morning with Smith’s staff, which remains under contract.

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“The new coach will be given an opportunity to meet with any and all of them,” McGee said.

Smith’s replacement, however, probably would hire his own staff.

Larry Smith

Career football coaching record of Larry Smith, whose resignation from USC was announced Friday.

Year, School W L T 1976 Tulane 2 9 0 1977 Tulane 3 8 0 1978 Tulane 4 7 0 1979 Tulane 9 3 0 1980 Arizona 5 6 0 1981 Arizona 6 5 0 1982 Arizona 6 4 1 1983 Arizona 7 3 1 1984 Arizona 7 4 0 1985 Arizona 8 3 1 1986 Arizona 9 3 0 1987 USC 8 4 0 1988 USC 10 2 0 1989 USC 9 2 1 1990 USC 8 4 1 1991 USC 3 8 0 1992 USC 6 5 1 Totals 110 80 6 Bowls 2 5 1

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