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