Carroll brought Cali cool back to USC

Pete Carroll's arrival at the University of Southern California was met with more anxiety than anticipation.

When Trojans athletic director Mike Garrett hired the fired NFL coach to replace fired USC coach Paul Hackett after an 18-day search in December 2000, a headline in the Los Angeles Times declared: "For Pete's Sake, USC, Why Did You Do It?"

The Trojans' hometown newspaper wasn't alone in its criticism. From coast to coast, college football fans were scratching their heads at Southern Cal's choice. Carroll hadn't coached college football since 1983, when he was an assistant at Pacific. He had been fired twice in the NFL, where he was considered too soft and informal to lead professionals.

Carroll wasn't even USC's first choice to replace Hackett. He won the job of rebuilding one of college football's traditional powerhouses only after three other coaches turned it down. Before finally settling on Carroll, Garrett failed to land Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson, Oregon coach Mike Bellotti and San Diego Chargers coach Mike Riley.

At the time of Carroll's hiring, Garrett suggested his new coach's energy and enthusiasm were perfect for college football. Garrett said Carroll's youthful personality would help him in recruits' living rooms and build camaraderie in the Trojans' locker room.

Who knew Garrett would be so right? With his California cool, Carroll turned the Trojans into one of the sport's most consistent winners.

After a 6-6 finish in Carroll's first season at USC in 2001, the Trojans became college football's team of the new millennium. From 2002 to 2008, USC won seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and played in seven straight BCS bowl games.

In 2003, in Carroll's third season, the Trojans went 12-1 and finished No. 1 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll (LSU finished No. 1 in the final coaches' poll). The next season, USC became only the second team in history to go wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in the AP poll, after blasting Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl to win a second straight national championship.

In 2005, the Trojans narrowly missed winning at least a share of a third consecutive national title when they lost to Texas 41-38 in the final seconds of the Rose Bowl.

Under Carroll, the Trojans were ranked in the AP poll for 103 consecutive weeks, including 62 straight in the top five. At one point, USC won 35 consecutive games at the Coliseum and 34 straight against Pac-10 foes.

During the height of its prominence, USC produced three Heisman Trophy winners in four seasons: quarterback Carson Palmer in 2002, quarterback Matt Leinart in '04 and running back Reggie Bush in '05.

Under Carroll, USC became a hotbed for NFL talent. He coached 34 All-Americans and 53 NFL draft choices, including 14 first-rounders. In the past two NFL drafts alone, USC produced 21 draft choices and seven first-rounders. NFL stars such as Bush, Palmer, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu played for Carroll at USC.

More than anything else, though, Carroll made USC a destination for recruits. He recruited blue-chip prospects from coast to coast and often signed multiple All-Americans at the same position. For many prospects, competing for a starting job at USC was better than being handed one at another school.

Carroll was able to pluck highly regarded recruits from far-away places like Colorado, Florida, Louisiana and New Jersey, but made his living keeping California's sun-baked players at home. Each of USC's past three Heisman Trophy winners was a home-grown product.

Under Carroll, USC turned the Rose Bowl into its second home and turned Big Ten foes and rival Notre Dame into its punching bags. The Trojans played in the Rose Bowl in five of six seasons from 2003 to 2008, beating four Big Ten opponents by 14 points or more. Carroll won his last eight games against the Fighting Irish, walloping them by 20 points or more six times.

In a city without an NFL team, the Trojans became as popular as Kobe Bryant and the Lakers. On any given Saturday, Hollywood stars such as Will Ferrell, Henry Winkler, Snoop Dogg, Spike Lee and George Lucas could be spotted at USC games.

As successful as the Trojans were during Carroll's nine-year tenure, some of their losses were just as shocking. In the 2006 regular-season finale, USC was upset by rival UCLA 13-9, which cost the Trojans a chance to play for the BCS title. The next year, Stanford was a 41-point underdog when it ended USC's 35-game home winning streak with a 24-23 victory at the Coliseum.

This past season was perhaps Carroll's most difficult at USC. After losing Sanchez to the NFL draft, the Trojans finished 9-4. USC lost to Washington 16-13, falling to an unranked team for the fourth consecutive season. USC lost three of its last five regular-season games, before beating Boston College 24-13 in the Emerald Bowl.

Carroll's program has also been an NCAA target over the past three seasons. Since April 2006, the NCAA has been investigating whether Bush's family received more than $300,000 in improper benefits from a sports marketing company during his sophomore and junior seasons at USC. This past season, running back Joe McKnight was ruled ineligible to play in the Emerald Bowl while the school investigated whether he violated NCAA rules by driving an SUV that belonged to a marketing executive.

Even with all his success, Carroll's legacy at USC might not be defined until the Trojans finally learn their fate from the NCAA.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.