The legendary USC Trojans are one of the five greatest football programs in the United States - and the game in town in Los Angeles. There have been down years before, such as between the Robinson and Carroll eras, but never have fans been left to wonder so much about just what is next for their storied team.
They are a dedicated bunch, these fervent fans of football at the University of Southern California.
Blood that courses through their veins isn't just red, but cardinal red. They speak as if they wore shoulder pads, talking about "our" new coach and when "we" won the national championship. Their cell phones don't just ring but instead blare the songs of the USC marching band, the peppy "Fight On!" and the regal "Conquest."
Fans have grown accustomed to their team living in the spotlight, outshining even the biggest celebrities on the Los Angeles sports scene. The Trojans are king; Kobe Bryant and Manny Ramirez – for all their stardom – are merely princes.
The Trojans of the past 50 years: dominating. Seven of the team's 11 national titles have come since 1960, the year John McKay took over as coach, posting a .749 winning percentage in his 15 seasons before moving to the National Football League. The script is waiting to be written on the next half-century.
"I don't know if the next 50 will be as good as the last 50. The last 50 will be hard to beat," said Jeff Barth, a 35-year-old business analyst from Montrose and a lifelong fan. "If they are, it's going to be a fun life."
But could the kingdom be crumbling? It's a tradition at a crossroads for the Trojans as they face 2010 with a host of questions. Will new coach Lane Kiffin come close to duplicating the feats of the departed Pete Carroll, who like McKay a generation ago took his lofty winning percentage and headed to the pros? Will the Trojans, just weeks after Kiffin took over, attract blue-chip recruits Wednesday on National Signing Day? And when an NCAA committee meets this month, will it slap USC with penalties?
No matter what, the true-blue – make that true-red – USC fans vow to stick with them.
"We will," said Louis Ramirez, 83, of North Hollywood, USC Class of 1951, "because we're Trojans."
O.J. Simpson. Lynn Swann. Ronnie Lott. Marcus Allen. Frank Gifford. Carson Palmer. Bruce Matthews. Troy Polamolu. They are among the Trojans who made an indelible impression in cardinal and gold then went on to professional stardom. Their feats line the pages of the USC record books.
One name of the past – Reggie Bush – could prove to be the biggest of them all in the immediate future.
Bush, now a running back for the New Orleans Saints who will play in Sunday's Super Bowl, left USC in 2005 with a Heisman Trophy in hand. The following year, an investigation by Yahoo! Sports outlined allegations that Bush's family received benefits in violation of NCAA rules. Later, former basketball star O.J. Mayo was alleged to have been at the center of another controversy, one that claimed former basketball coach Tim Floyd gave money to a man who led Mayo to USC.
The NCAA – the governing body of college sports – has investigated both cases and its Committee on Infractions will meet Feb. 19 to 21 in Tempe, Ariz., to decide on sanctions for the school and the programs.
USC fans are watching, waiting to see what happens.
"It's a tough one," said Ramirez, who went to his first USC game in 1937 and remembers even the smallest of details of showdowns over the past 70-plus years. "I think people are always concerned. You just don't know."
Maria Carreon, a 36-year-old nurse from Norwalk, wants to know. A season-ticket holder and avid pre-game tailgater, she tunes in to ESPN and listens to local talk radio to hear what the expert analysts have to say. Those analysts have convinced her that if sanctions do come, they won't put the football program in peril. Maybe, she said, the school will have a scholarship or two that it can offer taken away. "I'm not really worried about it being huge."
Neither is Jeannine Ball of Long Beach, USC Class of 1978, who said she has attended every home game since 1974.
"I am not concerned about any NCAA sanctions because it is completely out of our control," she said. "I just can't worry about that."
Cynics say the sanctions could be big, setting USC back in its recruiting, and that's why Carroll took his 97-19 record and two national championships over nine seasons and headed to the Seattle Seahawks. And they don't look at the money – a reported $33 million over five years – or a chance to return to a head coaching job in pro football as Carroll's reason for departure. Instead, they say, he was just getting out of Dodge before the sheriff laid down the law.
Carroll has it in abundance. So did McKay, who passed away in 2001 at age 77. It was easy to get wrapped up in their excitement, cheer their exuberance, laugh at their jokes.
"He had a tremendous sense of humor," said Rod Humenuik, who played for the Trojans in 1956 and 1957 and later served as a McKay assistant for five seasons, including the 1967 national championship year, of his former boss. "After one ballgame that we didn't win, the question at the press conference on Monday was 'How about the execution of the team?'
"He said, 'I'm all for it.' "
Kiffin has shown his charm in his first days on the job since being hired in mid-January. In news conferences, he has said all the right things. At 34, he has Southern California boyish good looks. With a beautiful wife and three children under age 5, they look like the All-American family.
He appears excited for the future, even if he is a marked man at the University of Tennessee, where he spent one season as head coach – the NCAA questioned some of his moves there – and then stunned the Volunteers' faithful by leaving for Los Angeles. On Facebook, anti-Lane Kiffin groups have more than 75,000 members.
It's the staff that will surround Kiffin at USC that has Trojan fans excited. Kiffin, who was an assistant under Carroll for six years before heading south, brings with him his father, coaching guru Monte Kiffin to lead the defense, and Ed Orgeron, associate head coach/recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach. Orgeron also previously worked at USC before leaving the school to become the head coach at Mississippi. The Sporting News and Rivals.com named him Recruiter of the Year in 2004.
"With his father, it's a big plus," said Richard Chavez, 31, a banker from Pico Rivera, who said he plans on being in the stands when the Trojans play at Hawaii on Sept. 2, the official start of the Kiffin era. "Pete Carroll was like a student of Monte Kiffin through the NFL years...
"The main key is him bringing back Ed Orgeron. He was a key to getting a lot of those USC players who are now in the NFL."
Humenuik knows something about that, having coached in the NFL for years after leaving USC. He said Kiffin will have a grace period with the USC faithful.
"The ‘SC fans, in the past, have always been supportive of the first-year coach because they want to see how well the team is going to perform under his leadership," he said. "The jury is still out until after the end of the season."
Jordan Palmer didn't attend USC but at 25, has been a regular at games more than half his life. He grew up around old friend Rob Johnson, a former Trojan quarterback who went on to an NFL career. His brother, Carson, won the Heisman Trophy playing for USC in 2002 and now quarterbacks the Cincinnati Bengals. A quarterback himself, Jordan Palmer also is on the Bengals' roster.
To him, it's going to take a while for the Trojans to reach the pinnacle again.
"Pete Carroll was the foundation that recent program was built on," he said.
Palmer said that top recruits coming out of high school right now with competing offers from other top-tier schools will think hard before signing with USC. He said the young men committing this week are looking at coaching stability among the intangibles.
To achieve the same kind of success, Palmer said, Kiffin is going to have to be a tough coach, one who puts the emphasis on discipline and team play – a few areas Palmer said Carroll let slip the past few years. With Pacific 10 teams like Oregon and Stanford rising in national prominence, they will take advantage of any USC weakness, Palmer said.
"It's going to be tough," Palmer said. "Lane is really going to have to earn this. Signing Lane Kiffin as coach is a step backward. Nothing against Lane. When you lose Pete, you lose the cream of the crop."
Johnni MacKe, a sophomore print journalism major at USC, is willing to give Kiffin a chance.
"Initially, it was a big shock. I never thought Pete would go," said MacKe, whose family has USC season tickets. "But I suppose it makes sense to have a new, young coach. We're a young team. And it's not solely the coaching situation that might help win games."
The change in coaches isn't going to affect some fans, like Robert Guardian, 34, of Montebello, who works in the film industry.
"I'm a USC Trojan," he said. "I'm not a Pete Carroll Trojan.
"Still, for others like Ball, the world shook on Jan. 12, the day the Seahawks introduced Carroll as their head coach.
"It's only paradise if you know you are in it, and I knew I was in Trojan paradise every year of Pete Carroll's tenure as the USC football coach. We will never be able to replace him, but we will fight on," Ball said.
"I am a Trojan for life. Win or lose, I will be there to support my team, but I know that I'm not in paradise any longer."
USC played its first football game in 1888, long before pro sports came to town. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1958 and the Minneapolis Lakers in 1960. The Oakland Raiders came and left. And while the Dodgers brought with them the pitching duo of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and the Lakers have graced the city with 10 NBA titles, it's the Trojans that have brought families together.
Ramirez's family is among them. His father-in-law went to USC, as did he and his wife. His children? Trojans. His daughter Linda and son-in-law, USC and Olympic swimmer Steve Furniss, raised another Trojan fan, Kristina Furniss Stonebreaker, a USC graduate who is now 29 and an actress.
"It's been very ingrained in me since I was a little kid. I always loved USC football," she said.
Some USC fans in their mid-30s or younger can remember the days before Carroll, when the team's success wasn't a guarantee.
They can recall the years of John Robinson, whose teams achieved greatness in his first stint with USC from 1976 to 1982 – a national title came his way in 1978 – less the second time around from 1993 to 1997. They can shudder at what is considered the dark days of USC football in the modern era, when Ted Tollner led the team to a 26-20-1 record from 1983 to 1986 or when Paul Hackett's teams posted just a 19-18 record from 1998 to 2000, the regime before Carroll.
But the Carroll years have left fans wanting more, even though they said they don't expect instant supremacy from Kiffin teams.
Guardian said he saw some of the fair-weather fans jump off the bandwagon during a season that was a disappointing by USC standards when the team finished 9-4 and didn't earn a berth to a major bowl game. The true ones? They will be there come fall, he said.
"With the new era, the next year, they have the talent," he said. "They have a lot of good players that are going to do a lot of good things."
Ramirez, who remembers watching Jackie Robinson play for UCLA against the Trojans, said he is looking forward to continuing the tradition.
"We've always had a great football heritage," he said. "The alums have been very loyal. It's another chapter in Trojan greatness starting."
It's a chapter whose pages Ball is looking forward to turn.
"Am I more reserved about next season?" Ball wondered. "I am thrilled to see [quarterback Matt] Barkley come back. I believe that he will develop into a superstar, and it will be fun to see him progress. Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron will bring intensity to the defense that we were lacking last season. The rest is an unwritten book that could end in a thousand different ways. That is the thrill of any football season."