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Making a Point

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Ring. Ring. Ring.

“Hello?”

“Hackett?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s Plaschke.”

Pause.

“I guess I really left the cupboard bare, didn’t I?”

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Amid the Heisman trophies and national championships and eternal hope that fill the Heritage Hall closets, there lives a squinty-eyed ghost.

Surely you remember Paul Hackett.

The last anyone in Los Angeles saw of Hackett, it was a little more than two years ago, outside the Coliseum tunnel, as the then-USC football coach dodged boos and jeers while sprinting away from a loss to Notre Dame.

The next day, he was fired.

The day after that, he vanished.

He moved back east, broke all ties with the USC family, found a new job, carved out a new life.

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He rarely spoke of the Trojans. They rarely spoke of him. His three-year tenure was increasingly remembered like three unexceptional running plays. A lot of dust, then a punt.

With the program now awash in giddiness over Pete Carroll, it almost feels as if Paul Hackett were never here.

But he was, as the nation will be reminded this weekend when Hackett returns to the West Coast as the hottest mind in football, the offensive coordinator of a New York Jet offense as unstoppable as graffiti.

Hackett was here, and Hackett remembers, as evidenced by his “bare cupboard” sarcasm three seconds into our first conversation in two years.

“People ask me if it’s tough coaching here in New York and I just giggle,” Hackett said this week. “They don’t know where I’ve been.”

Hackett was here, and Hackett still smolders.

“When I was at USC, I didn’t have a three-year plan, I had a five-year plan,” he said. “There is a big difference. But they didn’t understand that difference.”

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Hackett was here, and Hackett is still too pained -- and professional -- to say anything more about it.

“I haven’t talked to anybody out there, but there’s nothing to talk about,” he said. “You move on. You move on.”

He has certainly done that, rising from what appeared to be professional ashes to become, once again, the league’s premier quarterback mentor.

The man who once tutored Joe Montana now coaches Chad Pennington, the fearless young quarterback who will lead the Jets into Sunday’s AFC semifinals.

They will play the Oakland Raiders, who are quarterbacked by another Hackett disciple named Rich Gannon.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” Hackett said.

For him, for the first time in a long time, it’s a good crazy.

The man who occasionally seemed so lost on the USC sideline is home again in an NFL press box.

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“This is the role I need to be in, whether I am a head coach again or not,” said Hackett, who said he regrets giving up play-calling duties after his first year at USC.

The man who struggled with the turnover foolishness of the college game is comfortable again hanging with a quarterback who was a Rhodes scholarship finalist.

“The kid is delightful, the situation is delightful,” he said.

The man who never seemed relaxed under the head-coaching glare now happily and anonymously watches hours of film at the private New York Jet complex.

In Pete Carroll’s old office.

Now that’s crazy.

“I give credit to Herman Edwards [the Jets’ coach] for believing in something and sticking behind it, even when we weren’t very good,” Hackett said. “This game is about stability. You have to give people time to build something.”

He’s talking about the sort of time he wasn’t given at USC.

He’s too polite to rip or burn, but he wonders what he would have done with that time.

“Let’s see, we had a quarterback who became the Heisman Trophy winner, right?” he said.

History will indeed judge Hackett more leniently than the critics of two years ago. He may have vanished, but shards of his impact remain.

No, he obviously didn’t leave the cupboard bare.

Hackett helped recruit or develop Carson Palmer, Troy Polamalu and most other key players from this year’s fourth-ranked team.

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And, yes, Hackett did convince these players that they could beat UCLA. In his second season, the Trojans broke an eight-game losing streak to the Bruins, and haven’t lost since.

“We taught the kids a few things there,” Hackett said.

But any successes were overwhelmed by sideline and preparation mistakes that led to his 19-18 overall record that included a stunning Sun Bowl loss to Texas Christian.

Hackett’s biggest problem, it turns out, was being in the wrong place at the absolute worst time.

Hackett was a great football mind in a place that needed a great football presence.

Hackett instructed where inspiration was needed. He calculated instead of coaxed.

The rap about this esoteric chalkboard guy not being able to relate to city kids wasn’t completely accurate, because, as history has shown, he brought in some great ones.

He simply couldn’t make them play the way Pete Carroll has made them play.

As was proven this season, Paul Hackett is the sort of a coach who needs a Chad Pennington.

Smart, tough, Pennington is already being compared to Montana, who won his first Super Bowl in his third season. Yep, Pennington is also in his third season.

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After he ran Hackett’s offense to near perfection in outscoring the Jets’ last two opponents, 83-17, the hype thickens.

Not only for the quarterback, but for that man in his ear.

“Can you believe Hackett! Is he locked in or what? This is so great for him.”

Heaping praise on his predecessor after a recent Orange Bowl practice was Pete Carroll, he being afraid of no ghosts.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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*--* Meet the Old Boss A comparison between Paul Hackett and Pete Carroll as USC head football coaches: Year Rec Conf Bowl App Rank PPG PA PAUL HACKETT 1998 8-5 5-3 (3rd) Sun (Lost) -- 26.6 18.5 1999 6-6 3-5 (T6) -- -- 29.0 23.2 2000 5-7 2-6 (T8) -- -- 25.8 28.1 PETE CARROLL 2001 6-6 5-3 (5th) Las Vegas (Lost) -- 24.8 17.3 2002 11-2 7-1 (T1) Orange (Won) 4 35.8 18.5

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