Unusual cloud hangs over USC

SAN FRANCISCO -- Pete Carroll's coaching tree has grown into a robust California oak by now. The branches reach far into the NFL and to the top-of-the-canopy jobs in college football, from Knoxville to Seattle.

At crunch times, Carroll still grasps for his roots.

From the sideline before every game, he phones Bob Troppmann up in Marin County. Carroll grew up in the redwood-covered hills just across the Golden Gate Bridge from where his USC Trojans take on Boston College on Saturday in the Emerald Bowl.

Troppmann, 86, was the coach at Redwood High for 35 years. He coached Carroll for four years, then gave him his start in the business nearly 40 years ago as a counselor at his football camp.

Troppmann isn't feeling well enough to show up at AT&T Park on Saturday, but he figures he'll pick up the telephone shortly before kickoff and hear from a 58-year-old with wavy gray hair, the one he calls a great kid.

These days, Carroll, the acknowledged master of the pep talk, could use one.

"With all the stuff around him, he's got to have a down minute. It has to hurt," Troppmann said. "He just goes ahead and does his thing. When I read these articles, I get a little stirred up. I'm like a father figure to him."

Worries are swirling tightly around Carroll these days. His hair might remain perfectly in place, but his image is in danger of being mussed up.

People wonder how he could have missed junior tailback Joe McKnight driving around in a 2006 Land Rover registered to a Santa Monica businessman. McKnight's presence behind the steering wheel could count as an extra benefit. It sparked an investigation from USC's compliance office and jeopardized McKnight's ability to play in Saturday's game.

They also wonder about Carroll's players' level of commitment after an 8-4 season. Three of them, including star tight end Anthony McCoy, were ruled academically ineligible for the bowl.

Is it Carroll's fault for not monitoring a player driving around in a luxury vehicle? Is it his fault when his players fail tests? The bad part of being a major-college coach is nobody cares who else is to blame.

"I'm not backing off. That's what the responsibility of this job is," Carroll said. "Whether a kid makes grades or not, or whether a kid [McKnight] has issues like we're talking about, it still comes down to the head coach. That's the structure, the way things are set up."

A few minutes later, in a slightly more private conversation, Carroll sounded a tad weary of monitoring dozens of NFL-caliber players in a town full of wannabe sports agents and marketers.

"I don't see it as a drag. I just see it as part of the job, but it's a bigger part of it than I realized eight or nine years ago," Carroll said. "I would never have had any idea."

Of course, questions have lingered around Carroll's program since he brought the Trojans back to national prominence early this decade.

In 2006, receiver Dwayne Jarrett was declared ineligible for living in an apartment he wasn't paying for. The NCAA investigation into the matter of Reggie Bush allegedly accepting nearly $300,000 from would-be marketers has dragged on for four years, in part because of a prolonged investigation into whether there was a link to the coaches.

It might be the sheer weight of accusations that collapses on the USC athletic department. The NCAA combined the Bush case with that of former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo, who reportedly received cash payments from a would-be agent while he played at USC for coach Tim Floyd, who resigned in June under heavy public pressure.

Scandalous headlines are one thing. For a lot of Trojans fans, the most vexing moments this year came on the field. For the first time under Carroll, USC fans might have felt sheepish walking around town in their cardinal-and-gold sweatshirts.

A Carroll-coached USC team had never lost by more than 11 points before this season began. You want embarrassing? How about a 47-20 beating at Oregon? Not good enough for you? What about a 55-21 pounding by Stanford in the Coliseum?

Some people have wondered whether inflated egos and a sense of entitlement have led to some sloppy practices around Howard Jones Field.

On a blustery day in the Outer Mission District of San Francisco this week, the Trojans had their first bowl practice without three of their key offensive players. The pace remained crisp, the hitting intense, just as it was when USC still owned the Rose Bowl (even though UCLA holds the lease).

The offense, which rarely found a consistent groove this year, faces Boston College without one of the nation's best tight ends, without its leading rusher and without a key offensive lineman, Tyron Smith. Teams are used to losing players, but rarely three of them for reasons having nothing to do with football.

"It stinks, but at the same time we have to deal with it," freshman quarterback Matt Barkley said.

Barkley doesn't know any better. Imagine how senior safety Taylor Mays feels. He could have been a first-round NFL draft pick a year ago, but he returned for his senior season to watch his team sink like a stone in the Pac-10.

Mays has seen what this season has done to Carroll.

"It's tough for him, because of the type of competitor he is, but I think it just makes you stronger," Mays said. "It makes you harder."

A week in San Francisco hardly sounds like punishment, but many people wonder how motivated USC is to play in a bowl named after a company that packages nuts after seven straight trips to BCS bowls. If nothing else, it's the first step back to the old neighborhood, the elite level of college football.

"It's not a game we would like to be in, but this is where we are, and we know we've got to handle business," tailback Allen Bradford said. "Everybody's going to be ready this week. I think the team swagger just changed a little bit from the last game to this week. We've got to go out there and earn respect."

The picture might improve next year, but it might not. McKnight, fellow tailback Stafon Johnson, receiver Damian Williams and defensive end Everson Griffen all might leave school early to enter the NFL draft. McKnight, Johnson and Williams have been rumored to be leaning in that direction.

Griffen, viewed as a late first-round pick, requested a draft evaluation from the NFL and is waiting to hear back from the league.

"This season has no impact on my decision," he said. "I have to talk it over with my family."

If all the high-profile juniors leave, Barkley will have lost virtually every major weapon. His progress in his freshman season was far from linear, so who's to say he'll be markedly improved as a sophomore? And what about the snooping of the NCAA, the Pac-10 and university compliance officers?

Has the sun begun to set on this golden era of USC football?

"Pete gave them a pretty good ride these last nine years," Troppmann said. "People forget about that."

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com.