- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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SPOKANE, Wash. -- Two years ago, Southern California coach Tim Floyd was as far away from basketball as he'd ever been. After a second unsuccessful coaching stint in the NBA, Floyd and his wife had retreated to their lake home in rural Mississippi.
"It's 30 minutes down dirt roads," Floyd said. "We just had a wonderful 18 months."
Floyd might have retired there, but he also was determined to restore a coaching career that had faded fast in the NBA. Floyd decided his favorite fishing hole could wait, and he accepted the coaching job at USC in January 2005. He quickly found himself to be a little fish in a big pond, as the Trojans long had been overshadowed by crosstown rival UCLA in a city that cares more about its pro sports teams. For several decades, the Trojans had been considered both an underachieving program and a sleeping giant.
"If you're located in an area that's rich with talent, there's no reason you can't win," Floyd said. "The potential for this program is through the roof."
In only two seasons, Floyd has transformed USC's potential into success, leading the Trojans to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for only the second time since 1979. The No. 5-seeded Trojans play No. 1 seed North Carolina in the semifinals of the East Region Friday night in East Rutherford, N.J.
"Tim Floyd is going to take this program to the next level," Trojans guard Lodrick Stewart said.
While Floyd has resurrected the Trojans, they have restored his reputation. In July 1998, Floyd was the surprising choice to replace Phil Jackson as the Chicago Bulls' coach on the heels of the team's three straight NBA championships. Floyd, now 52, had served as a college head coach at Idaho, New Orleans and Iowa State with great success, going 260-143 (.645) in 13 seasons with five NCAA Tournament appearances, but had no professional coaching experience and it showed. His teams, stripped of many of the components from those championship teams, lost nearly 80 percent of their games in three-plus seasons. He resigned in 2001 after a 4-21 start to his fourth season.
"When I took the job, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr were still under contract," Floyd said. "That part didn't work out. We ended up with some other guys."
Being tabbed as the worst NBA coach ever ate at Floyd (only North Carolina State coach Sidney Lowe had a worse record among NBA coaches, with a .257 winning percentage with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies). Floyd quickly tried to get back into the college ranks, and was a finalist at Georgia after the Bulldogs fired Jim Harrick in 2003 for NCAA rules violations and other improprieties. Floyd thought he was getting the job (in fact, Floyd was told he was getting the job). Instead, the Bulldogs hired Dennis Felton from Western Kentucky.
"We really wanted that job," Floyd said.
A month later, the New Orleans Hornets called and offered Floyd their head coaching job. Floyd saw the opportunity as a chance at redemption in a city less than 100 miles from his boyhood home of Hattiesburg, Miss.
"When the Hornets called, I thought they were joking because of what happened in Chicago," Floyd said.
Floyd led the Hornets to a 41-41 record during the 2003-04 season and the team made the playoffs, despite losing star player Jamal Mashburn in midseason. Still, Floyd was fired after the season and unemployed again.
Floyd went back to Mississippi and wondered whether he'd take another coaching job. His wife, Beverly, made it clear she wasn't moving to another small college town. They owned their lake house and a condominium in New Orleans. Their daughter, Shannon, was working as an actress in Los Angeles.
After Henry Bibby was unceremoniously fired after four games into the 2004-05 season, Floyd was hired to replace him the following season, but not without some unusual circumstances. Originally, former Utah coach Rick Majerus had taken the job, only to resign days later. After Floyd's hiring was announced, interim head coach Jim Saia led the Trojans to a 12-17 finish, the program's third consecutive losing season.
"At this point in my life, I wanted to get myself to a job where I thought I could win a national championship," Floyd said. "I just looked at all the other football playing schools. I'm old enough to remember when Oklahoma wasn't very good at basketball. I can remember when Texas was not winning yet. I can remember when Alabama was not very good."
The Trojans were winning in football, collecting back-to-back national championships under coach Pete Carroll, who also largely failed in the pros. But the USC basketball program had been hampered by poor facilities, bad recruiting and the resurgence of the Bruins, who reached the Final Four last season under Ben Howland.
"They'll always be a powerhouse, with their tradition and history and the quality of their coaching," Floyd said UCLA. "But there's room for two strong teams at the national level. It's not unlike Duke and North Carolina just 10 miles apart."
Despite the tragic shooting death of starting point guard Ryan Francis in the offseason, the Trojans had a good nucleus of experienced players returning this season, with junior guards Gabe Pruitt (eligible for the second semester after remedying academic issues) and Nick Young joining Stewart. But those players had tasted little success under the previous regime.
"It's like night and day," Pruitt said. "I've been here for four years and it's been a long road."
Floyd said he spent 71 of his first 77 days on the USC job traveling across the country. He recruited Taj Gibson, a nationally ranked power forward from Brooklyn, N.Y. Floyd used his New Orleans roots to land guard Dwight Lewis, a Louisiana native who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and played his senior season at James Taylor High School in Katy, Texas. Guard Daniel Hackett, the son of USC strength and conditioning coach Rudy Hackett, graduated one year early from St. John Bosco High in Downey, Calif., and enrolled at USC last fall.
Before this season, USC opened the $130 million Galen Center, a new on-campus arena for its men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams. The new facility helped Floyd sign one of the country's best recruiting classes this year. Guard O.J. Mayo, widely regarded to be among the top five players in the country, chose the Trojans over defending national champion Florida and Kansas State. Small forwards Marcus Simmons and Leonard Washington -- two more Louisiana natives -- will join Mayo at USC next season.
Floyd already is assembling more talent for down the road. Brandon Jennings, a native of Compton, Calif., who plays at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, has made a verbal commitment to join the Trojans in 2008. He is ranked the No. 1 point guard in the country among high school juniors. Shooting guard Malik Story of Artesia High in Cerritos, Calif., had pledged to join Jennings at USC in two years. Dwayne Polee Jr., son of former NBA player Dwayne Polee, committed to play at USC -- as a 14-year-old high school freshman. Polee chose the Trojans before he ever played a high school game.
"I can just leave practice and drive across town and see some of the best players in the country every night," Floyd said. "That's why this tournament is so important for us. We've got to show we're continuing to make steps."
After a whirlwind career, Floyd promises he has made his last step.
"I know this will be my last job," Floyd said. "I will not work anywhere else. This is it."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.