Proof that USC women's soccer is kind of a big deal to Will Ferrell
It was one of Will Ferrell's many iconic comedic characters, Ricky Bobby, who offered this memorable, if mathematically dubious, wisdom: "If you ain't first, you're last."
It was Ferrell, the real-life USC alumnus, and his wife, Viveca Paulin, who earlier this month did their best to keep the reigning national champion USC Trojans women's soccer team first.
Thanks to the Viveca Paulin and Will Ferrell Scholarship Fund, the first Pac-12 school to win multiple national titles in women's soccer is also presumably the first soccer team with a full scholarship endowed by a former winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Or by Ron Burgundy, if you go with USC coach Keidane McAlpine's favorite character in the Ferrell collection.
"I do think when you have a family name like Will and Viveca, that it provides a little emphasis to your program," McAlpine said. "Especially in light of last year and the season that we had, it kind of keeps that momentum going for you. I've had quite a few friends reach out and be like, 'Really, Will Ferrell is affiliated with your program? Are you kidding me?'
"That kind of appeal that you get, I can't even begin to quantify what that's going to do long term, just in terms of the cool factor when you're talking to high-school-age kids. That's going to pay dividends."
It is certainly a novel way for a program to address the conundrum of how to stay on top.
Coaches in women's soccer not named Anson Dorrance can attest that the only feat more difficult than winning a national championship is dealing with what comes next. While Dorrance's and North Carolina's 21 NCAA titles skew all the math, USC was only the fourth program to win multiple titles (last year's title was the Trojans' second). And aside from Dorrance, former Notre Dame's Randy Waldrum is the only coach responsible for two at the same school. The top of the mountain is a perilous place.
USC was more of a rebuilding project than a contender when McAlpine arrived in December 2013. The program had fallen out of the NCAA tournament entirely not very long after winning the national championship in 2007. Yet USC nonetheless grew into a team that defeated West Virginia for the title last December. And "grow" is the operative word in 2017 for a team that had mostly seniors in the starting lineup last year. Morgan Andrews, Mandy Freeman and Kayla Mills were among those selected in the first round of the most recent National Women's Soccer League draft. Two more Trojans were selected in later rounds and still others signed professional contracts in other leagues.
The team that took the field this season looked little like the one that won the title months earlier. Those who weren't new were at least in new roles. Nicole Molen, one of the few returning starters from the final against the Mountaineers, bounced this year between positions out wide and in the back line before she found a home as a holding midfielder. All of that while serving as captain. Another returning starter, Ally Prisock, was tasked to take control of a remade back line that last year operated with almost professional precision. Dominique Randle, who could only watch the title season from the sideline after a knee injury, readied herself while waiting out the NCAA's decision to grant her a sixth year of eligibility.
Every game is a chance to find an identity, even if every opponent sees a chance to fell the champs.
"We see that every game; we started to feel it in the spring," McAlpine said. "Which is cool -- I won't necessarily say pressure, but you want those environments to play in. I think it sharpens you and makes you better."
It also makes this a fitting group to welcome the new endowed scholarship.
Women's soccer was one of the last varsity athletic programs at USC without at least one fully endowed scholarship. Alexandra Reisman, the school's associate athletic director for major gifts, said Ferrell and Paulin approached the school with an interest in doing something beyond the most familiar areas of support.
"People want to support capital projects or they want to give to football or men's basketball," Reisman said. "But drawing attention to these female sports is really great. ... There have been gifts to that [soccer] endowment program, but they've never had a family step forward and fully establish an endowment toward the team."
McAlpine doesn't know Ferrell and Paulin, and indeed found out about the endowment only after it was in the works. Somewhat busy in their own pursuits, they aren't regulars at games, although perhaps they can be enticed. But women's soccer proved to be a natural fit for the donation. Ferrell is among the investors in LAFC, the new MLS franchise set to begin play in 2018. Two of the couple's three sons play soccer. In an even more direct connection, Paulin was an all-conference selection in 1991 as a member of the Division III Pomona-Pitzer women's soccer team.
From a functional standpoint, the endowment doesn't change the program's day-to-day-existence. Division I soccer programs operate with 14 full scholarships. As with most other sports, football excluded, a full soccer scholarship can be divided between multiple people, such as three players receiving one-third of a scholarship, etc. A few players on a given team might receive all of a scholarship or close to it, a necessary means to attract an elite recruit. But given rosters that regularly climb to more than 25, McAlpine indicated there aren't any plans at the moment to associate one player with the endowed scholarship (one of USC's 14) each year.
Symbolically, on the other hand, it is a measure of respect for the sport in general and the program in particular. The Trojans earned a tip of the cap and got it from one of the coolest people on the planet.
Aside from a shutout at Utah on Saturday, the Trojans' defense is not quite as stingy as it was last season. USC has allowed almost as many goals through the season's first month as the championship team allowed in the entire regular season last year. The Trojans are not as prolific on the offensive end, either, as evidenced by that shutout at Utah earning only a 0-0 draw.
But they are 6-1-1 as October approaches (the lone loss was to Kansas). It is a better record, by the margin of that draw in Salt Lake City, than the team had through eight games last season.
Molen, Prisock, Randle and the rest aren't last year's team. But the point of the experience, of the college experience that Paulin and Ferrell are supporting, is to figure out what you are.
"I think [the team was] proud," McAlpine said of his players' reaction to the scholarship. "Because Dr. Will and his wife took the time to just basically acknowledge the work they've put in and their love of the game in general. They were just excited to be associated with something like that."
They are, as someone might say, kind of a big deal.