Michael Pittman Jr. finds his place in USC offense after his father threatened to transfer him
Eight weeks have gone by — eight good weeks — so the Pittman family can talk about what happened with no hint of frustration.
Michael Jr. has finally earned a spot at receiver for USC. Michael Sr. finally has something to cheer about, watching his son make big plays against UCLA and Stanford.
“Things are definitely getting brighter,” Michael Jr. says.
With USC preparing to face Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, the Pittmans can look past the dark days this fall when Michael Jr. was stuck on the bench, nursing a sore ankle, itching to play.
They can forget about the exasperation that prompted his father to unleash a string of angry tweets.
Michael Sr. isn’t the typical sports dad — he spent more than a decade as a running back in the NFL. People noticed when he grew impatient with the coaches, writing: “I trusted them with my kid and they have let me down.”
If his son wanted to transfer, he suggested, that would be just fine.
“I felt things weren’t going right,” Michael Sr. now says. “It wasn’t like I wanted to get any type of attention.”
But the incident raised questions.
Was he just another meddling parent, looking over the coach’s shoulder? Was his son another entitled athlete who quits when the going gets tough?
The Pittmans would like to think the last eight weeks have provided some answers.
Size and strength made Michael Jr. a star at Oaks Christian High in Westlake Village. At 6 feet 4, he could outreach shorter defensive backs. Still, he had five good reasons not to sign with USC in 2016.
That year, the Trojans recruited three other receivers who, like him, ranked in the Top 25 at their position. And two more in the Top 100.
“I kind of took it as a challenge,” he said. “I thought if I can’t make it here, I can’t make it at the next level.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darreus Rogers and Deontay Burnett had a stranglehold on the starting spots that first season, leaving the new guys to wait in line. Though Michael Jr. got some playing time, coaches asked him to focus on special teams.
His father had played kickoff coverage as a freshman at Fresno State and again as a rookie with the Arizona Cardinals.
“I told Michael to make the most of it,” Michael Sr. said.
By the close of the 2016 season, Michael Jr. had seven tackles, a blocked punt and a forced fumble. He also returned eight punts and kicks.
“He’s coming up to get extra film, he’s doing things on his own to really propel himself,” coach Clay Helton told reporters. “He’s put himself in a position to contribute.”
Still, as the 2017 season approached, he wasn’t satisfied.
“I can be patient with some things,” he said. “With other things, I’ve got to get it done now.”
The Trojans’ young receivers dueled to replace Smith-Schuster and Rogers — both departed — throughout summer camp. That’s when Michael Jr. jumped for a pass during drills and came down on top of a defender, and twisted his ankle.
Over the ensuing weeks, he worked to rehabilitate the injury, suffering minor setbacks along the way. He could do well enough in practice but wasn’t quite up to game speed.
At least, that’s what his coaches thought.
“He was very down,” his father recalled. “Almost like he wanted the season to be over.”
Michael Sr. came to believe the coaching staff was being overly cautious.
“I’m not the parent who goes to every practice,” he said. “Michael doesn’t need me watching over him, but if I feel something is not right, I’m going to say it.”
After USC’s lopsided defeat at Notre Dame, the elder Pittman began posting those tweets, triggering an online debate that continued for days. Michael Jr. didn’t know anything about it until he was approached by a reporter.
“I knew my dad was frustrated because he had been telling me,” the son said. “It didn’t bother me at all … he was just doing what dads do, protecting their kids.”
Coaches spoke briefly with Michael Jr., everyone insisting there was no problem. The situation would quickly change.
The Saturday after Michael Sr. complained, his son was inserted into the starting lineup against Arizona State.
Helton said the team needed someone to replace the injured Steven Mitchell Jr. Still, the timing looked suspicious and Michael Jr. could imagine what people were thinking.
“I did feel a bit of pressure after what my dad said on Twitter,” he recalled.
His first start was hardly spectacular — two receptions for 23 yards — but things improved from there, with three catches against Arizona and four at Colorado.
Then came two plays that cemented his role and, in many ways, defined the Trojans’ season.
In a tough victory over UCLA, with the Bruins punting, USC returner Ajene Harris drifted to his right as if preparing to field the ball. It was a fake, the punt actually traveling toward the opposite sideline where Michael Jr. was racing back to make the catch.
With the Bruins converging on Harris, Michael Jr. was left free to sprint 72 yards. He said: “It was pretty much a jog to the end zone.”
The next week, in the Pac-12 Conference championship game, the Trojans needed a first down deep in their own territory. Quarterback Sam Darnold escaped pressure in his end zone and lofted a 54-yard pass to Michael Jr., who had started outside, then angled up the middle.
It was the highlight of a night that saw Michael Jr. set a Pac-12 title-game record with seven catches for 146 yards. Darnold called it an “awesome end of the season, seeing Pitt do what he did.”
His emergence — and the play of redshirt freshman Tyler Vaughns — had diversified an offense that previously relied on Burnett and Mitchell.
“You never know when guys will get their opportunity, whether it’s going to happen Day 1 or Day 101,” Helton said. “Maybe it’s a year.”
Now that Michael Jr. is showing what he can do, catching 17 passes for 294 yards over the past five games, earning all-conference honors for his special-teams play, you would expect him to be happy. But that’s not exactly the case.
“I want to go and have another great game and another one,” he said. “If you’re not producing week after week, then you will get replaced.”
And what about dad?
Eight weeks after those exasperated tweets, Michael Sr. hopes that fans understand he never meant to insult the coaches, saying: “Maybe I spoke too early.”
The father doesn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea about his son.
“Michael’s been working his butt off,” he said. “All he wanted was an opportunity.”
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