It’s been more than two weeks since USC finished its disastrous 2012 season. But the news just keeps getting worse.
On Wednesday, ESPN Los Angeles reported that sources told them a fight took place after the Trojans lost to Georgia Tech 21-7 in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. An anonymous player said the scene was “pure chaos,” though he didn’t see any actual fighting. Zach Banner, a reserve offensive lineman, told the Los Angeles Daily News, “It’s going to be a whole new family atmosphere next season, and you can quote me on that. For the seniors, it’s terrible.”
According to the article, the supposed brawl (which USC coach Lane Kiffin has denied) happened because a player had been badmouthing senior quarterback Matt Barkley and his role as a leader. Other seniors, including senior safety T.J. McDonald, reportedly took exception to the claims. Though what went on in the locker room after the loss isn’t clear, there is one thing that is certain: The team was a mess by the end of the season, and a lack of leadership was supremely evident.
Say what you will about Barkley’s senior season, but it’s becoming clear that this team was out of control and that not even he could put the pieces back together. The thing this team lacked in 2012 was leadership. We all thought it was Barkley leading the way, but it appears that not everyone thought so.
Sure, Kiffin probably shouldn’t call plays. But there are several players on this team who need to step up and lead USC out of the shadow of this awful season. With the departure of every single team captain (Barkley, McDonald, senior center Khaled Holmes and junior cornerback Nickell Robey), an encouraging locker room atmosphere could make or break the Trojans in 2013.
On the offense, players such as junior running back Silas Redd and sophomore receiver Marqise Lee need to step up. It’s clear that Lee is the best player on the team and among the best in the country, but his frustration was evident at times this season. As the team’s premier player, he needs to be the guy younger players can look to as a role model.
Redd, on the other hand, is one of the more mature players on the team. His even-keeled demeanor needs to rub off on other players who might not take things in stride as well as he does. He will be a senior, and though he has only been on campus for a season, what he experienced at Penn State during the child sex abuse scandal and the way he handled himself in his subsequent departure to USC should allow him to handle anything.
Defensively, there will be an almost entirely new unit starting in the secondary. The linebackers are the veteran presences on the team, with each having started the last two seasons. Sophomores Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard need to take charge and hold their teammates accountable, something that didn’t seem to happen this past season.
Perhaps the difference in the 2011 and 2012 Trojans was leadership. The players were the same, for the most part. In fact, most of them got better. A player like former offensive tackle Matt Kalil might have kept a powerful presence in the locker room. Or perhaps it was former tight end Rhett Ellison who kept things in line.
I can only speculate, though; I’m not in the USC locker room. But there was something noticeably different in the Trojans this year. They didn’t show the same resiliency they did when they finished No. 6 in the Associated Press poll in 2011. And though a lot of it probably falls on Kiffin, even more of the blame falls on the team leaders and the fact that there wasn’t anyone there to motivate others when they needed it most. I can say this for certain: The 2011 Trojans would never have lost five of their last six games. The leaders wouldn’t have allowed it.
Locker room fights happen all the time. But the way in which this one seems to have unfolded, behind questions of the star player’s leadership, is unacceptable. The heart of a leader should never have to be questioned. A subpar season is the only thing that can come of a situation like that.