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Not Every Crowd Has a Silver Lining

Times Staff Writer

USC cornerback John Walker pondered the vast expanse of empty seats in the Coliseum four years ago and decided the game-day scene was no mirage.

“I saw vultures, tumbleweeds,” the fifth-year senior recalled.

Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, also a fifth-year senior, shook his head recounting his early years on the sideline in the cavernous stadium.

“We used to get like 40,000, maybe 50,000 on a good day,” he said.

Pete Carroll can still picture his debut as USC’s coach on Sept. 1, 2001, when fewer than 46,000 turned out to see the Trojans play San Jose State.

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“I didn’t feel like we had any advantage at all at home,” he recalled. “At the time, I didn’t know if it was ever going to be a real college atmosphere.”

It is now.

When top-ranked USC plays Arkansas in the Trojans’ home opener Saturday night, the 92,000-seat Coliseum is expected to be sold out. No longer is that an unusual occurrence for a program that last season established a school attendance record for the second year in row.

According to the NCAA, USC drew an average of 85,229 at home last season en route to its first perfect season since 1972 and its second straight national title. The attendance figure ranked eighth nationally. Michigan, which averaged 111,025, was No. 1.

The Trojans have won 21 consecutive games at the venerable stadium, where USC averaged less than 66,000 in each of its national championship seasons in 1972, 1974 and 1978.

“This is not like Nebraska or Oklahoma, where that’s all they have so everyone goes to the game whether they’re bad or good,” Leinart said. “Now that we’re doing well, we’re the show out here in L.A.”

Steve Lopes, a senior associate athletic director at USC, said there were just over 30,000 USC season-ticket holders in 2000, Paul Hackett’s final season as coach. The figure has increased considerably in the last three years as Carroll’s teams went 36-3 and earned appearances in three consecutive bowl championship series games.

By Saturday, when USC will attempt to extend its overall winning streak to 24, the number of season-ticket holders is expected to exceed 50,000.

“We knew we had a lot of upside, we knew the potential was there,” Lopes said.

The success has come at a cost for many longtime fans.

Last season, USC sent a letter to season-ticket holders advising them to join athletic department support groups or face the possibility of being moved. The cost to become a member of USC’s Cardinal and Gold group is $2,500.

Dave Hepburn of Huntington Beach, a 1964 USC graduate, said he has bought season tickets for 40 years. However, Hepburn did not join a support group and his location was moved this season, breaking up a group of 14 friends who have sat together for years. Hepburn said his four seats also were split into a configuration of three seats in one row and one in a row behind.

“It just bothers me that they take advantage of people that are supporting the university,” Hepburn said. “But money talks.”

Last year, USC’s attendance surge helped the football program generate $26.2 million in revenue on expenditures of $15.3 million. That enabled the athletic department to turn a modest profit for the second year in a row.

USC is not the only school profiting from the Trojan football team’s success. The Trojans drew large crowds on the road the last two seasons and could potentially play in sold-out stadiums every game as they pursue an unprecedented third consecutive national title.

Lopes projected home games against Arkansas, Fresno State and UCLA as sellouts. The Oct. 29 game against Washington State also is a likely sellout because it is homecoming, leaving Arizona and Stanford as the only home-game question marks if the Trojans continue to win.

Hawaii announced a sellout for USC’s season-opening victory in Honolulu, and games at Oregon, Notre Dame and California already are sold out. This week, an Arizona State official said 13,000 tickets remained available for the Trojans’ Oct. 1 game at Sun Devil Stadium, which seats more than 73,000. The lone road bump could be when USC plays on Oct. 22 at Washington’s Husky Stadium, which seats more than 72,000.

“We’re becoming accustomed to it,” Carroll said of playing in packed stadiums.

USC officials said they have implemented several new measures this season to efficiently handle the increasingly large home crowds and ward off counterfeiters.

“We face the same kinds of problems everybody does,” Lopes said. “With color printers and the ability of people to do these things, you’re always trying to stay one step ahead.”

Counterfeiting is a “concern,” he added, but not a major problem.

Students will be admitted this season by using an activity card that has a scannable information strip similar to a credit card. Regular tickets also include improved foil and holographic details designed to make counterfeiting more difficult. The tickets are bar-coded, but the entire stadium will not be on a scan system until sometime in the future.

“Part of it is dependent on what happens with the NFL,” Lopes said.

Lopes declined to specify what USC has discussed with Coliseum management and the NFL should the league return to Los Angeles. Pro football stadiums typically feature a smaller seating capacity than most major college venues.

“We’ve made it clear what our priorities are with the NFL and how we’d like to see the stadium if the NFL does come,” Lopes said.

Meantime, Carroll said the Trojans would continue to enjoy what has become a bona fide home-field advantage.

“We’ve earned it and our fans have responded,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Where USC sits

USC’s average attendance at the Coliseum the last five years, where it ranked nationally, the school with the nation’s best attendance each year and its per-game average:

*--* Year USC Rank Leader Attendance 2004 85,229 8th Michigan 111,025 2003 77,804 16th Michigan 110,918 2002 66,853 22nd Michigan 110,576 2001 57,743 27th Michigan 109,908 2000 57,339 27th Michigan 110,822

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