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The Xs and O’s of dealing with parents

Klein is a Times staff writer.

The e-mail first appeared on a USC fan-site message board last week, then quickly circulated across the Internet.

“What is being done to ensure that my son is being cared for in a proper manner???”

Dexter Hazelton, father of Trojans receiver Vidal Hazelton, sent a six-paragraph e-mail to Coach Pete Carroll in September criticizing the football team’s handling of his son’s ankle injury.

Now, the whole world could read it, a situation that pulled back the curtain on a subtle and sometimes sensitive component that Carroll confronts as the leader of one of the nation’s most successful football programs:

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Dealing with parents.

Communication between parents and coach spans a range of issues, including injuries and academics, but Carroll acknowledges, “They basically call me about playing time.”

He does not begrudge them; and most don’t seem to begrudge him. “They just want to know what can their son do to be a bigger part of things,” Carroll said.

So it goes, even for a coach whose teams have won or shared six consecutive Pacific 10 Conference titles, played in six straight Bowl Championship Series bowl games, won two national titles, and is in position to take a run at a third title-game appearance in five years.

That success was built on stockpiling talent, and none of the five-star recruits who chose USC did so with the intent of riding the Trojans’ bench.

Dexter Hazelton, while critical of Carroll, does not blame the coach for the way he recruits or manages playing time.

“He has to do what he has to do for USC’s program,” he said in an interview. “If I was in his position, I would do the same thing. But I have to do what I have to do as a father, which is looking out for my son’s interest.”

The e-mail that appeared on the Internet last week is among several Hazelton has sent to Carroll over the years, and it called out the coach and USC’s training staff for not providing his son with immediate treatment upon the team’s return to Los Angeles after the season opener at Virginia.

“You have to get to a point where you have to be angry enough to say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” said Hazelton, a New York resident who added that he did not know how his message to Carroll wound up in cyberspace. "[Carroll] responds to me. I get the call-backs, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually done anything about it.”

The father of running back Allen Bradford is also critical of Carroll. Keith Bradford says he has spoken to the coach only twice in three years -- when Allen was being recruited from Colton High, and during a meeting in Carroll’s office last year to discuss his son’s role in the tailback rotation.

Bradford says he has attended practices, but Carroll “walks right past me. They tell you parents come first, but I don’t see it.”

Bradford is especially upset that no member of the coaching staff kept him apprised of test results on his son’s injured hip. Allen had an MRI exam two weeks ago and met with a specialist last week before opting to have season-ending surgery that will allow him to seek a medical redshirt.

“I should have heard from the head coach or an assistant coach about what’s happening with my son,” his father said. “I don’t feel like I’m part of the Trojan family. It’s not the school per se; it’s the coach.”

Other parents, Dexter Hazelton said, have privately expressed similar concerns.

“A lot of them are afraid to approach him or say something -- they’re afraid their son will get blacklisted,” he said. “They think he has control over people in the NFL.”

Carroll scoffed at the accusation.

“That’s not the case or the truth,” said Carroll, who coached the New York Jets and the New England Patriots before coming to USC. “I couldn’t be more open or receptive to give and take. I’m way above holding grudges about stuff or whatever, but if that’s what they think, I can’t do anything about it.”

Several parents interviewed for this story praised Carroll for his dealings with them.

Frank Cushing, father of senior linebacker Brian Cushing, says his wife often calls Carroll from their home in New Jersey and, “maybe an hour later or less he calls her back. I was shocked. I figured once they got the kid they forgot about you.

“But they’ve never let us down and we’re 3,000 miles away.”

Carroll says he communicates with as many mothers as he does fathers, and he tries to nurture extra communication with the parents of quarterbacks because the position is so demanding and the players are subjected to more public and media scrutiny.

The position group that demands the most attention?

“Receivers,” Carroll said. “The nature of the position is one of the most outspoken in all of football.”

Some parents have reputations for outspokenness that precede their son’s arrival on campus.

Hazelton originally balked at signing his son’s letter of intent to USC because he wanted him to go to another school. And before the players transferred to USC from Arkansas, the families of receiver Damian Williams and quarterback Mitch Mustain drew criticism as meddlers when it was reported that they had been among a group of parents who met with Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles about the direction of the football program.

In particular, Mustain’s mother, Beck Campbell, drew the ire of some Razorbacks fans.

But Carroll says he judges parents the same way he evaluates players: not by what he hears from others but by what he sees and hears himself.

“For all the talk and everything, we haven’t talked that much,” the coach said of Campbell, who declined to be interviewed for this story. “I called her a while back . . . I think she’s been, and Mitch has been, very clear about what’s going on.”

Mustain, who went 8-0 as the starting quarterback for Arkansas, lost his job there when the team went to a more run-oriented attack during the 2006 season. At USC, he is currently the backup to Mark Sanchez, but as recently as a few weeks ago had been No. 4 on the depth chart.

Kim Mallory is the mother of another heavily recruited player who has experienced highs and lows during his time at USC. When Stafon Johnson arrived after a celebrated career at L.A.'s Dorsey High, he was at first relegated to the “scout team,” a term Mallory wasn’t familiar with.

“People were coming up to me and saying, ‘What are they doing to him? They get kids like Stafon to these schools and then they forget about them,’ ” Mallory said. “I started to believe the outside world, so I went out to practice to talk to Coach Carroll and find out.”

Carroll took Mallory aside after a workout and explained that her son could improve his situation with more consistent efforts in practice.

“We sat down at the back end of the field and he broke it down for me,” Mallory said. “That helped me understand so I could help my son understand what he needed to do.”

Cary Harris Sr. also gives Carroll high marks for communication.

Last year, Harris Sr. was concerned that his son, Cary Jr., was struggling through an injury and in danger of losing a starting cornerback spot.

Carroll invited the father out to practice and met with him and the player on the field afterward.

“He spoke to us in a professional way and told us what he needed to do to stay on top of the position,” Cary Harris Sr. said. “Basically he said, ‘You need to compete.’ . . . He was calm, cool, collected and polite. He just let us know this is how he runs his program.”

Carroll said he would continue to invite parents to call, e-mail, attend practices and meet with him in person. He said his door would always be open and his phone free for anyone with concerns.

“It’s not a big time-consuming part of the job and I don’t mind it at all,” he said. “I talk to them just like we’re sharing this responsibility to help this work out for the kids.”

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gary.klein@latimes.com


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