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USC wondering what happened to its traditional powerhouse

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LOS ANGELES -- On the field, Beno Bryant, the Washington tailback from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, was running wild, piling up yardage and touchdowns and showing USC why the Trojans should not have overlooked him as a recruit.

On the USC sideline, Mazio Royster, the Trojans tailback who rushed for 1,168 yards last year, was stewing, relegated to the bench in the middle of his junior season.

A study in contrast three Saturdays ago at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Bryant and Royster illustrated the state of USC football in 1991.

Haunted by their recruiting mistakes, faced with patches of player unrest, the Trojans entered yesterday's game with UCLA at 3-7, assured of only their second losing season in 30 years.

For a program only two years removed from its third consecutive Rose Bowl appearance under coach Larry Smith, it has been a hard fall.

In Berkeley, as California was beating the Trojans, 52-30, Cal students derided the USC band. In Tucson, as the Trojans were being beaten, 31-14, Arizona fans directed chants of "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" at Smith, who coached the Wildcats for seven seasons before coming to USC in 1987.

How has it come to this?

At his weekly news conference Tuesday, Smith spoke of his team's youth, of injuries and of the thin line between winning and losing.

Holding his thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart, Smith said: "As I stand here today, there's that much difference between being 3-7 and 7-3. If I could take six plays in our season and change them -- a call by a coach or an official -- we'd be sitting here 7-3. . . . That's how finite things are."

Other factors may be at work as well.

With the NCAA making scholarships more precious and the NFL making it easier for underclassmen to enter the draft, prominence in college football is no longer guaranteed, even at USC.

Calling USC boosters "spoiled," Cal athletic director Bob Bockrath said: "They need to refocus on issues and understand that they aren't going to reign supreme year after year. Georgia Tech, Virginia, us -- there are going to be more schools like that. It is not going to be a situation where Notre Dame, USC, Alabama, Michigan and some others will be the top four or five teams every year. Those days are gone."

Yet it is clear, too, that the Trojans have problems of their own making.

Said Oliver Lucas, a former Colorado assistant coach who recruited against USC in Southern California: "In the process of winning, you start living on the mystique. You get sloppy. You're not as aggressive as you once were. USC has to get back to the basics. They've got to say [to recruits], 'Hey, we're USC. We care about you. And you're going to stay home.' "

The Trojans took a major hit in 1990, when linebacker Junior Seau and safety Mark Carrier entered the NFL draft after their junior seasons. USC was stung again last spring when quarterback Todd Marinovich, who was indefinitely suspended from the team, entered the draft after his sophomore season.

"Seau, Carrier and Marinovich, those are three absolutely top talents," Bockrath said. "Take them off your team, you can make yourself vulnerable in a hurry. People at SC need to take that fact into consideration and perhaps moderate their perspective accordingly."

NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions, instituted to help schools cut costs, also have had a leveling effect on college football.

Three years ago, the number of football scholarships a school could give out per year was cut from 30 to 25. The total number of players a school can have on scholarship is due to be reduced gradually from 95 to 85 over the next three years.

"There is so much parity" in college football, Baylor coach Grant Teaff said. "On any Saturday, if you're not ready physically, you ,, can lose a game. I'm talking about any of the upper 30, 35 teams. Good coaches, good people, can easily get into a situation where they have a down season."

In some cases, Tailback U. has simply been unable to sign high-profile running backs such as Russell White of Encino (Calif.) Crespi High, now at Cal, and Napoleon Kaufman of Lompoc, Calif., now at Washington.

USC also was spurned by Robert Strait of Cuero, Texas, considered by many to be the country's top running back recruit in 1989, and Robert Smith, a two-time state "Mr. Football" in Euclid, Ohio. Strait signed with Baylor. Smith chose Ohio State, but has expressed an interest in transferring to USC.

An obvious drawback for USC in recruiting is the school's stance regarding the NCAA's Proposition 48, which bases freshman eligibility on standardized test scores and high school grade-point average.

Under NCAA rules, an athlete who is ineligible under Prop 48 can still be admitted to a university, although he cannot practice or receive athletic scholarship aid as a freshman. USC policy, however, denies admission to such an athlete.

Because USC has a policy that is more restrictive than the NCAA's, Trojan coaches, unlike their counterparts at the other schools, cannot guarantee a recruit who hasn't met Prop 48 requirements on the signing date that he will have a place at USC.

At the same time, USC's best recruiting tools -- its tradition and the bright lights and exposure offered by Los Angeles -- have been blunted by negatives associated with its location between downtown and South-Central L.A.

"The times are changing for Los Angeles schools," said Allen Wallace, publisher of Super Prep, a Costa Mesa, Calif.-based football recruiting publication. "Tommy Prothro, John Robinson, John McKay -- I don't think those guys had to worry about gang violence."

Mark Vander Poel, an offensive tackle from Chino, Calif., who attended Colorado and is now in his rookie season with the Indianapolis Colts, remembers giving the Trojans serious consideration as a recruit -- until his luggage was stolen during his official visit to the USC campus.

In Lucas' view, USC coaches have not worked hard enough in building relationships with Southern California high school coaches.

"You've got high school coaches now who don't necessarily have the allegiance to SC anymore," he said. USC coaches "haven't cultivated it. It's 'We're SC. We're coming in. And it doesn't matter if you are going to help us or not.' You've got to recruit the coaches as well as the players."

Smith's most dramatic confrontation with a player at USC occurred last year when he feuded with Marinovich.

Said Alfred Jenkins, the former Lynwood (Calif.) High star who had a tumultuous career as a quarterback for Smith at Arizona: "When I saw what happened with Todd, I thought, 'Here it is again, a quarterback controversy.' "

This season, Smith and Royster, the junior tailback, have been at odds since late September, when Royster publicly stated that he wanted to carry the ball more.

After Royster's comments appeared in print, Smith told reporters at a news conference: "Maybe he ought to move to the press box and call the plays."

Once billed as an All-American candidate, Royster is now the Trojans' third-string tailback. He has not played a down since the Cal game Nov. 2, when he carried the ball four times.

Royster said he was shocked when Smith criticized him for speaking out.

Said Royster: "I was reading all kinds of stuff [from Smith] after that. 'You need to get a long run. You need to get more than five yards a carry.' I was just offended. We haven't really talked about it since then. I still feel I should be getting a couple of plays."

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