Garrett Was Complicated
Before he rides sadly off into the collegiate sunset, Mike Garrett and his era at USC deserve a little perspective.
Considering I wrote the very first newspaper piece about him for the Daily Trojan when he was a squat, surprisingly effective halfback from Roosevelt High on the freshman team, and I’ve covered him, one way or another ever since, I think I’m qualified.
Turns out, the Garrett story is almost as complicated as the man.
Excuse the amateur psychology here, but all along, you had the feeling Garrett was always trying to prove he belonged. Whether it was his ferocious competitiveness on the football field or his less than subtle approach as an athletic director, it was as if he always felt he had to prove he was good enough.
Some of it had to do with the way he grew up, with five siblings in a four bedroom, $36-a-month housing project in East Los Angeles. His father left when Mike was one. He was raised by a stepfather and a doting mother. He was hardly your typical affluent USC student.
Another part of it was his size. People forget he was slightly under 5-foot-9 and weighed 178 pounds when he took over as a Trojans tailback and changed the image of the position forever. He set the tone for all the others who followed.
I know O.J. Simpson was faster and stronger. Reggie Bush — you remember him, right? — had more electricity about him. Charlie White was as tough as they come. And Marcus Allen might have been the best pure football player of the bunch.
But none of them did as many things as well as the school’s first Heisman Trophy winner. He was more durable than Reggie, more of a breakaway threat that Charlie, a better pass catcher than O.J. and a superior blocker to almost all of them. All that, and he consistently busted long TD runs on punt returns.
This is how good he was: At one point the late John McKay said: “Mike is not only the greatest player I have coached, but the greatest college player I have ever seen.”
Not surprisingly, the NFL wasn’t convinced. He went to Kansas City, helped the Chiefs win the Super Bowl and made the Pro Bowl. But because of his size, he never became a true featured back.
He and I met up again in San Diego. He’d been traded to the Chargers, and I was the beat guy for the evening paper there, the Tribune. One day, in a casual conversation about something else, Coach Tommy Prothro suddenly blurted out that Garrett was about to retire.
I tried contacting the veteran running back but couldn’t, but I still had to go with the story, based on Prothro’s quotes. At home later, Garrett called, his pride obviously wounded, and started screaming at me for writing the story. Apparently, Prothro hadn’t notified him he was releasing the news. I politely tried to tell Mike I was only doing my job.
He didn’t understand. Through the years, there were lots of things he didn’t understand about the media.
When we met again, Garrett was the athletic director and I was a columnist for the Orange County Register. The Trojans were in the throes of a major football slump, and when Garrett unceremoniously dumped John Robinson and rushed to hire an unqualified Paul Hackett, I was among his biggest critics. When Hackett continued to prove he was out of his league as a USC head coach, I continued to write it.
Always before, maybe because we knew each other already, Garrett would talk about these things. Now, all of a sudden, he wouldn’t. I wanted to write a long, analytical piece giving both sides of the story, but I was informed Garrett no longer would grant me interviews.
That, of course, ended once Hackett was fired and Pete Carroll was chosen, somewhat fortunately, by Garrett, and the USC program cruised back to the top of the national charts. Now the AD was accessible again and out front, happily congratulating the coaches and players and relatively open to writers and broadcasters.
Through it all, though, in good times and bad, Garrett never really seemed comfortable in public. He could be moody and gruff. Yet, sometimes, if you caught him one-on-one, he would relax and come off completely different, open and interesting.
One thing never changed. He loved the university. He loved everything about it. And always, he talked about McKay, the coach he felt altered his life. “Everything I do now is all McKay,” he used to tell me. “Unrelenting, uncompromising, you have to win.”
He did win. He brought 23 national championships to USC. He picked the man that revitalized the football program and returned it to national prominence. He found bigtime donors who gave millions to Trojan athletics, and he finally got the multimillion dollar Galen Center built. He did a lot of very good things.
His guilt in the NCAA sanctions aftermath has been somewhat exaggerated. Bush and his greedy parents were the biggest culprits. Carroll eventually got carried away with his power and pushed the envelope. As for Garrett, his most egregious mistake was allowing a known questionable agent to broker O.J. Mayo’s eventual enrollment in the basketball program.
Once the you-know-what hit the fan, though, the cardinal-and-gold buck had to stop at Garrett’s desk. It was his responsibility to oversee the entire program. As soon as the sanctions were announced, you knew who would be taking the hit. You knew that day Garrett’s reign as athletic director was over.
I can’t help but sympathize some with him now, knowing how hard he worked, understanding how much he cared. For all the years he put in and all his staggering accomplishments, he deserved to go out better than this.
But you can’t exonerate him, either. Because of what happened, he had no choice. He had to run up in there and take the blows. He has done it many times in his career. You suspect he can do it again.
But those searching for one line to define his legacy at USC will have to look elsewhere. I’ve been around Mike Garrett too long and seen too much.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
— Steve Bisheff