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Column: ‘Women of Troy’ shows what’s possible for USC and its athletics program

Former USC basketball stars Cheryl Miller, left, and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke attend the premiere of “Women of Troy” at the Ray Stark Family Theater on the USC campus on Wednesday.
Former USC basketball stars Cheryl Miller, left, and Cynthia Cooper-Dyke attend the premiere of “Women of Troy” at the Ray Stark Family Theater on the USC campus on Wednesday.
(Arash Markazi / Los Angeles Times)

USC athletic director Mike Bohn was a quarterback and pitcher at Kansas when the USC women’s basketball team won its first national championship in 1983.

While he was familiar with the story, Bohn, who was hired less than four months ago, learned more about the team after screening “Women of Troy,” an HBO Sports documentary set to premiere March 10.

The film, directed by Alison Ellwood and produced by Gary Cohen, explores how the Trojans, led by Hall of Famers Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper and Pamela and Paula McGee, changed women’s basketball forever as they won NCAA titles in 1983 and 1984.

“This story could not come at a better time for this university,” Bohn said as he stood in front of the women who made up those teams on campus following a red-carpet premiere for the film. “USC is actively engaged to do everything we can to reclaim the torch that this team brought to this campus and that’s for all 21 of our sports.”

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The comment drew applause from a crowd made up of mostly alumni and boosters. The challenge for Bohn now is to make sure he puts the power of his position behind those words and returns USC athletics to the heights documented in the film.

“Women of Troy” highlights what is possible when the athletic department attracts the best players and coaches and gives them the support needed to succeed not only at USC but when they leave school.

Each player and coach made it a point to single out and hug Barbara Hedges, who was the associate athletic director and ushered in a new era at USC from 1973 to 1991 when the school won 13 national championships in women sports.

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Trailer for HBO film “Women of Troy”.
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“You have to have strong leadership and an interest in women’s basketball and women’s sports,” said Linda Sharp, who compiled a 271-99 record as USC’s women’s basketball coach. “When I was here, we had that with Barbara Hedges. She was very interested in all women’s sports and did an exceptional job. There’s been a change at USC so we’ll see what they show interest in.”

USC has not been back to the Final Four since 1986 when Sharp was the coach and Miller and Cooper were on the team.

The Trojans’ last trip to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight came in 1994 when Miller was the coach and Lisa Leslie and Tina Thompson were on the team. The program has qualified for the NCAA tournament once since 2006 and that was in 2014 when Cooper was the coach.

There’s always a turning point in the downfall of any storied program and for USC it has often come down to the treatment of its coaches. USC women’s basketball was in position to win a national championship going into the 1993-94 season led by Leslie and Thompson when coach Marianne Stanley was dismissed for seeking a salary on par with the men’s basketball coach.

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USC forward Alissa Pili is used to competition, being the second of eight children. In her freshman season, she’s become the Trojans’ leading scorer and rebounder.

Stanley had recruited the best local talent, led USC to three straight NCAA tournaments and had amassed a 45-15 record over the previous two seasons but effectively lost her job for seeking a raise of $14,000 to $18,000 over three years. A federal appeals court dismissed an equal-pay lawsuit Stanley brought against USC and former athletic director Mike Garrett.

Miller and Fred Williams took Stanley’s team to the NCAA tournament in three of the next four years but both resigned after two seasons as the head coach. The Trojans have made it to the NCAA tournament three times since 1997 and have not made it out of the second round.

What would have happened if USC had taken care of Stanley, who is currently the coach of the Indiana Fever and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002, the same year she was selected WNBA coach of the year?

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It’s not the first time USC has failed to take care of a successful coach.

Baseball coach Mike Gillespie led USC to the NCAA regional 15 times in 20 years, advancing to the College World Series three times and winning a national championship. He was fired in 2006, one year removed from a 41-22 season and a trip to a Super Regional. USC baseball has had one winning season since then. Gillespie went on to lead UC Irvine to 10 winning seasons and a trip to the College World Series.

Mike Bohn speaks after being introduced as the university’s new athletic director by president Carol L. Folt, right, during a news conference in November.
Mike Bohn speaks after being introduced as the university’s new athletic director by president Carol L. Folt, right, during a news conference in November.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Former women’s volleyball coach Mick Haley, who is the winningest coach in program history and guided the team to 17 consecutive tournament berths and national championships in 2002 and 2003, has accused the school of age discrimination and harassment after being let go in 2017. That came after a season during which he took a team projected to finish sixth in the Pac-12 to an NCAA regional final.

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And, of course, there was USC passing over Ed Orgeron following a 6-2 record as the interim football coach in favor of Steve Sarkisian. Orgeron has led Louisiana State to a 40-9 record in four years and the national championship this season while USC has gone 13-13 in its last 26 games.

None of this is on Bohn. He represents a clean slate for a program in desperate need of a reboot. The “Women of Troy” documentary serves as a reminder of what the school and its teams are capable of. It’s not Bohn’s fault many of USC’s formerly dominant programs have fallen on hard times, but it’s his job to learn from those mistakes and reverse the trend.

“These women are really challenging us to use their story to reclaim the torch and bring USC athletics back to that level,” Bohn said. “The timing of this film is so appropriate.”


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