I’ve been writing this post in one form or another since the night of October 31, 2009. It’s started out a couple of different ways. One was a fanciful opening passage to the apocryphal but amusingly un-authorized biography of Pete Carroll I’ve been writing in my head since the end of the 2003 Orange Bowl. Another was a long and very unnecessary series of musings on the nature of a charmed life. It referenced thermodynamics, faeries and cold iron, seraphim, standing in front of operating microwaves, Charles Vess, glamors, and the play-within-the-play in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. I suck, though. Those openings didn’t work. They were a bit pretentious, a bit too filigreed. Maybe they’re middle bits, but they are definitely not “Call me Ishmael.” So as always, there is Vonnegut…
“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.”
This is how I feel every day when I check ESPN.com or WeAreSC.com. If that’s overly dramatic that’s OK, but it’s true. I feel a bit like the Nick Hornby that Nick Hornby writes about in Fever Pitch: has my fandom reached the point where NCAA sanctions, coaching abandonment and former star betrayal all make me feel like a character from the Old Testament? Is that even possible? If it is possible, is it at least to some extent a function of my very public martyrdom, which has everything to do with the fact that whenever people who know me hear about USC football they think, if only for a second, “Jon”? Is this how I feel, or is this how a fan of my fanaticism expects to feel? It’s a recursive argument. It wouldn’t exist unless I questioned my own feelings of despair, bitterness, paranoia and unmitigated lust for a 13-0 season and an AP championship to shut everyone the hell up, but since I do question those emotions whatever genuine angst and hope I feel is now tinged with a surreal third-person over the shoulder perspective of self-doubt: have these past eight months been that bad, and if so is this the logical and, dare I say it, satisfying conclusion to my fandom? Is this where I’m supposed to be, mentally, after joining my fate with USC football for all to see?
These are unsettling questions because they all reek of the foulest miasma a fan can know: the stench of the bandwagon. I can’t imagine a bigger insult to someone who considers himself a fanatic. Am I pretending to be hurt, or am I actually, really, honest-to-god hurt by Reggie Bush’s betrayal? I’m not sure. It could be a mixture. I can’t say I think about it every day outside of a cursory “Wonder how the appeals process will work out?” But I do remember trying not to cry when he accepted his Heisman, talking all the while about Lamar Griffin’s role in helping him succeed in life. Like any kind of pain that’s been with you long enough, I’ve become dependent on that pain. I wish it’s raison d’etre never existed, but it’s there and the fact that it does sometimes really hurt me means something in all of this is genuine, something is real, like holding your hand over a flame long enough to realize you’re alive.
Holy fuck this is getting melodramatic. Luckily my Facebook picture is Andrew Luck rumbling through our secondary into the endzone. There’s no need for navel gazing when Jim Harbaugh is busy rubbing salt into the guts he personally cut out and stomped into the ground, going for two and then getting seven and then ruining my whole freaking life by jettisoning that thin but definite veneer of invincibility a group of fans might manage to cobble together once every couple of decades, and suddenly I’m back at the Rose Bowl in 2006 watching my dreams fade away twice in one year, everything’s fading away beyond my control and why am I at the mercy of these huge implacable easily corrupted forces that shit on my universe so bad?
This is about the time I start to realize that even if I am just going through the steps, they’re at least the inky black hooved kind only the damned would ever follow.
“Peter Nietzsche McMurphy Carroll was born under the auspices of the Hanged King, a mostly ill omen considered a sign of duress and privation unless – according to the vague but pervasive ontology slowly building through the budding 1950s counterculture – blessed by the light of a harvest moon. Well, it was a harvest moon that night. The young Marin County resident went so far as to sever his own umbilical cord using a confluence of right hand and left elbow, a move soon to be known as the double corner blitz. One day old and he was already capable of inhabiting the minds of opposing quarterbacks deep into otherwise soothing April nights when thoughts ought to be given over to other, more civilized things. But that was Carroll for you. He stuck around.”
This was the opening paragraph of the Pete Carroll bio I never wrote. It was good. In my mind, anyway. Plus it was always getting better, even when it ought to get worse (as in more negative) because that was Carroll for you. He stuck around. He deserved an opening like that, really. If I could’ve given him a leopard to ride into the frisculating sunlight, I would’ve.
Instead, my hero rode off into the sunset with a middle finger upturned and his pockets full of cash and almost the entirety of USC’s football staff. In rode Lane Kiffin, a man I despised at USC, mocked at Oakland and pitied in Knoxville. How could I not? This was a guy so universally lacking in social graces he offended Norm Chow, who is as silent and mysterious as an Asian lawn gnome, a statue possessed of a preternatural understanding of the play action pass and literally nothing else and definitely not something as silly as etiquette, so it’s even more impressive to contemplate things like little backhanded compliments and daily terseness mounting to the point of no return for football’s version of that rotund Buddha statue right next to the creepy ceramic cat in every sushi bar known to man. Oh how unenviable the task of an Andrew or Lyndon Johnson, or poor, decent Harry Truman. Say what you want about inheriting the presidency following an assassination: at least they didn’t have to deal with a bubble gum chewing ex- running around Qwest Field lofting fades when all they wanted to do was settle in and figure out how the red phone works, except I might have mixed my metaphors there. Either way, you’ll always be known as The Guy Who Came After.
Now there’s this: two years without a bowl. 30 scholarships. Shame and scarlet letters. This isn’t SMU bad, but we all knew it wouldn’t be. Reggie Bush would’ve had to skullfuck the Statue of Liberty with twin antique shotguns – blunderbusses, even – purchased for him by Eric Dickerson and Craig James, emptying the barrels to a sedate 4/4 gangsta rap penned in contracted collaboration with Snoop Dogg, Drew Rosenhaus, Maurice Clarett and Brian Bosworth circa 1986, and somewhere in the torch Noam Chomsky is taking Bush’s Sociology test and totally inviting the wrath of the NCAA and its attendant death penalty by being an enabling douche and not even bothering to fake the B+ because Pete Carroll’s there, egging him on with whoops and high fives and exhortations about perfection being the journey and not the destination, so ace the multi-choice already, Noam. That could’ve gotten USC the death penalty, but that wasn’t what happened so no death penalty. That was a given. But this?
“Ouch” is the word you’re looking for. The sweat’s already pouring down the middle of my back, caking on my shirt in spreading fractals of dried salt and discolored cotton. We all know these sanctions are bad, and even the appealed version is bad, but are they devestating? Is the monster Pete Carroll built and nurtured for nine years doomed? We won’t know for years, maybe a decade. But once it happens it’ll be like the turning of the tide: everything flows differently from there, good or bad.
An interlude from June 9, 2010:
“Not that I’m not gonna go to the games this year. There is way too much cardinal and gold nutritious stuff coursing through my veins, carrying salt and oxygen and electrolytes and whatever it is fans crave, to ever turn my back on the program now. But how much of of that real loyalty is the result of the past nine years? How much of it is tied up with the highs from 2003 to 2005? How much of it is based on the crest of those years and its attendant belief that all this was deserved for the years of mediocrity suffered through, that any fan worth his salt weathers the storm, sticks by his team and collects the schedule poster no matter what?
To put it another way, would I be feeling the same thing now had those nine years been full of 9-4 and 8-5 seasons? Would my zeal be the same? The only reason I ever ventured online for anything regarding college football was to rejoice with others after USC dominated Michgan in the 2004 Rose Bowl. From thence: recruiting, blogs, message boards, expansion past the sports section of the LA Times into the nether realms of the OC Register, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the lowly Daily News and the even lower likes of the Sporting News and Athlon and then, finally, like Moses coming down from Sinai all sallow and hollow eyed from the sheer glory of what he had seen, Phil Steele. There is no doubt in my mind my fanaticism has only increased from 2001, my first year at UC Santa Barbara in which I only managed two home games, to a period in which I roamed the bars and hostels of Europe looking for anyone with reliable broadband willing to deal with ESPN 360’s ridiculousness, to a 17,000 mile, 30 state, 26 game roadtrip in 2007 to the present day, which is taking place on a train to Davis and its maddeningly intermittent access to wi-fi during the very 24-hour period when these damned sanctions are finally rolling through my life like a fat lady plowing through her low-cal lunch in the breakroom. That I am even now frantically searching for unsecured networks with which to scour the forums and boards of USC sites says something: I need to be armed with knowledge for the firestorm awaiting my phone, my email and my life when everyone who ever took any kind of college football related shit from me finds out USC’s getting snow plowed like a Reno hooker. This decade has upped the ante. I ate from the apple, and now my lot is midnight texts proclaiming, Dostoevesky-like, “Haha u r so fucked. Nd is gonna stomp on usc. Pete caroll was right to get the f outta dodge,” which is certainly one way to tell me there ain’t no Garden no more.
Then again it’s pretty much my fault for leaving my phone on in times like this.”
Sometimes when I’m thinking about what’s gone before and the vast unknowable future heading for me, I think of the sea. I think of the almost unimaginable weight of that heaving, chaotic depth. It is a machine of chaos. If you’re around boats long enough you start to realize the sea laughs at hulls, it’s delighted by the sultry illusions we have about control and security. At any moment the sea can rise up and blast it all into nothingness like Jehovah directing the flood. But walk out onto a beach on a sunny perfect day and all you smell is the tang, all you feel is the beautiful living salt water. The endless horizon is comforting. It doesn’t suggest entropy, or chaos. You’ve gotta look down to find that.
This is a sea change, no matter what USC fans might try to say. For seven years Pete Carroll fought the very waters of creation and succeeded despite terrible overwrought metaphors and the 85 scholarship limit. There’s no way Lane Kiffin just forges on and continues what happened from 2002-2008. There’s no way in the same vein there was no way a washed up ex-NFL coach could bring Southern Cal glory once more, except now it’s actually true. I’ll tell you what’s gonna happen: good, sometimes great seasons, peppered with occasional mediocrity. It’s the dim, terrifying shape beneath the waters, coursing through the oceans on kraken limbs: normality. Time to come down back to earth. Bless Lane and his family and his father and everyone who’s come to USC to declare their own destinies, because I have to admire such tenacity in the face of such obvious inexorablility.
If Lane Kiffin is a sailing man he’d understand: you can’t fight the sea.
I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a charmed life. Insofar as my universe spanning powers of perception allow me to peek past the veil, it seems to me the ledger is usually balanced. This might have to do with thermodynamics, or it might have to do with man’s eternal fear of audits. Eventually, inevitably, deposits must equal debits. I try not to think of it as a zero sum game because that would be depressing. A physical manifestation of QuickBooks would also be depressing but for entirely different reasons.
I do believe in the existence of charms, though, and in that sense perhaps the past nine years have been charmed. I’m thinking primarily of the charms of faeries, elves, twilight folk who are scared of cold iron and crossroads and sprigs of mistletoe, anyone who dwells under hills… that kind of nonsense. I grew up accommodating large and grossly opposing sets of beliefs. I am, for example, a firm agnostic, but I think somewhere deep inside me I very much would like to believe that the ranks of seraphim, cherubim, principalities and the like really do exist. I have no idea how gravity works but I respect it. I love Greek myth, and perhaps more importantly I kinda sorta believe Greek myth, but not really. I long ago came to the conclusion that my mom was full of it for telling me not to stand in front of an operating microwave, and though it’s much more likely that I’ll die from cell phone-caused radiation afflictions than anything the microwave will produce I still watch from a distance, just in case.
I admire the painstaking and sometimes touching effort generations of man have put forth in cataloging the gaps in our understanding of the universe, and it would be a shame if things like the midrashes and Ouija boards and the Elysian mysteries were all for naught simply because they weren’t scientific. Rigor is – wait for it, stadiums full of stupid people – O-ver-RA-ted. So in that sense I believe in things like charms, and their cousin the glamor.
All fey creatures possess the ability to put forth a glamor. Some use it to take on a nightmare shape. Some use it to become beautiful. All use it to deceive and charm mortals. It’s rarely wise to agree to anything under such a spell; any boon granted under these auspices usually has a catch that leaves the affable but naive shepherd with the head of an ass and two mice where there were once drafthorses, and all those gold coins he thought he had taken from a sleeping maiden in a secluded dell are now all of them acorns, leaves and whispers. There’s also probably a Charles Vess lithograph of the event, somewhere. Dealing with such creatures is useless unless you know their true names. Man was not meant to bargain with those whose hearts and veins are matters of speculation.
What I think I’m trying to say is this: Pete Carroll probably forgot that his blood tastes like iron and salt, and that tasting it at all is a very potent signal to the rest of your physiology, particularly the nervous system and attached ganglia, that something is very, very wrong. I think I can safely say Carroll is filled with red blood cells pumped from aorta to his farthest capillaries. Only a human being filled with that precious, fragile liquid is capable of looking so numb, hurt… defeated. He certainly looked that way to me in Eugene, against Stanford. Pissed off too but, like me, still very much in shock. Coming down is a hard thing to do, after all. Especially after nine years of charms and glamors and fooling what we both thought of as mere mortals – the rest of college football – into believing our rhymes and tricks, our deceits and our lies: that we were something other, creatures apart from this earth and its shackles, that we were bound by different rules.
The proper thing to say at this juncture is, probably, “Well, fuck.”
I’m not saying Pete Carroll styled himself as an Oberon or Mercury or Odysseus. Saying so would suggest Carroll is capable of the kind of megalomania so often ascribed to him by UCLA fans. I think there was only one coach in college football capable of that, and, sadly, the very nice Brian Kelly replaced him.
Carroll is confident. And very competitive. He was both these things to such an astonishing degree that he managed to do what everyone has been proclaiming would be impossible since the advent of the scholarship cap, the demise of the option, the passing of Nebraska, Miami and Florida State, the triumph of the mid-majors, etc.: he built a program everyone believed would keep winning no matter what. That it didn’t win every game wasn’t the point. The point was that, eventually, USC was gonna get you unless it was a Thursday, or a Pac-10 road opener, or John David Booty’s thumb was broken, or your name was Vince Young. The exceptions were exceptional. The norm was getting your brains kicked in for three and a half hours on national television.
I think that might be gone, now.
Don’t get me wrong: people’s heads are gonna get kicked in still. This is a roster full of prep All-Americans. There will still be collegiate All-Americans on this roster at the end of the season. Allen Bradford is still very much more a man than anyone you know, thank you.
The illusion is gone, now. And illusion it was: this team was never unbeatable in the nine seasons Carroll was coach. Teams got beat to a pulp by talent and coaching, but they also believed it was a’comin’. Shit. Arkansas went on to win the SEC West in 2006 but after giving up 70 points (28 of which happened in two minutes) to USC in 2005 you could see the writing on the wall: another epic loss to the Trojans and, oh yeah, by the way, we’ll take your two best hopes for the future. Not all of USC’s relationships have been that one-sided, but it was certainly a warning to others: if you’re not careful a mere loss could turn into utter devastation. At some point I expected teams to start tithing…. Here’s some bullion, Pete. Please take this silk. We have salt from the coasts of Spain. It’d be nice if you didn’t raze our villages.
This was pretty sweet. It was kinda like being in the Mafia. Even though people hated your guts for rooting for the evil empire, they still paid lip service: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hate your team and even though we’re probably gonna lose I hope to hell something goes wrong today.” Don’t take this the wrong way? Sweeter words have never before been spoken. I reveled in that fear. Even more intoxicating was the dull resignation; couple that with the utter certainty that no matter what kind of grave USC dug for itself, those lying, cheating, miserly Trojans would dig their way out one 4th-and-9 audible at a time, and you have a recipe for the most beautiful schadenfreude-based foodstuff since schmaltz.
So I don’t know what will happen. College football has changed, and not just because Nebraska, Colorado and Utah are in difference conferences. Something is in the air this season, something dangerous and palpable. But I can’t figure it. Only the elected can smell what it is, only the privileged are allowed a glimpse into the murky depths of the future. I’m just a poor pillar of salt looking back on what went before, knowing I ought not to but helpless to do anything else. It’s all still there: the people, the victories, the betrayals, the loss. Unlike Abraham, Lot’s nameless wife was incapable of that exuberant, terrible faith necessary for paradise. She looked back, and so did I, and what we saw made us both wonder whether the price of such devotions was worth it.
Not that either of us have a choice, really.