USC coach Lane Kiffin is known as a good recruiter when it comes to securing top high school prospects, but one of his best recruiting jobs may have come with a grizzled "country boy" he lured away from the Fresno area.
When Kiffin was hired at USC he knew he wanted to place an emphasis on special teams ,and he also knew the exact coach he wanted to have for the job. Fresno State assistant coach John Baxter was renowned for his work with special teams (his Bulldogs led the nation with 49 blocked kicks from 2002-2009), and Kiffin had seen an up-close view of Baxter in action when he served as a student assistant coach during his final two years at the school (1997-98).
The only problem was when Kiffin approached Baxter about coming to USC, the answer was an immediate no.
"I was happy at Fresno State," said Baxter, who spent 13 years at the central California school. "We had a farm, we had horses, my family liked it there. I wasn't looking to leave."
Kiffin was persistent, as he often is in recruiting, but Baxter kept on saying no. Finally, after several attempts, Kiffin and USC caught a break. The California state budget crisis resulted in the reality that coaches salaries at Fresno (a state public school) would be slashed, and Baxter felt that maybe the time was right for him to make a move.
Upon arriving at USC last year it didn't take long for Baxter to make an impact. Suddenly practices didn't just feature a token few minutes spent on special teams drills; there were 20-30 minutes spent every day working on the different elements of special teams play. Baxter made things interesting for the players, too. He divided units into "Survivor"-style groups complete with tribal names. He instituted unique drills that involved giant rubber sharks, broomsticks and a football attached to the end of a stick.
"Coach Baxter is the mad scientist," said cornerback Tony Burnett, a key special teams performer for the Trojans. "He has some kind of prop for all the drills we do, but they all have a purpose. He has a way of breaking down things to where they make sense, not only on special teams but we can apply them to our positions as well.
"In spring ball he divided us into four teams like Survivor and we had tribal names and flags and everything. It was great because the main emphasis at USC is competition and this is another way for us to compete and make each other that much better."
The on-field results were immediate in the 2010 season. The Trojans blocked seven kicks or punts, they returned both a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns, scored five times on two-point conversions and executed successful fake punts and field goals.
"We had a phenomenal performance by our special teams last year and we'll be relentless in our pursuit to improve upon that this year," Kiffin said. "John Baxter is terrific at getting guys to understand their roles and then going out and executing it. He's a perfect example of what this program is all about in helping our kids get better on and off the field."
One of the secrets of his success with special teams is the way Baxter teaches in practice. For instance, the Trojans rarely run a full-scale kickoff coverage or punt return drill. Instead, they focus on breaking down individual elements of the play to insure the proper fundamentals.
"We try to get into a drill format where we isolate the skill and we show you how to win from a technique standpoint," Baxter said. "A lot of coaches say, 'OK, you got him, you got him, run it.' But if you ask me, there's a whole lot that goes into, 'You got him.' I'd rather show the kids, 'Here's how you get him.' I say all the time the art to playing the game fast is how you play it when it's slow. So the drills, some fast and some slow, are isolated because I think it reduces things to a technique game.
"I like to use props as teaching aids. My office looks like the comedian Gallagher with all the props, but I don't care. We use a football on a stick to aid in blocking punts. That was my invention. You don't want your punter to take hits on his foot but you need to teach proper angles for blocking. When we come after kicks we want to come after them violently. That ball on the stick can take thousands of hits and never be compromised."
Baxter doesn't limit his detailed teachings to the field either. He is well known for developing the "Academic Gameplan," a comprehensive study skills program that has been used in schools around the country. At Fresno State, his program helped produce 141 Academic All-Conference players and an APR score nearly 20 points higher than the national average.
"School is a game like every other game and it's a matter of knowing the fundamental techniques to the game of school," Baxter said. "If we can teach somebody how to run into another person at full speed, we can teach him how to take notes, we can teach them how to plan their day. First it's about having a plan, second it's about being organized, third it's about executing the techniques to learn.
"It's a universal principle in everything we do, teaching technique. Our job as coaches is to teach and demand. Their job as players is to prepare and perform. When the assignment becomes second nature then you can maximize effort, whether it's playing fast or preparing well for a test."
With that kind of attention to detail it's no surprise that Baxter has had such an immediate impact at USC. He will be breaking in a new kicker in 2011, possibly a new punter and a new punt returner as well, but that doesn't faze Baxter. He knows it's all a matter of being committed as a program to special teams and then having the players ready to step in when needed.
No wonder Lane Kiffin spent so much time trying to recruit Baxter to the Trojans. Just another example of uncovering a five-star prospect to help benefit the team.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.