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USC Football

Reggie Bush, Urban Meyer and... Carol Folt?

May 10, 2019

It was all a joke, Reggie Bush insisted.

On Tuesday, Bush told the Los Angeles Times’ Arash Markazi that, should Clay Helton be dismissed, he and former backfield-mate Matt Leinart will attempt to convince Urban Meyer, their new colleague at FOX Sports, to fill the subsequent vacancy at USC.

“We’ll definitely be recruiting him,” Bush told Markazi. "What makes you think we won’t be recruiters? Nothing is off the table.”

The next day, he walked it back, telling CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd that “I’m still trying to learn college football.”

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY
Former Trojan RB Reggie Bush says his comments about Urban Meyer was a joke.

This is exactly what he should say, of course. And, if Helton does lose his job and Bush is interested in taking an active role in helping his alma mater secure its next coach, then badgering his extremely accomplished co-worker – who, despite his rather weak denials, almost certainly would consider coaching again – to at least hear USC out is exactly what Bush should do.

But this isn’t a column about Reggie Bush, though. Nor, for that matter, is it necessarily about Urban Meyer. Rather, it’s about the larger question – the one that really matters. Where do athletics fit in Carol Folt’s agenda?

Because it is no exaggeration to say that the future of the athletic department depends on that answer. This is obvious: The head football coach reports to the athletic director, who reports to the president, who holds the purse strings. We saw how, under Steven Sample, athletics were given the wherewithal to grow and thrive. When Pete Carroll needed a raise and a larger staff budget and new facilities, those things were granted. When basketball and volleyball required a new arena, one was built.

Things weren’t as copacetic under Max Nikias. In football alone, there were obvious examples – the shoestring support staff and Helton’s relatively meager salary, to name two. There were also more apocryphal ones, such as long-rumored battles over assistant coach compensation.    

Now it’s Folt’s turn to swing the pendulum to one end or the other. Based on her work at North Carolina, in which she somehow managed to navigate the Tar Heels’ athletic department through a widespread academic scandal mostly unscathed, the early expectation is she’ll err on the side of empowering the department more than limiting it.

But the real clues will come this football season. If Helton succeeds, and therefore is retained, how will his job be buttressed? Will there be a bump in total support staff and in assistant coach dollars? Does he earn another extension?

And, more pertinently, what happens if he fails and is fired?

Here’s where the Meyer question comes up again, largely because it will be the jumping off point among both fans and media alike. It is the hire USC makes if being a football school is all that matters. Urban Meyer requires capital, though, both financial and political. It takes a president with the stomach to turn to donors and board members to demand some $8 million annually to secure his signature. It takes a president with the nerve to weather the very real concern of importing Meyer’s baggage to a college that Los Angeles Magazine recently labeled “the most scandal-plagued campus in America.”

© Gary A. Vasquez - USA Today
Urban Meyer retired his position at Ohio State following the 2018 football season.

None of this is to advocate that Folt should push to hire Meyer, per se – there are important, larger reasons why she should order Lynn Swann to stay far, far away, presuming Swann is still athletic director if the time comes to change coaches. You can instead treat Meyer as an avatar for any prominent coaching candidate. How urgently would USC chase Matt Campbell, for instance, or would it pay the sort of freight it would take to lure James Franklin west in the sort of scenario that was heavily mooted last fall? All of which is to say, how seriously does Carol Folt want USC to treat its football team?

The answer everyone wants to hear may not be the one that matters to a university that, frankly, has bigger fish to fry. Trojan football is part of the school’s culture, but extracurricular activities mean precious little when an institution of higher learning stares down fundamental questions about who it admits, who it hires and, sometimes, how it protects the former from the latter. No football coach will solve those existential issues.

Yet it’s also true that, sooner or later, Folt will need to take a financial position on exactly how much football matters. And when she does, the visage very well may be Meyer himself, the single most qualified candidate as well as the single most toxic. If history is any indication, USC football will almost certainly win big if he’s hired. USC, the university, is just as likely to be blighted along the way.

Folt doesn’t have to make that choice, not yet and maybe not ever if Helton realizes the faith that Swann has placed in him. But sometime this calendar year, Folt will make some kind of referendum on the game’s importance at one of college football’s bluest bloods. It might be one that presses Reggie Bush into recruiting duty, after all. And it might be one makes you wonder whether or not USC should be rooting for Bush to get his man.

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Reggie Bush, Urban Meyer and... Carol Folt?

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