- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- At 3 a.m. Wednesday, the trill of the cell phone awoke Ole Miss football coach Ed Orgeron in Oxford.
"What the heck are you doing sleeping?" USC coach Pete Carroll asked, delighted that he had one-upped his former top assistant. "It's signing day!"
Granted, it was merely 1 a.m. in Heritage Hall. But it's safe to assume that, four hours before national letters of intent could be accepted from recruits, most coaches would have been asleep. While it may be a stretch to draw a connection between Carroll's phone call and the Trojans' 33 victories in their last 34 games, it's not much of one.
Sure enough, at 5:02 a.m., when the fax machine in the USC football office rolled out a signed national letter of intent from Patrick Turner, the Nashville wide receiver ranked as the No. 5 recruit in the nation, two Trojans coaches were there to see it: recruiting coordinator Lane Kiffin, and Carroll.
"I used to be continually challenged by Eddie Orgeron," Carroll said. "Who's going to make the most calls? We pushed each other to challenge our efforts in recruiting."
Carroll lives to compete, and recruiting is one of the few ways to keep score between Jan. 4, when USC beat Oklahoma, 55-19, in the FedEx Orange Bowl, and Sept. 3, when the Trojans begin their quest for a third consecutive national championship at Hawaii.
The Trojans signed a class heavy on defense, which makes sense with the loss of defensive tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, as well as linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu, and heavy on All-Americans from distant states -- Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Tennessee.
For sheer numbers, the Trojans didn't sign as many recruits as the other top schools -- which may have been the reason why USC didn't have the No. 1 class -- but they got value landing four of the top 16 players in the country, six of the top 36 and seven of the top 100.
Every coach at every school in Division I-A announced Wednesday that his university signed a great class. In light of a third consecutive top-five recruiting class at USC, what's unusual is that the praise for the Trojans also comes from the coaches they're beating.
"They are in a different stratosphere than everybody else right now," Oregon State coach Mike Riley said.
"They can pretty much pick and choose in Los Angeles and southern California, and everybody else is recruiting [after] that," Washington defensive coordinator Kent Baer said.
In the course of four years, Carroll has turned West Coast football upside down. Two weeks after he was hired on Dec. 15, 2000, he stood on the sideline and watched the Washington Huskies work out for the Rose Bowl on his practice field.
UCLA had won consecutive Pac-10 championships as recently as 1997-98. USC had won one league title in the previous 11 years.
Recruiting in southern California belonged to the Huskies, and the Bruins, and Florida State and Miami and Tennessee and to any other coach who bought a plane ticket to LAX.
"When we got here, D.J. Williams went to Miami," Kiffin said. "Kellen Winslow (Jr.), another California kid (who went to Miami). It was just happening too much. We were losing guys to Washington and Oregon. Now, if we take those guys, they're on our team and not on their team. It's like double."
This week, when the prime real estate at the LAX gift shops is laden with USC national championship T-shirts and hats, Washington is coming off a 1-10 season, UCLA is defining mediocrity, and the Trojans' toughest recruiting battles on the West Coast are with California.
The schools battled for Long Beach Poly High wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the MVP of the Army All-American Bowl, until Wednesday night, when Jackson chose to become a Cal Bear.
Meanwhile, the national powers don't come around much anymore. This year, Nebraska signed a running back the Trojans wanted, Marlon Lucky of North Hollywood High. But Florida State, Tennessee and Miami have signed a total of one top 100 player from California in the past three years.
"Reggie (Bush) and LenDale (White) have scared off running backs for the last two years," Carroll said. "Next year's group, get ready."
Read between the words of that comment, and you'll find the essence of the USC approach to recruiting. Carroll wants players who relish the chance to earn playing time. He wants players who will -- here's that word again -- compete.
Carroll believes that is the answer to the essential paradox in recruiting. The better a team does, the easier it is to recruit against them. Opposing coaches take out the depth chart and say, "You can go there and sit, or you can come here and play."
The minute a recruit asks about the other recruits at his position, or where he might fit in on the depth chart, he all but seals his fate with Carroll.
"They weed themselves out," said Kiffin, the son of Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, "and you get a bunch of good competitors. They're willing to say, 'I don't care who's going there. I'm going to play.'"
That theory is convenient for explaining away kids who choose against USC, such as Lucky and running back Jason Gwaltney of North Babylon, N.Y., who signed with West Virginia. But the Trojans haven't had to explain away much, especially within a 30-mile radius of the USC campus.
The first task Carroll undertook to re-establish USC's local primacy was to heed the advice of that famed recruiting expert, filmmaker Woody Allen, who said, "Seventy percent of success in life is showing up." College coaches begin their evaluations in earnest in May.
"He'll come down and see a practice or a game," Raul Lara, coach at Long Beach Poly, said of Carroll. "You don't see that from other head coaches. For example, I've only seen the head coach from UCLA (Karl Dorrell) once so far. Oklahoma? LSU? I haven't seen their head coaches. His (Carroll's) whole staff, including Pete, was at my practice last spring. If you're a player, and the head coach of the No. 1 team is there watching you at practice or at a game, that's pretty impressive."
Riley, who describes himself as a "grinder," must use sweat equity to challenge in the Pacific-10 Conference. That's the price of success in Corvallis.
"The guy I see the most is Pete Carroll," Riley said. "I've run into Pete in Vegas. There are a lot of players in southern California. If you go from one end to the other, over the course of May recruiting, I must have run into Pete six or seven times. I give him a lot of credit. I admire that in him. He's grinding it and he's at USC."
Carroll likes to recruit in May precisely because other head coaches don't.
"It's just competing," he said. "The better we do, the more I want to be out there. You might think the reverse. I love the nature of being a competitor. Create more separation if you can."
Granted, top-100 lists as a measure of recruiting acumen can make a weatherman look infallible. But the lists dating to 2000, the last year of former Trojan coach Paul Hackett, illustrate USC's rise in unmistakable terms.
In 2000, 15 Californians made the ESPN.com top-100 list. Four signed with USC. In 2002, the first class that Carroll had 12 months to recruit, the Trojans signed only three of 13 Californians in the top 100, and all three came from Long Beach Poly.
The Trojans have signed 15 in the last three seasons, including this year's top player, quarterback Mark Sanchez of Mission Viejo.
Once Carroll built the mythical fence around southern California, he began to recruit nationally. In 2002 and 2003, USC signed a total of three top-100 players outside the state border. In the last two years, the Trojans have signed eight.
"Out of state, we set our expectations very, very high for the caliber of play," Carroll said. "We want to find guys that will be No. 1 draft picks, and kids that will be able to handle it academically and socially."
That would explain why the out-of-state roster includes familiar names: White (Colo.), freshman wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett (N.J.) and former Trojan All-American wideout Mike Williams (Florida).
"The national ones that they are on, they have a great chance of getting," said Baer, who has spent the last several years recruiting nationally at Stanford and at Notre Dame. "I'm not sure they spin their wheels very long on a guy they like. They evaluate in a hurry what their chances are."
It is a lot easier in the explanation than it is in the doing. But it's clear that the Trojans haven't missed on very many players.
"A lot of kids would like to go to SC," Carroll said. "If we take the guys who want to come, you may not find the best players. We had all kinds of All-Americans when we got here. They weren't necessarily the best kids."
Bruce Rollinson, the longtime coach of Santa Ana Mater Dei High, the alma mater of USC quarterback Matt Leinart, recalled Carroll's recruitment of lineman Brandon Nicolas, who signed with Notre Dame a year ago.
"SC made the decision they weren't going to go with him," Rollinson said. "They had tremendous respect for the kid. Pete Carroll sat right across from me and said, 'I don't know if I'm right or I'm wrong. I'm going after the best of the best. We think there are other kids who are better.' I admire Pete Carroll for saying, 'We're USC and this is what we're going to do.'"
On Monday, with I-A coaches in a "dead period" -- they may not contact recruits -- Carroll and his staff began evaluating video of the top 50 juniors in California. The class of 2006 awaits.
"You mix hard work, good evaluation, good recruiting and a national championship team," Riley said, "and they go out and do it."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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