- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- In the vestibule of Heritage Hall, six Heisman Trophies -- three on the left and three on the right -- point toward the 2004 BCS national title trophy in the center of the room. The sparkling crystal football sitting atop the award serves as the crown jewel of the USC Trojans' two-story brick athletic building. An empty trophy case stands nearby.
The scene is a constant a reminder of the high-water mark of USC's run of seven consecutive BCS bowl games under Pete Carroll from 2002 to 2008. It is also, along with that empty glass case, the one that used to house Reggie Bush's Heisman, a reminder of the program's four-year probation and two-year bowl ban.
If USC loses its NCAA appeal at the end of the month, BCS executive director Bill Hancock has said USC's BCS national championship would be vacated. But USC athletic director Pat Haden said the school isn't petitioning to hang on to old wins and trophies; it wants to regain some of its 30 lost scholarships and be eligible to play in a bowl game next season.
"I'm confused about that, too," Haden said when asked why a trophy commemorating a win USC vacated last June was still being displayed. "I'm not exactly sure. They can take all that stuff. I'm not worried about that. I'm looking to the future."
That "stuff" came to define Carroll's legacy at USC. It was supposed to be how future generations of Trojans would remember Carroll as they remember John McKay and Howard Jones. Now, Carroll's record has an asterisk beside it in USC's media guide and the NCAA record books.
Six months after Carroll abruptly left USC to become the Seattle Seahawks' head coach, the NCAA determined Bush took improper benefits while at USC and that there was a lack of institutional control within the program. USC was forced to vacate 14 wins and two Pac-10 titles from 2004 to 2005. Shortly after the announcement Carroll, 1,200 miles away from USC in Seattle, recorded a two-minute video on his YouTube channel, "Pete Carroll TV," expressing shock and disappointment at the sanctions.
No one within the athletic department during the course of the NCAA's nearly four-year investigation could have imagined the sanctions would have been so harsh. Yet when the sanctions eventually came down it was difficult to avoid the perception that Carroll jumped from a ship he knew was about to sink. It's that perception, rightly or wrongly, as much as the vacated wins, that has tarnished a once pristine reputation.
Haden, however, doesn't believe that's the way Carroll should be viewed from within Heritage Hall.
"I think those of us that know Pete Carroll really enjoyed those years," Haden said. "He really did turn around a moribund program that hadn't done anything in a very long time. He made everybody excited. The games were fun. It was the event to go to. Going through those times it was exciting for all of us.
"Looking back now you say there were some signs of danger. There were some red flags there that they should have had their eye out for. But I don't think it necessarily should make us view Pete's tenure here any differently."
Haden doesn't remember exactly where he was when he heard Carroll had resigned as USC's head coach one year ago. He just remembers not believing it at first.
"We had heard about him considering leaving over the last few years and he always ended up staying, so you just assumed that that was going to happen again," said the former USC quarterback who was a partner at a private equity firm and a color analyst for Notre Dame football games at the time. "It caught me off guard and it was certainly a surprise but [former athletic director] Mike Garrett and the whole athletic department really rallied well and quickly found a head football coach in Lane Kiffin who was able to keep a pretty good recruiting class together. What could have been a very difficult situation turned out to be reasonably good."
Although the hiring of Kiffin, who was Carroll's assistant from 2001 to 2006, was supposed to serve as a seamless transition and continue Carroll's legacy at the school, Kiffin's subdued demeanor, compounded by the NCAA sanctions, has made the coaching change far more jarring.
Former players who once roamed the sidelines at games and practices must now observe the team from afar. Reporters who once had luncheons with Carroll leading up to games and talked to players in the locker room after games must now take part in conference calls and wait for players behind barricades at the Coliseum. Long gone are the days of Snoop Dogg or Will Ferrell making a surprise appearance during a team meeting or Carroll leading the team in an off-tune rendition of "Happy Birthday" for a player.
When Kiffin was asked how he and the team celebrated Matt Barkley's birthday last September, he said, "We need to win some games first, so we'll worry about birthdays later."
In Kiffin's first season as coach, the Trojans went 8-5, their worst season since 2001. USC's inability to play in a bowl game for the first time in a decade turned the once-raucous Coliseum back into the sparsely filled stadium it was when Carroll first took over in 2001. USC lost three games at the Coliseum last season after losing three the previous eight seasons combined.
"A lot of former players who were a significant part of our heritage can't come to practice and can't be on the sideline but I think everybody when we explain what we need to do and when they look at the NCAA sanctions, they get it," Haden said. " That is the hand that we were dealt and we made that bed and so we're going to do everything we can to comply with the penalties."
Every time Haden walks through the lobby of Heritage Hall now, he stops and looks at the massive construction underway on a 110,000-square-foot building that will house meeting rooms, coaches offices and a locker room for the football program, as well as an academic center, weight room, training room and digital media production facility for USC's athletic teams.
The two-story, $70 million building was the first thing Haden thought of before he was named the athletic director by new USC president Max Nikias in July.
"It gives us something to look forward to," Haden said of the building, which will take about 18 months to complete. "The thing about a building is that it's tangible. You see progress being made each day and as you're going through that, the clock on your probation is kind of winding down, as well. I think it's a way for us to get through these next three years."
While the new athletic center will be named after McKay and USC's practice field is named after Jones, there won't be anything to commemorate Carroll, even though it could easily be argued the construction of the building wouldn't have been possible without Carroll reviving the football program.
"There's nothing planned for him with this particular building but Pete needs to be and should be thought of in good terms around here," Haden said. "He did a lot of really good things for this program and the school."
When Carroll was at USC, there was a giant picture of him in the window of the USC Bookstore. When customers walked through the sliding glass doors, the center table would be filled with USC football books and calendars, while T-shirts and hats of the team's most recent bowl win were displayed nearby. Today, that same window features the newest line of USC winter clothing; the featured table now showcases books on W.E.B. DuBois and Louis Armstrong, and you'll have to take the escalators one floor up to find discounted football merchandise from last season.
Carroll's new book, "Win Forever," which was released in July, is displayed next to other autobiographies on the first floor. The USC Bookstore said it bought 750 copies of the book July 9 and as of last Thursday had sold 275, which includes some he autographed during a book signing. "It's not terrible," said a bookstore employee on the sales of the book. "But it's not great."
The stacks of unsold books may speak to the apathy of a campus that has moved on from what was a great time in the school's athletic history but is slowly becoming a distant memory with every trophy sent back, every name and picture deleted from the media guide.
One day, Carroll may get a building or a field or something else on USC's campus named after him, but one year after his departure and six months after the school was put on probation, the wounds of a recovering program are still years away from being fully healed.
"While it might not be exactly like it was in the old days," Haden said, "we're going to be fine and we're going to do it the right way."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.