It was a jarring sight, and they weren't even looking at the scoreboard.
Late in the fourth quarter of USC's 55-21 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum last season, former USC players Mike Williams and Alex Holmes were walking on the USC sideline and shook their heads as they saw underclassmen laughing, joking and talking to people in the stands. A couple of players who weren't dressed for the game were fixing their earrings and texting friends about postgame plans.
"That kind of stuff never would have happened when we played," Williams said. "The coaches wouldn't have let that happen."
Said Holmes, "I can't believe what I'm seeing. It's embarrassing."
Despite losing Pete Carroll to the NFL on Monday, USC took the first step toward restoration on Tuesday by hiring Lane Kiffin as its head coach.
Kiffin, who was an assistant at USC from 2001 to '06, will bring his father, Monte, whom Carroll has credited as his mentor, in as defensive coordinator. Ed Orgeron, who was an assistant at USC from 1998 to 2004, will return as the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. USC also was working on deals to bring back Norm Chow, who was at USC from 2001 to '04, as offensive coordinator and Tim Davis, who was at USC from 2002 to '04, back as offensive line coach.
The news caused many former players who played for USC when it won a pair of national championships in 2003 and 2004 under the returning assistants to rejoice.
"God is shining on the Trojan faithful," said Williams, who played wide receiver under Kiffin at USC in 2002 and '03. "I know there was a bunch of talk about NFL guys like [Jeff] Fisher and [Jack] Del Rio and other guys like [Mike] Riley that I was just praying to God weren't really in consideration. I couldn't imagine a better pick. I think Kiff is the closest thing you can get to what Coach Carroll brings. It's a no-brainer."
Holmes, whose brother, Khaled, is a sophomore offensive guard on the team, says he believes the return of so many former assistants will also bring the program back to the roots of what made it so successful. "USC will be back on track now," said Holmes, who was a tight end at USC from 2000 to '04. "We will be back to dominating everyone we play in recruiting and on the field. I think the rest of the Pac-10 should be very worried."
Although Kiffin wasn't the most popular coach to USC fans before he left to become the head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2007, many former players always thought of him as a Carroll clone who was on the fast track to big things someday.
"He's just like Coach Carroll," said Keary Colbert, who was a wide receiver at USC from 2000 to '03. "He's high-spirited and likes to have fun. It's awesome to have him and the other assistants back. I've always said I'd like to see the old staff get back together and be at USC. I like the guys who've been there the past couple years, but I'm biased towards the coaches that were there when I played there. It's exciting to see them come back home."
One of the concerns USC fans had after Carroll left was the status of the Trojans' recruiting class, which had been projected to be one of the best in the country. Kiffin and Orgeron served as recruiting coordinators at USC, and with them back in the mix, the Trojans should be in good position not only to save this year's class but also add to it. Kiffin often was credited with helping USC successfully recruit many out-of-state prospects during a time when the focus was primarily on keeping West Coast recruits.
"He's a young guy who knows how to recruit," said Williams, who left his Tampa, Fla., home to play at USC after Kiffin recruited him in 2001. "He got me to come there from Florida, Keith Rivers to come from Florida, Dwayne Jarrett to come from New Jersey, LenDale White to come from Colorado, Patrick Turner to come from Tennessee and the list goes on. From a recruiting standpoint, he's certified. He's a big reason why USC did so well recruiting nationally. There are a lot of out-of-state guys that went on to do really well for the program, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the recruits who committed to Tennessee will change their commitment and come to USC now."
Williams also played for Kiffin when he was with the Raiders and says he believes the biggest reason Kiffin wasn't able to succeed there was the dysfunction in the front office and Raiders owner Al Davis' inability to allow Kiffin to get the players and coaches he wanted. That's partly why the Raiders haven't won more than five games in a season since 2002 despite changing coaches five times during that span.
"I may be in the minority, but I think if Kiff had the control and support in Oakland that he needed, he would have turned that place around," Williams said. "If he could have done what he wanted, he would have had them in the right direction. I was with [former USC players] Justin Fargas and Will Buchanon there, and we all agreed there wasn't much change from what Coach Carroll was doing in college to what Kiff was doing. The only difference was he didn't have the control to make the personnel moves he wanted."
With Orgeron's booming voice already reverberating around Heritage Hall late Tuesday night as the coach returned to his old and now new office to watch film, Williams couldn't help but smile and think what the USC sideline will look like next season.
"I'm excited to see Coach O come back and whip some of these guys into shape that were underachieving last season," Williams said. "He brings that discipline that only certain coaches have and only certain coaches can execute. When you have high school kids that want to go against the grain a little bit, Coach O and those guys aren't going to let that happen. They're part of the foundation that made USC great. They're just returning to something that they helped build and restoring it to what it once was."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.