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Return to Glory : From Heisman Trophy Winner to Athletic Director, USC’s Mike Garrett Has Come Full Circle

The name Mike Garrett resonates on many levels in Los Angeles. His football prowess at Roosevelt High School earned him a scholarship to USC, where, as a senior, he won the school’s first Heisman Trophy in 1965. Garrett played in Super Bowls I and IV for the Kansas City Chiefs and finished his eight-year NFL career with one of today’s Super Bowl participants, the San Diego Chargers (he picks San Francisco). He is now athletic director at USC. The 50-year-old East L.A. native lives in Pasadena with his wife Suzanne, 13-year-old daughter Sara and 8-year-old son Daniel. He was interviewed by Mark Sachs.

Q. What are some of your memories growing up on the Eastside?

A. I first lived in the Maravilla projects, right next to East L.A. College. Then when I was 12, we moved to Boyle Heights. At the time, Boyle Heights was a real melting pot of L.A. We had Chinese, Russians, blacks, Jews and Hispanics. I have fond memories of the people, and being able to get along was a real good lesson for me--understanding that differences are a strength and not an inconvenience.

Q. What did you envision for your future while attending Roosevelt High?

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A. I didn’t know what I was going to do; I just wanted to be successful. I think people who know what they are going to do at a very young age are a real minority. Life is very serendipitous--you have to be at the right place at the right time to capture the moment. I envied people who said they wanted to be doctors or lawyers and then ended up being that. I really envied them. But I found out later that most people were like me.

I think of myself as a late bloomer. A lot of the kids from USC now say they always knew I would be a success. They said I always seemed sure of myself and appeared to know where I was going. Before that, in high school, I don’t know how other students perceived me. I think they thought I was a nice person. I was a good athlete; my high school coach said he didn’t know what I would be, but knew that I was highly motivated.

Q. And now you’re just a few miles down the road again at USC. How would you describe your management style as athletic director?

A. I tend to be an open kind of administrator--a lot of input and different ideas. My management style reflects very much where I grew up and the diversity I grew up within. It reflects what I experienced at Roosevelt: different people and different views. You just end up with a tremendous product.

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This has really been a coming home for me, and I just want to add to the legacy here at USC. I want to stay in my position until we dominate college athletics.

Q. How is being a student/athlete at Roosevelt and USC different now than when you were in school?

A. I think kids were more mature then. I don’t think kids get the nurturing I got when I was younger. Consequently, kids now are not as equipped to think of themselves in a positive way. I imagine it’s a sign of the times. We knew who we were in the 1950s and ‘60s. I think it’s a reflection on our educational system, our economic system and how parents run their households. I look at the situation as a challenge. I always considered myself to be a guy who can make something happen. I like tough situations. I am going to succeed here with these kids. I am going to be successful and help produce some great USC graduates that can go out in the world and make something of themselves. We have to teach people to go outside of themselves, to think universally again.

Q. After winning the Heisman Trophy, you were a rookie running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, who that season made it to the very first Super Bowl--held at the Coliseum, no less. That must have been a mind-boggling few months of your life.

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A. Yes, my final game in college was playing Wyoming in the Coliseum, and the next game I played there was against my idols--the Green Bay Packers--in the Super Bowl. But the one thing I always loved about USC was that it prepared you for everything in life. SC is not designed to make you happy or make you perfect--it is designed to prepare you for reality. I was fully prepared to play against my heroes. Only a place like where I went to school could have prepared me to play against people I admired so much.

Q. How would you view a proposal to establish a playoff system for college football similar to the NFL?

A. I’d be against it because I want a football system that distinguishes itself from the professionals. The finality of having a champion is not that important to me. What is important is providing kids with the best resources you can, academically and athletically, to produce a well-rounded person who can contribute to society. I learned a long time ago never to say never (about a college playoff system), but I do believe that it will not happen too soon, if it happens at all.

Q. What do you see as USC’s ultimate role in the community?

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A. I think universities in general symbolize enlightenment, hope and a means to solve problems, and USC fits that description very well. (Former USC President) Dr. Norman Topping did marvelous things to establish this in the ‘60s, and now (current President) Dr. Steven Sample is someone who can take us to an even higher plateau.


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