NESTLED IN THE CENTER OF THE URBAN USC CAMPUS, HERITAGE HALL LOOKS AS IF it might be a library, an academic center or, with its long concrete colonnade, a museum. To a visitor standing in the courtyard at the front of the building, there is nothing that obviously suggests the towering history of Trojans football. Yet if the great college football stadiums of America are symbolic cathedrals of Saturday-afternoon worship, Heritage Hall is surely a chapel where the true believer finds a place for solemn reflection.
Prominently displayed in the lobby are the five Heisman Trophies won by USC players before the 2004 season, along with jerseys worn by those players ( Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, Marcus Allen, Carson Palmer). Matt Leinart's trophy and jersey will soon be added to the display. There is no place in America where college football's rich history comes more vividly to life than in this lobby. Glowingly lit by sunlight that floods though tall windows, Trojans ghosts run and throw again, beating Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, crushing Notre Dame in South Bend or rolling through UCLA in the Coliseum while Traveler gallops along the sideline.
The NFL can have its parity. College football needs its giants. Saturday afternoons are better when USC is great. The Trojans won the Rose Bowl and nine games overall in 1995, a brief return to glory after a decade and a half of struggle. Yet in the next five years under John Robinson and Paul Hackett, USC went 31-29, an embarrassment. In 2000, Hackett's last season, USC was last in the Pac-10, and schools from Oregon to Arizona to Colorado were flooding Southern California with recruiters, snatching the talent that for so long had stayed home.
There was a gaping hole in the college game, absent the cardinal-and-gold power on the West Coast. The USC-Notre Dame game, once a must-see staple in October ( South Bend) or November ( Los Angeles), was not worth watching. The road to Pacific dominance went through Tempe or Eugene, and it just was not the same.
That power is back, perhaps mightier than ever. The Trojans' 55-19 demolition of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 4 sent the national-championship trophy back to Los Angeles for the second consecutive year. Coach Pete Carroll's teams have won 36 games in three years and lost just three. Their last defeat came in triple overtime, at Cal, on the last weekend of September 2003, and there is little reason to believe the streak of victories will end soon.
On a hot fall afternoon in 2003 Carroll walked a reporter from his office to the Trojans' practice field and explained one of the many things that made USC different from the NFL, where he had succeeded as a defensive coordinator and failed as a head coach. "Here we can be great," Carroll said. "There's no draft." He waved his hands across the landscape of players and assistant coaches and managers scurrying about. "Ain't no SCs in the NFL," he said.
Once, in the late '90s when Florida State was in the middle of 14 consecutive Top 5 finishes (including two national titles), from 1987 through 2000, Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden sat behind his massive desk in Tallahassee and opined, "There are more good teams than ever in college football but only a few teams that can win the national championship."
The programs to which Bowden was referring have much in common: the money to build or expand stadiums and to pay coaches rich salaries, which in turn enables them to procure the very best recruits. Those building blocks are firmly in place at USC, which now is in prime position to rule from its warm, sunny throne for many years to come.
College football has seen several minidynasties in recent times. Nebraska won titles in 1994 and '95, contended strongly in '96 and was co-champion in '97. But after Tom Osborne's departure the Cornhuskers swiftly descended, first into mediocrity, then into humiliation. Miami won three national titles between 1987 and '91 but ran aground in a hail of NCAA violations, while Florida and Florida State vied for Sunshine State dominance in a homespun stalemate that prevented either team from reigning supreme in its dominance for most of the '90s.
USC is in position to match all of these programs and go much further. The Trojans' back-to-back titles are the first since Nebraska's. Unlike any of the Florida schools, USC is not in a daily death struggle to win recruits from programs of similar stature and class. (Sure, every Division I school west of St. Louis assigns an assistant coach to California, but at this point they're all fighting over the Trojans leftovers.) " USC is the dominant program in the country right now," says recruiting expert Allen Wallace, longtime publisher of SuperPrep magazine. "They're involved with more top recruits than anybody else."