A tale of hope for frustrated USC football fans

Martin Rogers

POMONA, Calif. – Fans of USC football seeking some solace from this bleak period of underachievement and defeats could do a lot worse than to get out of Los Angeles, head 40 miles east and stop by a time-honored French dip pit stop called Tony's.

Tucked away toward the industrial part of this gritty city, Tony's meaty creations are just a bonus for the college football pilgrim with the real treat coming in the form of a piece of fascinating memorabilia that none of the regular sandwich seekers appear to notice.

On a wall at Tony's hangs a framed letter from legendary head coach Jess Hill, presumably dictated from his office before the start of the 1951 campaign, his first in charge.

Hill's plight back then was not dissimilar to the one that will be faced by the man who is brought in after the season to replace Lane Kiffin, who was unceremoniously dumped as head coach hours after the Trojans' last game, a 62-41 thrashing at Arizona State. Jack Del Rio and Chris Petersen are among the favorites for the job.

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Haunted by past glories, Hill took over a team that had won just two games in 1950 and inspired such a turnaround that the team lost only once and won the Rose Bowl in his second season.

As the debris of Kiffin's doomed reign continues to be sifted through, a similar revival would be nothing short of a dream for any current USC supporter and athletic director Pat Haden, who is charged with hiring a miracle-working replacement.

"Things can change in a heartbeat in college football," said Steven Travers, a USC football historian and author of several books about the Trojans.

"Sometimes it just takes the right man in charge and a few good pieces in place. Jess Hill is a perfect example of that."

Hill was a staunch believer in physical preparation in an era when the importance and implementation of training was far less sophisticated than today.

"I should like to suggest that you do everything in your power to report for football practice in the best possible physical condition," read Hill's letter, with the version hanging at Tony's having been sent to guard Al Sanbrano, a private man now in his 80s. Sanbrano declined to be interviewed for this story.

Hill graciously accepted that his regimen of sprint training would pose challenges for players after a hard day of summer work, as virtually every player had at least part-time employment when classes ended. However, he reminded them of the difficulty of the forthcoming campaign, one which comprised "eleven games with not a breather or weak-sister among them."

The highlight of Hill's first season came in the fifth game, a road trip to take on top-ranked Cal in Berkeley. Trailing 14-0 at halftime, the coach combined with legendary running back Frank Gifford to give a rousing locker room speech that inspired a 21-14 comeback victory.

Given how USC surrendered 62 points at Arizona State in Kiffin's final game, the Trojans would dearly love to summon the defensive spirit of Hill's teams. The 1952 USC squad recorded five shutouts in posting a 10-1 record.

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Admittedly, things were a little different back then. For example, USC players, according to Travers, would routinely work on movie lots to earn a few bucks during the offseason.

"It was a big part of the USC recruiting process," Travers said. "Guys were told that if they came to USC they would get to work on the movie lots, meet famous actresses and all that kind of stuff."

That arrangement was engineered by none other than John Wayne, the legendary actor who played football at USC when he was plain old Marion Morrison. In return, certain movie stars and directors would receive prime seats to USC games.

Being a part of college football's A-List seems a long way away for USC right now, as another season of underachievement seems inevitable.What the prideful program needs is a coach with the imagination and intuition to reverse a downward spiral – a modern version of Jess Hill.

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