LOS ANGELES – The University of Southern California Trojans last won a national championship just over 10 years ago, or have you already forgotten about the 2004 season, which culminated with a merciless 55-19 demolition of the Oklahoma Sooners in the BCS Championship Game at the Orange Bowl?
It’s safe to say that a lot has gone down since that Trojans' spanking of the Sooners that evening in Miami. There was the painful BCS championship game loss to Texas the following season, some ensuing Pac-12 championships, the departure of Pete Carroll back to the NFL, the grotesque NCAA sanctions and their unsavory investigations and emails, and the Trojans regrouping after the turbulent Lane Kiffin tenure.
So now comes the 2015 season and the Trojans at least are back in the conversation as a dark horse for the College Football Playoff, or maybe it just seems as though college football would like to see the Men of Troy return to the national picture in a big way.
If it’s true that knowledge is power, in its spare time, the 2015 Trojans might want to head to the John McKay Center and check out video of the 2004 national champions.
Not to be confused or even to suggest the 2015 Trojans are on the same talent and experience level as the 2004 juggernaut, but there are lessons that can be gleaned by current USC players who have the time to watch video of the Trojans last national championship team.
And what the 2004 video can’t show, further studying of that team will educate the current Trojans on what happens when a team is highly determined, motivated and obsessed with winning at the highest level.
For the 2015 Trojans to understand and learn from their brethren of the past, they will need a little history lesson.
Before the 2004 Trojans, the 2003 Men of Troy were left out of the BCS title game, even though as the end of the season they finished 11-1, were considered No. 1 by many and had captured their second consecutive Pac-10 title. The only seasonal loss was a triple overtime, 34-31, heartbreaker at Cal.
All, however, was not totally lost in the 2003 national championship picture. Thanks to an impressive 28-14 victory over Michigan in the 2004 Rose Bowl Game and some adept politicking afterward by Carroll, the Trojans were elected AP national champions.
So, when players from the 2003 team returned for the 2004 season, they were super-motivated, thanks to the previous season’s BCS title game snub. In fact, the motto for the season was “Leave No Doubt.” And they didn’t. Plain and simple, the Trojans dominated and left no doubt the kingpin of college football resided in Los Angeles.
The 2015 Trojans can learn from the 2004 Trojans that motivation combined with goal setting can be just as important as pure physical talent. As any successful coach will tell you, being a champion is a balanced combination of both the physical and the mental.
It would be easy to say that the 2004 national champions won because of talent, which included the likes of first-team All-Americans such as Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Matt Leinart, tailback Reggie Bush, linemen Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, and linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu.
And one would be remiss not to mention the 2004 team also had great coaching – perhaps the finest assemblage of assistant coaches of the Carroll era. With Carroll running the defense and Norm Chow as offensive coordinator, the Trojans were nearly unstoppable and unbeatable.
The 2015 Trojans are not without their own array of skillful performers and some rugged linemen.
Like the 2004 Trojans, the 2015 Trojans have a potential Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in senior Cody Kessler, a game-breaker in sophomore Adoree' Jackson, an all-star center in senior Max Tuerk, a probable All-America linebacker in junior Su'a Cravens, and sophomore receiver JuJu Smith, perhaps a future All-American.
So what needs to arise for the 2015 Trojans to emulate at some level the 2004 club?
First and foremost, it’s the motivation factor. The 2004 team was highly motivated, a club so full of anger and vinegar, and wanting justice from the BCS snafu from the previous season. They wanted to be the baddest dudes in the land. They wanted to bully opponents, and Carroll was the perfect ringleader in a charismatic sort of way.
Secondly, 2004 was a close-knit group with a lot of leadership coming from different directions. Team captains Leinart, Cody and Grootegoed paved the way but were supported by various other future leaders in the program.
Thirdly, coaching certainly was a huge element for success in 2004. Carroll’s assistants were tops in their field because of a combination of knowledge, motivational skills, spirit and drive, which was just as necessary as the talent they were coaching.
Lastly, there was the winning experience factor. The 2004 club had the confidence of having won a Pac-12 title and a national championship the previous season.
Obviously, the 2015 Trojans don’t have 2004’s winning experience and will be challenged to learn it along the way if they are to achieve expectations. While the talent level is also not quite yet at the 2004 level, there have been some big improvements, thanks to back-to-back, star-studded recruiting classes by head coach Steve Sarkisian.
In terms of team leadership, the 2015 Trojans are said to be one of the tightest groups in recent memory. The summer workouts have been a near total success in terms of numbers, work habits and enthusiasm, and the overall state of the program is unquestionably on the rise.
And in terms of coaching, Sarkisian is hopeful that he and his team of assistant coaches also can rise to the level of the Carroll coaching era. Sark, who was at Carroll’s side through much of Pete’s championship years, knows great recruiting classes also must be taught the physical and mental aspects of being a true champion.
“We need to build a team-first culture,” Sarkisian said. “We need to improve our physicality and develop a bully mentality. And we need to take advantage of our speed and athleticism.”
What Sark says is all true, and if his 2015 team can reach the College Football Playoff by winning the Pac-12 Conference for the first time since 2008, they might again want to watch film of the 2004 team to see how that national championship club approached the postseason.
As they say, knowledge is power.