A decade after dynasty, USC confronts a generation that asks: Reggie who?

Gone are the days when star recruits think of becoming the next Reggie Bush at USC, once known as Tailback U.
(Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times)
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Sam Darnold’s earliest sports memory was USC’s 2004 game against Notre Dame. He recalled that USC was good — very good, in fact. The game was where he first learned about the Trojans and where he picked up on traditions.

“My dad taught me to hate Notre Dame and all that,” said Darnold. “I thought it was kind of interesting because we sat next to Notre Dame fans, and they were letting us use their binoculars.”

The Trojans cruised to a 41-10 win that day. USC went on to capture the national championship — its most recent title.


Darnold, now a redshirt freshman quarterback, was 7 years old.

College football can sometimes seem to warp time. Most players’ memories can’t extend much beyond a decade. And so at USC, Darnold and some teammates worry that the Trojans’ success in the early 2000s, and the starpower of players like Reggie Bush, may soon be lost on a generation of recruits.

Many current players cite seasons like 2004, or games like the 2005 national championship game against Texas at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006, as reasons why they were interested in attending USC. But most seniors in high school were 5 the last time USC won a championship. They were 4 when Bush left. Any memories of those years are fuzzy.

“There’s definitely that sense of, you know, we’ve got to bring us back,” Darnold said.

USC’s game against Alabama on Saturday offers a view of the program that has eclipsed USC’s status as this era’s defining team. USC’s run under Pete Carroll, infused with star players, celebrity fans and a coach who courted the media, attracted outsized attention.

[Recruits] see people like Mark Ingram, talk about them, how they won national championships, so everyone wants to go there.

— Adoree’ Jackson, USC’s star two-way player, regarding Alabama

But the Crimson Tide’s dominance has lasted for longer. Alabama’s four national championships under Coach Nick Saban, in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2015, have surpassed USC’s two with Carroll.

Many USC players said, as children, they wanted to be like Bush, so they gravitated to USC.


Players today, said USC cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, “see people like [former Alabama Heisman Trophy winner] Mark Ingram, talk about them, how they won national championships, so everyone wants to go there.”

USC has always been able to recruit, and the Trojans still attract players from across the country. USC players this season, on average, came from 714 miles away from campus, according to data compiled by Rukkus, an online ticket marketplace. That’s a wider radius than even the Crimson Tide, whose players came from an average of 380 miles away.

“Both are kind of the pinnacles of college football,” USC Coach Clay Helton said. “Both teams can recruit nationally.”

But the exposure that comes from multiple championship teams can make a small yet significant difference. During the height of USC’s success, from 2003 to 2006, USC finished either first or second in’s composite recruiting ranking, which combines the major recruiting services.

USC hasn’t finished ahead of Alabama since 2010 — the Crimson Tide have claimed the top spot each season since.


The effects of such success tend to extend for years. Allegiances often form in early childhood.

“I can remember thinking about colleges and hearing about colleges for the first time growing up because they were in the basketball tournament, or they were playing in the Rose Bowl,” said David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “And these were schools I didn’t know much about.”

For many USC players, their earliest sports memories involved Bush. Most named him explicitly as a reason they were attracted to USC.

Sophomore receiver Deontay Burnett was 8, just old enough to start playing football himself, he said, when his parents rushed him home one January day in 2006. They were late for the Rose Bowl. The memory of that game stuck, despite USC’s loss.

“I always wanted to be like Reggie,” Burnett said.

Sophomore cornerback Iman Marshall said he recalled those seasons as “the glory days.”

“The Reggie Bushes, Lendale Whites, Matt Leinarts, you have Carson Palmer,” he said. “You’ve got to appreciate that.”

A childhood affinity, Carter said, is just one factor in the recruitment process. Most recruits evaluate a school holistically. And, he said, college football fame is less ephemeral than in past eras.


“It’s very different because of the way media is distributed now,” he said.

Kids play with older players in video games or gain exposure to them through schools’ ever-growing marketing budgets, he said.

“We have ‘30 for 30s’ and stuff like that,” said Marshall of ESPN’s documentary series and other round-the-clock sports coverage.

Still, it can be hard to replicate the emotional attachment of star players and championships. A player like Ronald Jones III, USC’s sophomore running back from McKinney, Texas, might not have ended up at USC had he been born a few years later.

“You know, I was a Texas fan,” Jones said.

He cheered for the Longhorns when they beat USC in the national championship game, but that game stuck with him for another reason.

“They had Reggie,” Jones said. “He caught my eye. And that’s why I’m here.”

Jones recalled that the day after that game, he couldn’t make it to school. The game finished late, and Jones, after all, was just 8 years old. He had missed his bedtime.


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