Pete Carroll is gone. Now what?
That’s really a two-part question.
First, what does Carroll’s departure to the Seattle Seahawks mean for USC? Second, what does it mean for the Pac-10?
The conventional thinking will be that USC is headed for a fall, and that means a great opportunity arises for the rest of the conference — or perhaps one or two teams — to step into the void.
Recall that before Carroll won or shared seven consecutive Pac-10 titles, the conference was as unpredictable as any in the nation: From 1993-2001, every conference team other than California won or at least share of the conference title. And Cal shared the title with USC in 2006.
That would seem the most plausible scenario for the conference going forward: Increased parity with no dominant team.
Things might have been turning that way even if Carroll had stuck around. The Trojans stumbled dramatically this year on both sides of the ball, suffering multiple blowout defeats for the first time in the Carroll Era. The roster has some holes heading into 2010, and Oregon is the obvious pick as the 2010 preseason favorite.
Oh, and there’s also that dark cloud of potential NCAA sanctions hovering on the horizon.
Perhaps Carroll felt he needed to go when the going was still good.
Still, USC is still the preeminent traditional Pac-10 power. It owns more conference titles, national championship and Heisman Trophies than any other program by wide margins. There’s no reason it should yield its spot on top without a fight.
The first step for USC to avoid tumbling into mediocrity — see a 19-18 record from 1998-2000 under Paul Hackett — is to hire the right coach.
That could be a big-splash guy or perhaps someone not so obvious, but his first challenge likely will be navigating the program through some sort of NCAA penalty.
The most obvious beneficiary of Carroll’s departure and USC’s present state of flux is UCLA and coach Rick Neuheisel, who has a prime opportunity to live up to an early boast about ending USC’s LA football monopoly.
That starts with recruiting Southern California. Neuheisel already appears well on his way toward signing another highly rated recruiting class, but his cause could be significantly bolstered if he can poach a few touted guys from the Trojans strong class.
If USC doesn’t make the right coaching hire, and NCAA sanctions make local prospects look elsewhere, then UCLA could become the first choice in the region. That would mean Rose Bowls again on the Bruins horizon.
Of course, coaches across the Pac-10 won’t yield that fertile recruiting ground to UCLA, as they appeared to do with Carroll in recent years. In the late-80s and early-90s, when Washington was the conference’s top team, Huskies coach Don James did an outstanding job of cherry-picking guys from USC’s and UCLA’s neighborhoods. No reason that can’t happen again for one or a handful of teams.
The overall tide seemed to rise in the Pac-10 in 2009. Oregon and Oregon State played the Civil War for the Pac-10 title. Arizona and Stanford both beat USC and spent much of the year in the national rankings. Washington is clearly on the uptick with coach Steve Sarkisian, who has said he’s rather stick with the Huskies than return to USC. Only Washington State figures to be a significant long-shot to earn a bowl berth in 2010.
Carroll is gone. Now what?
The interesting answer might be that, unlike the previous few seasons, we have no idea.