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Bibby’s Out of This Arena

On the corner of Jefferson and Figueroa, earthmovers have turned concrete to dirt, razing all but one tricky corner in preparing the foundation for USC’s new basketball arena.

On Monday, Mike Garrett did the rest.

It was loud, it was clunky, it was smoky, but it was time.

The firing of Henry Bibby was as much about a hole as a hoop, as much about a shovel as an ax.

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When it opens in 2006, the Galen Center, promised to be the coolest basketball arena on the West Coast, is going to need a spiffy welcome mat.

And Henry Bibby’s scowl just wasn’t it.

“We needed a new direction,” Garrett said. “It was better now than later.”

Now, because as much as some of us like Henry Bibby, the construction of the arena left him as the last obstacle to USC’s becoming a national college basketball powerhouse.

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If you build it, they will come ... but not if they have to run laps at midnight, sit on the bench for no apparent reason, or be suspended on a whim.

“Coach Bibby demanded perfection,” said guard Derrick Craven slowly. “And perfection is pretty hard to come by.”

During his nine seasons here, Bibby handed out more public spankings than Simon Cowell, always explaining that he was fulfilling his role as a surrogate parent.

Which was fine, except he was not paid to be a parent, he was paid to be a coach, and sometimes the woodshed blocked the winning.

Three seasons ago, the Trojans won 22 games and took a potential Final Four team to the tournament. There, they lost in the first round to North Carolina Wilmington because an angry Bibby benched star David Bluthenthal for most of the second half.

Two seasons ago, the same thing happened to Desmon Farmer, who watched the Trojans blow a winnable Pac-10 tournament championship game to Oregon.

Both times, Bibby didn’t like the player’s attitude. Each time, he made his team pay for it with its season.

“Was he a perfect ‘father?’ ”' Garrett asked, referring to Bibby’s team leadership. “I would say, no.”

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He meant well, he worked hard, and he could still be a quite a guru, consistently outcoaching most, taking the mismatched Trojans to the Elite Eight in 2001 in one of the neatest postseason runs in recent Southland history.

But the coach grew surlier as his players grew more cynical until finally, last week in North Carolina, they acted as if they had stopped speaking to each other entirely.

The Trojans want to become the Tar Heels, not lose to them by 32 points.

One NBA scout called it the most disorganized effort he had ever witnessed.

Two days later, USC lost to a turmoil-depleted La Salle team that already has lost to James Madison, Hofstra and Penn.

It was then that Bibby lost his first and last supporter, Garrett making his decision and then sleeping on it so soundly, he dozed right through Saturday’s win over Brigham Young.

The only thing curious here is that Garrett claimed the decision wasn’t based on one incident. But its spontaneity will now lead the team to lean on rookie head Coach Jim Saia for three long months.

Garrett said there was no final straw. Yet few teams in Pac-10 history have fired their coach during a season in which they have yet to play a game in the Pac-10.

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Maybe it was the fear of an incident, the anticipation of a break? Maybe Garrett threw Bibby out before the team walked out?

“It was just instinct,” Garrett said.

If so, then it was instinct that had those building blueprints all over it.

With UCLA struggling and a good local high school junior class beckoning, now is the time for the Trojans to make the impressions that could make for a grand Galen Center opening.

“UCLA is a little down, it’s time for the Trojans to make a move,” Saia said.

And Saturday is Heisman Trophy day, which, two years ago, featured Carson Palmer’s bronze turning into a basketball program’s green.

Inspired by witnessing Palmer’s New York moment, Lou and Helene Galen donated $35 million to break ground on the basketball arena.

No offense to Matt Leinart, but do you think if Bibby were still around, anybody would think about writing a Heisman check this year?

The Galen money struck fear into those Pac-10 coaches who have long considered USC a sleeping basketball giant.

“Coach Bibby did a tremendous job getting that team to the final eight, but to be competitive on a consistent basis these days, you need a good facility,” said Steve Lavin, former Bruin coach. “The Sports Arena was an eyesore. Opposing coaches recruited against it. Having that new arena will change everything.”

The firing of Bibby, opening the doors to broader recruiting, will make those Pac-10 coaches sweat even more.

Can you imagine Paul Westphal bringing a running, Southland-style team into the building? How about Rick Majerus serving as the building’s first coach, emcee and entertainment?

The hole is in the ground. The future is in the sky.

The coach was in the way.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.


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