Day after day, the search stays quiet. Two months in, the hunt for clues as to who may be anointed the next USC head football coach has guided us to the unlikeliest of places, to a high school social studies classroom located 70 miles due east of downtown, where the sprawl of the Inland Empire meets the desert’s edge.
Here, inside a trailer tucked behind Redlands High, sits a bookshelf. On that bookshelf sits a thick white binder gathering dust aside dozens of others just like it. Taken together, they represent an encyclopedia of football strategy compiled during Miguel Olmedo’s three decades coordinating the Redlands defense. Nobody would notice this particular fountain of knowledge if not for the label, scrawled in black Sharpie, featuring a name that grows in aura with each passing fall:
Olmedo, built like a linebacker but newly retired from coaching them, grabs the binder from the shelf, and soon he is transported to the early ‘90s, when a kid nicknamed “Fencepost” because he offered so few words was somehow voted captain by his teammates. That was Dave. He never had to say much to lead. He just kept reading, listening, jotting down notes, learning the craft of football however he could, until he was back with Olmedo in 2004 at an Office Depot in Redlands, making copies of a plan for coaching defense that needed a 37-topic table of contents.
Aranda had been coaching linebackers at Houston, a good job in Conference USA. But his alma mater, Division III California Lutheran, had an opening for a defensive coordinator, a role Aranda had been working toward for a decade. “Cal Lu” in Thousand Oaks would bring a precipitous drop in prestige, though, and yet Aranda was undeterred. He wanted to lead a defense, any defense.
Flipping through Aranda’s treatise 17 years later, each quote presents a small window into the formation of a man’s football soul — surely informed by that philosophy degree he earned at Cal Lutheran:
“True battle in athletics has less to do with external events than with internal battles against losing enthusiasm, courage, fearlessness, and compassion.”
“The goal as coach is to protect, not destroy, the athlete’s spirit and sense of self.”
“Serve and be served.”
“Avoid special treatments. Don’t allow relationships with better players to compromise you. If we have a double standard for stars and backups, we will have a team that will be torn apart.”
“Personal credibility — do what you say you will do. Stay consistent regardless of outside pressure.”
Aranda got that job at Cal Lutheran and went on to coordinate defenses from Hawaii to Utah State to Wisconsin to Louisiana State, where the school paid him $2.5 million a year and was rewarded with a magical run to the 2019 national championship. After that season, USC athletic director Mike Bohn tried to lure Aranda home to lead the Trojans’ defense, but Baylor swooped in and hired him as head coach.
We’re checking the temperature of the USC football coaching search. Here’s why Baylor’s Dave Aranda is considered a top candidate for the job.
Now, in just his second year atop a Power Five program, Aranda’s Bears are 8-2, ranked No. 13 and are coming off a 27-14 upset of No. 8 Oklahoma. He may not have started the fall as a hot candidate for the USC opening, but wins over respected programs (and coaches) Iowa State (Matt Campbell), Brigham Young (Kalani Sitake) and Texas (former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian) have turned heads suddenly to a coach who has never sought any attention for himself.
Looking back, Olmedo laughs thinking about Aranda the “Fencepost,” but the moniker was spot-on. The guy was drier than the Redlands summer heat.
“He didn’t say boo,” Olmedo said, delivering a familiar refrain among Aranda’s mentors.
These days, Olmedo will watch Aranda’s Baylor news conferences, marveling at all the coherent thoughts making it from brain to microphone. However, USC fans who want to be inspired by a familiar type of energy from their coach may watch the same clips and find themselves unmoved.
“He is the antithesis of Pete Carroll in my opinion,” Olmedo said, almost proudly. “He’s more of a Tony Dungy type.”
Could USC and Dave Aranda be a fit? Or has the eerie calm of this search turned us desperate, illogical, hallucinating a mirage of the stoic Aranda of all people returning fun to fall Saturdays at the Coliseum?
Well, how about this: If someone had told you that USC was going to fire Clay Helton, and there would be a coach of a top-15 team who is 45 years old and found his love of the game grinding in the shadows of Southern California’s lush football landscape, would you be interested in learning more about the guy?
If not, one final belief from Aranda’s binder may be the clue Trojans fans need to open their minds:
“Undisciplined players are coached by undisciplined coaches.”
Being Dave Aranda’s friend required real work for Stephen Crane.
Enjoying a carne asada burrito from Cuca’s — their favorite taqueria back in the day — Crane momentarily morphs from commander in the Redlands Police Department back into the teenager who manned the Redlands inside linebacker spot alongside Aranda, his partner in crime.
“Dave’s just a unique person,” Crane said. “He wasn’t trying to have a lot of friends. He was not about being popular. I remember just going to his house and knocking on his door and prying him out of his bedroom to come and hang out.”
Seeing where his old buddy is today, certain qualities that may have seemed odd then make a lot more sense now.
Like the way Dave ate. He had a thin build, but he could eat an extra large pizza by himself. He inhaled his food, as if it was something he had to conquer to get to the next task. Or how Dave always kept his hair buzzed short, as if having to style it would be one more thing to slow him down. Or how one day when Crane said he wanted to try boxing, Dave, who was in Golden Gloves, did not hesitate to clobber the novice. If you asked Dave to compete, you got his best shot. Lastly, there was the fact that Dave always had his nose in a book.
“Coaching takes a special mind,” Crane said “These guys that are very successful coaching are like geniuses. And he’s one of those guys. He has that mind that can retain all that information. It’s a chess match out there, and he will take on the challenge and beat you at it.”
Aranda was a coach’s dream for Olmedo. He’d already had discipline instilled in him from his parents, Paul and Marguerite, who were Mexican immigrants from Guadalajara. Dave was willing to do anything for the team, best exemplified by the time he fractured his shoulder but played anyway against mighty Santa Ana Mater Dei in the playoffs with his arm taped to his side.
“It wasn’t like we had a chance to win the game,” Olmedo said. “We were getting pounded.”
The shoulder injury kept Aranda off recruiters’ lists, and, after graduating from Redlands, the game of football nearly lost out on Dave for good. He was working the graveyard shift as a truck stop security guard and thinking about joining the Navy.
“He was kind of wandering, you know?” Olmedo said.
Olmedo and Redlands head coach Jim Walker stepped in before it was too late, offering Aranda a chance to coach the junior varsity defense. Soon, with his passion rejuvenated and that shoulder healed, he asked the coaches about possibly trying to play college football. Walker, a Cal Lutheran graduate, knew just the place to further the education of Dave Aranda.
Scott Squires had just taken over the Cal Lutheran program when he got the call. Timing was certainly on Dave Aranda’s side, because Squires needed bodies, and he needed them to have brains that could handle the school’s academic rigor. Sure, he liked hearing about the Golden Gloves and the graveyard shift, but Dave’s inner grit was merely an extra benefit.
Early in training camp, the coaches liked what they saw.
“A violent hitter,” recalls Ben McEnroe, then an assistant coach.
But one day at practice, Squires heard a loud crack.
“Dave’s got blood running down his face,” Squires said. “I said, ‘Was your helmet buckled?’ ”
Apparently, Dave had hit someone so hard that his helmet had split and cut his skin. As it turned out, he had separated that bum shoulder in the process, and in the weeks to come, Cal Lutheran’s trainers could not figure out how to put it back. This is what he came all the way to Thousand Oaks for?
Before long, Squires invited Aranda to work as a student assistant. He started with tutoring one linebacker. By his senior year, he had taken on the whole position group.
“I’m like, ‘The guy’s one of the best coaches I got,’ ” Squires said.
Dave spent his college years bunkered in the stuffy coaches’ offices, breaking down film, calling recruits and practically begging coaches no matter the level to indulge him on the intricacies of strategy.
“That process began when he was 19, 20 years old,” McEnroe said. “Most guys can’t wait to turn 21. Dave? He was grinding.
“As a young guy, he taught me a lot about professional development. He was always on the phone with guys. I remember walking in the office and he was laughing, he said, ‘Hey Mac, I just hung up with Lee Corso.’ He called everybody in the country it seemed like, not to network but to learn the game of football and how to be a coach.”
Squires encouraged Aranda to visit college staffs up and down the West Coast and to trade the information he was gathering at clinics.
“Dave would put it on his credit card,” Squires said.
“He went down to his last pennies, man,” Olmedo said.
Aranda began to develop detailed presentations that he would share, much like the one in Olmedo’s binder that would later secure him the defensive coordinator job at Cal Lutheran.
In 2010, Aranda’s devotion to his plan led him to Hawaii, where he excelled coordinating the defense for two seasons until his head coach, Greg McMackin, was let go. Now free to put himself on the market again, Aranda did not limit himself to Football Bowl Subdivision jobs.
In fact, he called Walker at Redlands to see if he had an opening.
“He said, ‘My wife is tired of all the moving, we got kids, and we just want to settle down,’ ” Walker said. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m getting Dave Aranda back!’ ”
Then Utah State called, putting that fantasy to rest and setting Aranda’s career on its current trajectory — an upward climb so impressive that a return to Southern California just might be within sight.
Sometime within the last few years, as Aranda became a national name, Crane ran into Dave’s father, Paul, around Redlands. Crane suggested Mr. Aranda tell Dave to give him a call the next time he’s in town.
“He goes, ‘Steve, Dave doesn’t even call us and tell us he’s coming into town. He just shows up at the front door and expects to have a nice dinner, and he’s on his phone the entire time, then he’s gone,’ ” Crane recalls, laughing.
That’s the Dave everybody knows. All business, all the time. But is Aranda’s essence one that can thrive under the bright lights of L.A.? It’s a question that would surely come up for Bohn when evaluating his candidacy.
Does USC want someone who can win games while not embarrassing the university? Or does it want someone who can win the introductory news conference and fire up donors at the annual “Salute to Troy” event? If it wants both, Aranda will probably just happily keep working in Waco.
Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell and USC might not be an obvious match, but if Mike Bohn calls again, Fickell has a rare chance to lead a blue-blood program.
“I don’t know if USC is his place, per se,” said Squires, his coach at Cal Lutheran. “I’m not saying it’s not. I could see him there and being successful and well-received. I think he loves where he’s at. He likes the size of the school, the mantra of the school. But Dave could be at Baylor or at Cal Lu, as long as he’s coaching football. I don’t think he really cares where he is.”
Said Walker, “He’s a man of extreme character. I don’t know if he’ll leave Baylor this soon. I know he loves Southern California. This is where he grew up and that’s important. But he’s a man of commitment too. I am just not sure which way he would go. Dave is such an incredibly organized guy that there would definitely be a list of pros and cons.”
One assumed pro of the USC job — beyond taking over what many consider a top-five program where competing for national championships is the expectation — is being able to raise three children close to their extended family. Dave’s parents live in the same Spanish-style home he grew up in, where the cars in the driveway now feature LSU and Baylor license plate holders. His wife, Dione, would get to reunite with her family too. Dave and Dione were high-school sweethearts at Redlands, where “Fencepost” somehow swept a cheerleader away for good.
“His family comes first,” Walker said. “I tell you what, if USC could get him, that’d be a heck of a steal in my mind.”
There are coaches for USC to target who have much more head coaching experience than Aranda. Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, Iowa State’s Campbell and Penn State’s James Franklin jump to mind on the top layer of those potentially ready for a change of scenery.
But Aranda is a proven architect of dominant defenses, which drew Bohn to him once. Plus, there could also be an appeal to making Aranda the first Mexican-American head football coach at USC, which would carry great historical significance in L.A. County, where Latinos make up nearly half the population.
“He is the antithesis of Pete Carroll in my opinion. He’s more of a Tony Dungy type.”
— Former Redlands High defensive coordinator Miguel Olmedo
As enticing as that may be, has Aranda shown enough potential in two years as a head coach for Bohn to make such a bold projection for a hire that will define his Trojan legacy?
“I don’t think there’s any job in the country that’s going to fluster him or is too big for him,” McEnroe said. “He’s so grounded. He knows who he is, and he knows what he wants his team to look like. The thing that jumps out to me about Baylor is they’re so disciplined, and they know who they are, just like their head coach.”
Aranda would not qualify as a big name for USC. But the hire that commands the most attention is not always the one that works out.
Squires watched as a former teammate of Aranda’s at Cal Lutheran, a rowdy receiver named Tom Herman, became the most desired coach on the market in 2016 only to flame out at Texas after four seasons.
“Tom’s got a different kind of charisma than Dave,” Squires said. “But you know, if you really sit down and listen to Dave, he is captivating. He’s mind-boggling with some of his quotes. He’ll give you a Bruce Lee-ism one minute, and then he’s quoting Socrates or Plato.
“He’s like that calming effect during the storm. So I have no issues with how he motivates versus, say, Tom. Sometimes, you attract more bees with honey, know what I mean? Dave doesn’t say anything, and the next thing you know, he’s got all the bees.”
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