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Pete Carroll’s departure from L.A. could affect the nonprofit he chairs

The nine years that Pete Carroll served as USC’s football coach produced 97 victories, seven bowl game wins and three Heisman Trophies -- and one nonprofit, community service organization that has a high profile in the inner core of Los Angeles and a fair amount of clout in City Hall.

A Better LA, which Carroll helped found in 2003, runs a broad array of programs, such as job development courses, counseling services and “moonlight” basketball games where men from South L.A., Watts and Compton -- many of them rival gang members -- compete in safe gyms.

The organization funds dozens of outreach and intervention workers who have been credited with contributing to a discernible decline in gang violence and homicides.

So, while Trojan Nation has been consumed by what Carroll’s departure for the NFL might mean for USC, a quieter debate has opened up in the interior of the city over what Carroll’s departure might mean off the field, for A Better LA.

“It will be very, very difficult to make up for his physical presence -- for not being here,” said Jorja Leap, a UCLA Department of Social Welfare adjunct professor who serves as a key advisor in the city’s campaign to combat gang violence.

Carroll and A Better LA have taken steps in the last two weeks to confront any perception that the group’s fortunes could wane.

In his official statement announcing his departure for the Seattle Seahawks, Carroll took the unusual step of affirming that he would remain “committed to the community” -- Los Angeles, that is -- through A Better LA. Carroll will remain the chairman of the board.

A Better LA says Carroll will continue leading fundraising efforts. Carroll, who could not be reached for comment, is scheduled to return Feb. 20, for instance, for an “Evening of Comedy” fundraiser at the Nokia Theatre featuring Will Ferrell, Jack Black and others.

The group’s executives contend that Carroll’s move could help because he will have access to a new world of wealthy, professional athletes and will be unencumbered by strict rules governing the nexus of money and college athletics.

“We’re going to be fine -- and possibly bigger and better,” said Brian Center, A Better LA’s executive director.

Still, it would be difficult to overstate the degree to which A Better LA’s image has been merged with Carroll’s.

There are three photos of him on the home page of the group’s website. And access to Carroll and to USC football often seemed to be the carrot at the end of A Better’s LA’s fundraising stick. Raise $1,000 for its LA Marathon team? Get two USC football tickets.

Despite the reassurances, many of Carroll’s most important contributions will become impossible: Carroll frequently invited at-risk children to USC football practices. He also made late-night, unannounced visits to tough neighborhoods, including public housing developments, in an attempt to steer at-risk youngsters away from gangs. There, the coach famously gave children his personal cellphone number and encouraged them to call for advice.

“It’s going to create a much greater hole than the average citizen thinks,” said Jaime Regalado, executive director of Cal State L.A.'s Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs.

Regalado’s institute was an early architect of the notion that gang intervention could be used to complement traditional police tactics, and Regalado has been a frequent Carroll collaborator. “It can’t be the same,” he said.

A Better LA is not a massive organization, nor a particularly nimble one.

After its formation, it took several years for the group to get up to speed; according to federal tax records, the organization ended the 2006-07 fiscal year with just $31,000 in its bank account. But substantive change came after that -- the hiring of Center, a lawyer and former top aide to Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina; the addition of top-flight business leaders to the board of directors; and the more direct involvement of Carroll, who began soliciting many donations personally, advisory board members said.

Even with those changes, A Better LA’s budget this year is expected to be a modest $2.4 million, Center said.

Still, Carroll’s image served, effectively, as a financial multiplier, Regalado said. “It became $20 million because of his presence,” Regalado said -- giving A Better LA an outsize image in comparison to its budget. Carroll had quietly become more than a figurehead. In some cases, he was called in by the mayor’s office as a trusted advisor and mediator.

Insiders said Carroll’s departure will probably prompt some other directors to take a leading role. They cited other high-profile board members, including former USC quarterback Pat Haden and Tim Leiweke, chief executive of AEG -- whose brother Tod is the chief executive of the Seahawks.

“I think this is going to be beneficial,” said Aquil Basheer, an important intervention figure and a paid consultant to A Better LA who helps train and coordinate the efforts of its outreach workers. “People are going to have to step up.”

Emily Williams, a founding board member, said an e-mail landed in her in-box after the news of Carroll’s departure. It was from a lawyer in Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.'s firm and was written entirely in capital letters: “WHAT HAPPENS TO A BETTER LA?”

A Better LA is not perfect, Williams said; the organization has been criticized for concentrating largely on African American gangs while leaving little imprint on Latino neighborhoods -- even while Latino gangs have become dominant across much of South L.A. and surrounding neighborhoods. Many of the organization’s officials will be pushing in the next year to change that, Williams said.

Williams also acknowledged the import of Carroll’s involvement, which she said was essential in gaining media and donor interest, and in getting people from differing parts of the community -- most notably gang members and police officers -- in the same room.

However, she said: “The problems facing us are way bigger than one person.”

“If A Better LA fails, it’s on us. It means we didn’t step up,” she said. “This is a model that can be replicated in the rest of the country and the rest of the world. Whether he’s here or not, the glue that holds it together is the variety of the players involved.”

Speaking of which: a number of A Better LA’s top officials are already lobbying to get new USC Coach Lane Kiffin involved. A USC representative said it was too early for those sorts of decisions. With a laugh, Center said: “We’re going to let him get his suitcase unpacked first.”

scott.gold@latimes.com


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