Thursday, February 10, 2005

More on Chow & Carroll

Arash Markazi, a former classmate of ours at USC who currently writes for Sports Illustrated On Campus and SI.com has weighed in on the Norm Chow/Pete Carroll Breakup Saga. Markazi has been around the program as a sports writer for the Daily Trojan (the school newspaper) since Carroll's first season and we put more stock in his analysis than most of what's been written up to this point. Markazi seems to confirm that there really was a rift between the head coach and his offensive coordinator, one that developed after Chow told Tim Layden how much he loved working for Carroll.
Chow never wanted to leave the college game. If he had it his way he would be a head coach at a major university. His ideal job would have been to take over the struggling Stanford program, but it was offered to former Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris instead.

But something happened from the time Chow was turned down for the Stanford job to the time he accepted the Titans position this week. The beginning of this saga probably can be traced to Dec. 15, when USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was named head coach at Ole Miss. Following his hiring, Orgeron offered the offensive coordinator job to Trojans receivers coach Lane Kiffin. The 29-year-old passed. Was it a simple case of wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time or was their something more?

It had been rumored for weeks Carroll was considering shaking up his staff. After winning back-to-back national championships, it made as much sense as taking a smooth-running Porsche into a Jiffy Lube. The person who would benefit the most from the shakeup was Kiffin. Under the wide range of scenarios Carroll had drawn up for his staff, the one constant was that Carroll and Kiffin, the son of Carroll's mentor and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, would assume greater roles with the offense[...]

Chow will not say publicly he was forced out, but those close to the situation say Carroll basically opened the door for his offensive coordinator's departure. One of the reasons Chow wanted to leave was the uncertainty he had regarding his role on the team. He was told there was a chance that he would be named assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach, which sounds like a promotion and an expansion of his responsibilities but, in reality, was a demotion. Carroll never gave Chow the commitment he felt he deserved from his head coach.

While Carroll will receive heat from fans and media members who believe he pushed out Chow, it's not clear if the tension was caused from a clash of egos. Or perhaps it simply was a situation in which Carroll felt the need to expedite Chow's imminent departure in favor of having two of college football's top young offensive assistants in Kiffin and Sarkisian[...]

Some people in the USC athletic department believe Carroll might be relieved to see Chow leave because Carroll had grown weary of the rumors surrounding Chow's imminent departure or because Carroll was tired of hearing that Chow was the reason for the Trojans' success on offense. That kind of talk went against Carroll's program-first ideology. It was also not true in Carroll's mind since Chow didn't have the carte blanche on offense that people thought.

Not only did Carroll assume a greater offensive role following the 2001 season, he promoted Kiffin to "passing-game coordinator" last season. It was a title that Chow, the most proficient passing guru in college football, didn't love and at times resented as was apparent during one practice before the Orange Bowl when the two were involved in a shouting match.
After following this story for the last few weeks (news of a Chow/Carroll rift surfaced just prior to the 2005 Orange Bowl), we tend to think that Markazi's got it right. It's been clear ever since Norm Chow arrived at USC that his goal was to become a college head coach, and Carroll said he understood that when he hired Chow.

We suspect that Carroll believed Chow was going to get the Stanford job (after all, Chow certainly did) and had begun preparations for dealing with his loss. As Markazi notes, Lane Kiffin had already taken on more responsibilities in the USC offense, no doubt to learn from Chow and smooth the transistion when Chow left. (More on Kiffin from the Orange County Register's Steve Bischeff, a Daily Trojan alum himself) When Chow didn't get the Stanford job, the pieces were already in place to succeed him, and he became expendable.

Whether Chow's departure was exacerbated by a personality conflict will likely remain unanswered, but it's not clear that another successful year at USC would have helped him achieve his goal of becoming a head coach. What more could he do with the Trojans that he hadn't already done? His last two quarterbacks won the Heisman Trophy and his last two teams won the national championship. Would another Heisman for Leinart or another national title sway athletic directors who weren't otherwise convinced of his worthiness?

As for Carroll, the perception will be that he ran off his resident offensive genius. And maybe he did. But after four seasons, three Pac 10 titles and two national championships, he's earned the benefit of the doubt, at least in our minds. Perhaps he realized that Chow wasn't going to get a head coaching job without NFL experience but didn't think the offensive coordinator would leave of his own volition. Or he thought that the constant speculation surrounding Chow's next job was having a detrimental effect on the Trojans (though that didn't seem to be the case as far as recruiting was concerned), and that with next year's team being so talented and experienced, he could afford to break in a new offensive coordinator. Or, as some allege, he really was jealous of the credit Chow was receiving for USC's success, though we find that a little hard to believe. Five years ago, Carroll was on the ash heap of coaches (along with luminaries like Rich Kotite and Wayne Fontes); today, he's stands alongside his successor in New England, Bill Belichick, as the most successful coach of the 21st century. That he's lived life at the bottom of the mountain makes him much more likely to appreciate things at the top.

Can he stay there without Norm Chow? We're about to find out.

UPDATE: LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who first broke the story of the rift between Carroll and Chow, writes about a very interested third party: Matt Leinart, who stayed for his fifth year in large part to continue to learn from Chow. It doesn't sound like Leinart is too happy about Chow's departure.
"This was about Matt and Norm," said his father, Bob. "They were doing this together. One last year together."

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