The End of The Sanctions Era

 

We meet again. I don’t know what this post is going to be. But I know I need to post. You all have asked me to weigh in. I expect it’s going to be about the future and about this team. It’s going to be about the school. It’s going to be about the end of the Sanctions Era and my small, but shockingly bigger than I’d have expected role in it.

Let’s just start in the beginning.

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I started this blog so long ago I barely remember the guy who wrote it. I’d write about my weekend. I’d write about not much at all. And eventually I started writing about USC football because I love it. I love my college and their football team. I love that we were named after an army that lost and became famous for how hard they fought in doing so. I’ve played our fight song heading to cancer surgery, to job interviews, on my wedding day and any time marathon training sucked on a cold, rainy day here in Portland.

This blog exploded when USC got handed sanctions by the NCAA because Reggie Bush and his parents took money from an ex-convict hoping to become a sports agent. They said we should have known. Maybe we should have. But the committee was lead by Paul Dee, the AD at Miami, who was paying for abortions for strippers impregnated by players on a booster with on-field privileges’ yacht while doing cocaine. You can’t make that shit up. Playing for Miami under Paul Dee was doper than any party montage in Scarface and in USC’s case, the NCAA let Scarface judge their case.

The penalties were second only to SMU’s death penalty. A two year bowl ban. 30 scholarships. Vacated wins. And other things that came from it, our severed relationship with Reggie (which is thankfully being slowly mended, but damn dude you couldn’t just pay the dude off like the other guy?).

Our Rose Bowl opponent (Penn State), fought the NCAA harder than Pat Haden ever did and they actually shouldn’t have because Penn State is horrible. More on that later.

Uncle Pete had just left. We had very, very limited coaching options and when we hired Lane Kiffin, it seemed like a low point. We all felt it. I saw on social media something I never had before. Trojans not being sure how to feel. Wondering what the Coliseum would be like. Wondering if Rome, who we celebrate with our architecture and with our name (Rome was said to be founded by Aeneas, a Trojan), had fallen. After the Pete years, the fall was steep. It was a long way down.

I didn’t want us to fall. No one did.

As I said, I love my school. I have a screenwriting degree from the best film school on earth. It’s statistically harder to get into than Harvard Law School (at least it was then). I heard Tom Hanks was one of the people who read our 70+ page applications. I am hell with a pen.

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The only thing I could think to do was write. So I wrote this.

I suggested that the Trojan identity, both tongue-in-cheek and in reality, was about a lot more than football games that count. I suggested something we already knew, something we already identified with – our arrogance. I knew that our parents and grandparents who went to USC when it was a “gentleman’s C school” felt the same way about it that the current students feel about a school that’s sitting in that just-out-side-Ivy-League crowd with UCLA, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon. There was never an option to not go to USC.  We’re better than everyone else when there’s data to support it and when there isn’t.

We’re a cult of personality.

And that personality is arrogance with a smile. We’re fundamentalist Trojans and it makes us so, so intolerable for our rivals. It was classic Sun Tzu, Disruption, whatever you want to call it. While the Bruins wait for a good season to emerge and boast, I figured correctly that with the right motivation we didn’t even need to be playing football that “counted” in order to be a better fan base, better school and better story than UCLA. Or anyone for that matter. If someone had to line up against us, we still had the opportunity to violently impart our “culture” on them and the scoreboard.

The NCAA was going to let us play games (because business), so it became obvious. We had to ignore their attempt to throw salt in our game. In fact, we had to celebrate everything that sucked. Nothing demoralizes the enemy more than celebrating when you should be sulking.

Those that follow me on Twitter or Instagram know in Portland I’ve fallen in love with the Timbers. They’d hate to hear it, but what attracted me to them was their fundamentalism. When the rain starts, we get louder. “Let it rain! Let it pour! Let the Portland Timbers score!” and then you dance in circles dumping lager on everyone around you flipping middle fingers.

You can’t lose if you refuse to. You can win if you change what that means. It was already in us. I used a focus group of every Trojan I ever met from the old salty dog talking about the 60s to the fratboys on campus and realized we all needed a kick in the ass and a reminder to just keep being ourselves – because everyone else hates us.

When sanctions hit, people weren’t just rooting for us to lose. They were rooting for us to shut up. Losing, well, not much control there. But shutting up? Not on my watch.

So, the Bearfighter was born.

I made shirts. And thousands of them sold. Enough that I related to the Catholics vs Convicts 30for30, except for the fact that shirt and Notre Dame in general is super racist and South Bend is boring, I don’t care if Rudy was a good movie (and he was offsides and a hobbit).

Lane Kiffin was the only coach who wanted the job and Tennessee fans drew dicks and vandalized his home?

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Got a shirt for that. All hail the mighty visor, his hot wife and everything wrong with this deeply flawed man! Follow the arrogant man into battle!

Bowl ban?

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Eff that shit, anyway. It’s only a party if we show up.

And for the Pac 12 schools who thought we were going to vanish and it was their time?

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This last shirt was easily the biggest seller and the most personal. It really is as Fight On as it gets. It’s been copied, parodied and there are so many more stories I never put on the blog. At one point, I got a cease and desist from USC signed by Kiffin, Haden and company. It was amazing.

But then it took off. You couldn’t go to a game, walk campus or watch on television without seeing signs of the fan base I dubbed Arrogant Nation.

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On my wedding day, I shit you not, I woke up and turned on GameDay who was at the Coli for an Oregon game (we lost, whatever, we won emotionally) and a reader had a “CONGRATS ZACK AND EMILY” sign. Dude. Trojan fam!

The greatest contribution of the blog, in my opinion though, was that as I got to know some players and students, I found out the players were reading it. I loved knowing they knew the fans were behind them no matter what. The games mattered to us. In fact, this is the most special era in the history of our school because in any normal year, we’re favored to win the conference.

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This was an era we were supposed to lose. But we “qualified” for bowls both years. Won the south one of them and it lead to UCLA having to play in the title and get smashed by a Duck team we beat. We totally screwed that year up for Larry Scott. We never had a losing record. We are unkillable.

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After games we lost, I’d spin it that we won because “we don’t live in Tempe” or “Berkeley is a shitty town” – just kidding, we haven’t lost to Berkeley in a decade, lol. Bears.

I started to get a ton of traffic from fans of the other team. Stanford and Oregon especially. They just wanted to see if we’d break. Nope. Not even a little. We actually became friends at times.

The school quietly tolerated me, if not embraced me. It became really clear from my insiders, friends and friends of the program that I was saying a lot of the stuff about the NCAA they couldn’t. So, they gave me the mic.

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The most surreal moment in my life was hosting our pep rally the first time at Galen Center. When I came out and thousands of students cheered instead of treating me like a whack ass MC, it blew my mind. I got to introduce The Spirit of Troy, the band, my biggest advocates. I wear the t-shirt they game me every big game. Band people, if you are reading this, you guys kept me going even when we lost and I didn’t want to spin it. You guys are a gift and you did more than almost anyone to get us through the Sanctions Era.

This was rad. I used to buy drinks there and then they named one after me. I didn’t even have to play football. BRAND RECOGNITION STRONG!

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We had some fun with things like Arrogant Game Predictions, guessing how many times Kiffin would go for 2, how far Kyle Negrete (hey homie) would punt the ball (predator drone launches) and what Kiffin would wear.

We made it fun. We kept it alive. It was no small feat. Building a culture is hard. Maintaining it is hard. Ask UCLA. It’s not like they haven’t won games and bowls. It’s just that their culture sucks. They don’t demand the best. They never fight on. They clap 8 times and ride buses to their stadium that’s nowhere near their campus. They wear powder blue because Cal claimed actual blue because in black and white television broadcasts they needed to stand out. Basically, they know they aren’t more relevant than anyone.

And when they think they are, they try to win like a loser.

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How’d that work out? That’s how it started. Know how it ended?

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Culture breeds confidence. Arrogant Nation was all about maintaining our culture despite being painted unfairly (see pending McNair lawsuit) as cheaters or whatever they made up. I’m sorry we looked good winning and had fun. I’m sorry I think your school is worse than mine. No, you can’t change my mind. And you never will.

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Arrogant Nation wasn’t all roses. There was the time the Daily Trojan tried to take me out. Then all of you jumped to my defense and I had to tell everyone to chill out because the journalist was getting a lot of flack from my readers. His punishment was covering Ohio State for a while. It worked out in the end, he’s covering USC. Fight on!

I didn’t want to hire Coach O for reasons I put on the blog and reasons I couldn’t. We beefed hard on that. I still stand by it. But yeah, I pissed you guys off.

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We also disagreed about Clay Helton. While at 1-2, I was a little shaky. I believe I said it was “getting hard to defend him” – but I also came out strong that when he took over the team started to play like we did under Uncle Pete. More later on this.

Enough about the blog. I want to talk about the talisman of the Sanctions Era. Matt Barkley.

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In some ways, it felt better than Barkley didn’t win the Heisman. He did something so much bigger. He became Mr. Trojan. He’s everything I want our school to stand for. He’s smart and also a fierce competitor on the gridiron. He’s obsessive about technology and reading defenses. When we begged him to stay, he did. When the season didn’t turn out how we’d hope, he still got a legend’s send off. He is the fiercest Trojan I’ve ever written about. In life, you have to put your money where your mouth is. He, and his teammates, certainly did.

I got to know him a bit at events. Now and again, we’d text about shit. I once got a drink with him at the 9-0 with Negrete. No, I didn’t pay. Yes, he was 21 years old. Chill out, NCAA. It’s been a minute, but my wife and I still check out how he’s doing in the NFL and it takes us back to the days when I was WAY younger in my career, spending nights with my business partner Morgan drinking a fifth of whiskey and hand delivering the first batches of t-shirts and making friends with everyone in Arrogant Nation. Everything was scrappy.

BTW, Morgan opened a killer brewery – Indie Brewing Co. – and it’s near USC. Go on gameday home or away and drink beer. Fun fact, I write a lot of the labels. When you buy Indie, you support Arrogant Nation and USC.

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The point is, whatever uniform Matt wears, you should pull for him to win. He’s the good part of what the USC culture is all about.

I’m the other part.

Lastly, let’s talk about the End of the Sanctions Era, which concluded with a last second field goal and our 25th Rose Bowl win.

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The media attempted to make this a “mirror” story. Two sanctioned teams that made improbable runs meeting in a bowl game. We were both back.

First, it’s important to remember why Penn State was “gone” – three decades of systematically covering up and looking the other way from the child abuse going on in their facilities. They were cowards to put football and money ahead of children and I will never support or respect Penn State. I can’t.

Had it been one incident that was immediately dealt with, ok. Bad things happen all the time. But even though it’s new players and new administrators, they didn’t shut the program down and they fought to lessen sanctions. They should have sat out four years. A game. Anything. It’s about money. It’s embarrassing. Like most Americans, when I see their logo, I see the cover up of sexual abuse.

If you ask me the one thing that could make me stop watching USC football, it’d probably be what Penn State did.

But, we do owe Penn State a bit of gratitude. They provided the stone to sharpen our sword. This 25th Rose Bowl win was maybe the most special. It was the end of sanctions. I know the effects are technically still being felt, but USC won the Rose Bowl. The stated goal of Uncle Pete every year. Achievement unlocked.

Here in Oregon, everyone knows we’re back. Recruits know we’re back (not that they ever left, there just were so few of them compared to teams that weren’t abused by the NCAA).

People generally know we were unfairly treated at this point as well, which is incredible. Those that don’t certainly will when McNair wins his case the NCAA has been trying to postpone for years. When they write him an 8 figure apology check for “maliciously” lying about the evidence they never had, that chapter will be over.

More importantly, our chapter of not feeling like USC on the field is over. When USC beat UCLA last season the way it did, by pounding the rock and staying in control, I had a feeling Clay was using Pete’s playbook. They went back to throwing it up for our wide receivers to let them make plays. They controlled games so the other team makes mistakes.

We are passing the eye test. As great as Darnold is, and wow, he’s great, great players often emerge when things click. I’ve never been so fired up about where we’re going. In fact, I’ve been so fired up I’ve largely retreated to just tweeting about SC and enjoying things as a fan.

A lot of you have asked why now that we’re back I don’t write that much. It’s because I hate being the last one to leave the party and in the end, this isn’t about me. I wanted us to get through sanctions. I wanted to brand Arrogant Nation. I wanted SC to be SC again.

Since all that has happened, I’ve been doing what you’re doing: enjoying the ride.

Fight on. Thanks for everything.

And you never know. If a bear jumps out, I’ll won’t be far away.

FTFO.

 

 

34 Comments

Filed under USC Football

34 Responses to The End of The Sanctions Era

  1. Elizabeth Werhel

    You are a true gift. So glad you are part of my Trojan Family. Thank YOU for everything. Fight On!

  2. Sandra

    I just fell in love with this writer. Fight on!

  3. Mike Davis

    Amazing how you’ve made arrogance so attractive…thx for an incredibly well written and entertaining piece…

  4. Schuyler Smith

    Not only do I have all three t-shirts, I also have a visor that shouts out the back of my car, “Arrogant Nation”. I also have at least 3 FFA shirts and I wear them proudly and arrogantly. My roommate and I tried the Zack Sandwich at Canter’s and I have been a proud supporter of the Bear Fighter since Day 1. Thanks for keeping it arrogant and Trojan the whole time. Fight On!

  5. Great read enjoyed it very much

  6. Jon

    Fight On, Zack! I loved your work and it was a bright spot during a dark period for USC. I remember when Matt Barkley acknowledged your letter to him to stay for his senior season on twitter. He referred to you as a friend and I knew then and there he was coming back, and felt so excited during a time when there wasn’t much to be excited about. I was at Sun Devil Stadium when USC played ASU in 2013 and lost (AKA Kiffin’s last game). My brother wore the LFK, Bro t-shirt and we were proud as hell to represent Arrogant Nation. Even the ASU fans I sat near laughed and seemed to respect it. Good times. Thank you for the memories, Zack and as always, FTFO!

  7. Ashley

    I was a freshman during Pete’s last year at SC aka the beginning of the sanctions. We were all completely devastated but it was thanks to your blog that brought the whole school together. As a member of the band, I can attest that we lived for your blogs. We were already arrogant but you reminded us to keep on being more arrogant, if only because it pissed everyone else off. When I look back at my time at SC, I will forever remember Arrogant Nation instead of how terrible the sanctions were and I thank you for that. Keep on fighting on Bearfighter

  8. RB

    Fight on! Love the blog

  9. Jan

    Wait, I’m stuck on the part where Tom Hanks read our applications (maybe) and I never heard about it? How am I supposed to work that into casual conversations if I don’t know about it?? Thanks for opening my eyes! Also, thanks for the great blog!

  10. Jimmy Chen

    Loved the bit about Penn State. I was in band during the sanction years and your blog was a weekly ritual. USC, the best brand of arrogance there is. Thank you Bearfighter. FTFO!

    • Drew Davidson

      The Spirit of Troy is the OG Arrogant Nation. Love your indomitable spirit and the sunglasses. “Our band is way fucking cooler than yours.” FTFO!

  11. Helen of Troy

    Bravo Zack – You made the sanction years fun and I appreciated every word you ever wrote! I love you kid!

  12. UscPacOff

    Glad so see that you’re still kicking! great piece that really puts things in perspective.

  13. Doug Bailey

    Epic!!’ 🌹✌️️

  14. Phillip Trujillo

    Great article, agreed with all, especially how there is no football culture at Uclol, let the be a frkn BB school! The future is looking great at Troy. Hopefully Clay and his coaches land a good recruiting class. FIGHT ON SC✌

  15. Gnossos

    Another reason why I miss your writing…..Same as it ever was…..Raising the glass of Bourbon to you! FTFO!

  16. Carrie

    I’ve never posted before, but I definitely want to leave a word of thanks for your years of writing to rally us USC fans. I was a freshman at USC in ’09 when we last went to the Rose Bowl and after that I thought we’d be back year after year. But it was such a crushing feeling once the sanctions hit. Your posts definitely kept my spirits up. So glad to cap this year off back in the Rose Bowl with a win that’ll likely be a classic for the history books. Thank you, Bearfighter! Fight on!!

  17. You the BOSS

    You are the shit man, loved reading the blog all through college. FTFO!

  18. Kelley

    This gives me life. So many nuggets of gold here. Your blogs are worthy of re-reads. Circling back to Joey Kaufman’s DT article…ummm learn to #ftfo or #stfu We are SC. No apologies. Also…this end of the sanctions era deserves another t-shirt. Thank you Zack.

  19. Mark

    Thanks for getting us through the sanctions, especially when times were tough. Reading your blog always put a smile on my face and sparked conversations between my fellow Trojans and me. As a departing member member of the TMB and having been through Rose Bowls, Vegas Bowls, and No Bowls, it really does feel like we’ve reached the dawn of a new era, and I humbly appreciate the shout out. We do what we do without any expectations of praise or glory…we just Fight On like you did/do. Thanks a bunch.

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  21. Kevin

    Fight On! to being Arrogant in both victory and defeat.

  22. Chris Yoshonis

    Zack,

    I remember when we were planning the first Fall Sports Rally and how you were really the only name everyone thought the students would go nuts for – we were right. Thanks for providing students of the time with hope in a time it was a rare commodity. Arrogant Nation and the whole movement to support your university through thick and thin was motivating as hell and was important for all of us to hear. You’ll go down in SC lore for that, man. Fight on!

  23. Nick Viall

    Your blog was a fantastic rallying cry for Trojans everywhere during what could have been some dark years. The predictions at the end of each article were hilarious too.

    Also you’re the reason I started watching The Bachelor so thanks for the endless source of entertainment Monday nights!

  24. DLAughs

    Zach, this was the perfect bookend. Your humor (calling Dennis Erickson the Sith Lord Palpatine is still one of my favorite slams ever) made me laugh-cry every week before and after our games. It was a rough time for the Trojan fanbase, knowing how completely disproportionate our penalities were, and you brought the humor… and the brutal takedown. Fight On, man. Thanks, and cheers.

    Just…uh..can you promise to write something once the NCAA is finally raked over the coals in the McNair situation? Please???

  25. Scott

    Zach, I have loved reading your Bearslayer stuff. I still can’t watch your other passion. I feel bad for Max this season, line play ruined his chances and might of ruined Sam’s season also. Clay has been nothing but class and proud to have him part of the Trojan family.
    I loved USC’s victory over the Bruins in Water Polo in both the MPSF conference final. Got to love the internet.
    Where can I find Indie beer up here in Puddletown? (Belmont Station or Beermongers) I wish you would blog about the Timbers. RCTID.

  26. Star

    I lost my beloved father and die hard Trojan fan in 2009; same year I found this blog. Thank you for softening the pain with your insights, wit and humor. The sanction years were brutal and yet, We Rise. Long may we SOAR.

    • Bearfighter

      ah man, if this helped at all with something that important, it was worth it. sorry for your loss and hope you feel good vibes from him when you watch games. he’s in your heart.

  27. DoubleTrojan

    I’m a little late in reply here, because I’m still letting this all sink in. There’s no question that you played the #1 role in helping the trojan nation get through the sanctions. I think the program would have spiraled without you. I’m serious.

    I went to your pep rally. I loved it. I bought your shirts. I still have them. USC owes you a great debt of gratitude for the humor and spirit you brought to us when we were down.

    Thank you so so much for all you have done. FTFO

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