Pete Carroll’s USC legacy: No simple answers


He was called the Prince of the City, having taken a once-proud but muddling USC football program and charismatically turned it into one of the most successful, profitable and glamorous brands in sports.

But after the NCAA rocked USC’s foundation by imposing major sanctions on the school’s athletic program, former coach Pete Carroll’s royal legacy is in a state of flux.

For some, he will always be regarded as the savior of Troy. For others, the one who led to its fall.

“I wish it didn’t happen like that,” Carroll said. “It makes me sick that everybody has to go through this.”

When Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks in January, he was questioned about the timing, skeptics theorizing he departed not for a one-of-a-kind NFL opportunity but to escape the NCAA’s posse and impending hammer. Carroll insisted then and continues to now that the possibility of sanctions had no bearing and “was never a factor.”

USC was hit with penalties that include a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years. Carroll said he was “flabbergasted” and “floored” by the severity of the punishment, which USC has said it will appeal.

The sanctions are expected to significantly set back a program that under Carroll won two national titles and seven consecutive Pacific 10 Conference championships, and sent dozens of players to the NFL — including Reggie Bush, the 2005 Heisman Trophy-winning running back at the center of the investigation for accepting cash and other benefits from marketing agents.

“It casts a shadow over it,” Carroll said, “and it’s unfortunate it has to feel like that. It certainly affects how people look at what we did.”

The NCAA also sanctioned USC’s men’s basketball and women’s tennis teams, concluding that school lacked “institutional control,” of its athletic program.

“It looks like there were some endemic things…. a sports equivalent of the Enron culture,” said ethicist Michael Josephson, director of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute.

As the most famous sports program on campus — one directly credited with generating millions in profits and even more in publicity and alumni goodwill — football is the sport under the spotlight and microscope. Josephson said Carroll’s legacy will be shaped by the media and by those who consume it.

“If you’re asking fair-minded people who choose to be informed, it’s one thing,” he said. “If you’re talking about a very cynical public that wants to believe the worst and say, ‘There they go again,’ it’s another.”

Keith Jackson, a college football announcer for more than 50 years, also believes the media will shape Carroll’s legacy — “We have more media in this country today than a herd of elephants could eat in a lifetime,” he said — but he adds that USC’s new coach, Lane Kiffin, could help erase the stigma.

“If Lane Kiffin has a good, solid, winning football team three years from now it will be gone,” Jackson said. “The memory will be positive, and the rest of it will be gone.”

Recent history does not suggest an immediate return to glory.

Miami and Alabama both bounced back from bowl bans to win national titles, but it took Miami six years and Alabama seven.

Barry Switzer won three national titles at Oklahoma before resigning in 1989 after the NCAA put the Sooners on probation. He went on to coach the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl title during the 1995 season.

Switzer said Carroll should not be blamed for USC’s troubles.

“You think that Reggie Bush is the only athlete that had an agent, or had an agent involved with him? You’re crazy.” Switzer said. “Every high-profile program has that…. Happens all the time, and it’s going to happen in the future.”

Former Washington coach Don James does not know Carroll, but he is familiar with living with the taint of scandal. In 1991, James guided the Huskies to a share of the national championship. Two years later, the coach known as the Dawgfather resigned in protest over NCAA sanctions, ending his 18-year career leading the program.

James, who lives in the Seattle area, said he received a standing ovation recently at a University of Washington event.

“Nobody talks about the sanctions anymore,” he said. “In fact, I refused to talk about them up here. People remember the victories and the good years and the bowls and the pride that they had in the university.”

So how will Carroll be remembered?

Brian Center, executive director of A Better LA, a nonprofit organization started by Carroll to reduce violence, does not expect the fallout to affect his group’s work.

“We’re out there trying to save lives, build community and help kids,” he said. “It certainly has no impact on our belief in Pete. We think of him as the most honest guy, someone with tons of integrity and energy.”

USC’s campus was quiet Friday, but Carroll’s legacy was a conversation topic among students.

Gabrielle Lopez, a junior communications major, said Carroll’s football legacy is intact, but lamented, “He did kind of bow out before the bomb exploded.”

She added: “I’m a little mad at Pete Carroll, I have to be honest, but you move on.”

Thomas Wong, a junior business major, said Carroll will always be connected to the sanctions.

“He’s still a great coach, he still brought in all the talent, it doesn’t diminish that at all,” Wong said. “But, I mean, it’s always going to be talked about whenever he’s brought up.”

Former Trojans All-American Keyshawn Johnson said Carroll “still goes down as one of the greatest coaches in USC history.” He points out that Carroll was not accused of making improper payments “or anything along those lines.”

“If people are going to boo Pete, they’re going to boo him because he left,” Johnson said. “They’re going to boo Reggie because of the sanctions.”

Johnson believes that Carroll could have avoided criticism by delaying his jump to the NFL until after the NCAA meted out its punishment.

“The smart thing, if you ask me, would have been, see what the probation is, stick it out, and then two years from now get a [NFL] job,” Johnson said. “That’s if he wanted to walk away clean.”

Carroll maintained from the start of the NCAA’s investigation in 2006 that the football program had nothing to worry about, that USC would emerge unscathed. Now, the Trojans are almost certainly looking at a long road back to the top.

“As the head coach, I’m responsible. But it seems so out of balance,” Carroll said of the severity of the sanctions. “To me there is one major issue: Did the university know? We didn’t know.”

As for his legacy, Carroll said he has never spent much time pondering it.

“It was never about winning the rings and all that,” he said. “It was about working with the thought that the best lies ahead, that there’s an opportunity right there in front of you, enjoying it to the fullest and doing it in a special, unique fashion.”

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.