- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 4, 2006

LOS ANGELES — The most anticipated recent title game in college football could come down to the difference between a sweatshirt and a sports coat.

Southern Cal’s Pete Carroll bounced into the interview room yesterday looking more like a kid on his way to recess than a man on the threshold of history. He wore a sweatshirt and sneakers, shedding a black leather jacket as he hopped onto the dais to address the media. He then proceeded to spend 30 minutes absolutely bubbling over the joys of football and the dreamy thrill of game time.

Texas coach Mack Brown followed Carroll at the podium (which no man should be forced to do), a coat and tie and uneasy expression overwhelming practiced words intended to convey casual and calm. He looked less like a man basking in the confident glow of 19 straight victories and more like a prisoner desperately trying to smile at the gallows.

In a title game as evenly matched as tonight’s Rose Bowl between the top-ranked Trojans (12-0) and No.2 Longhorns (12-0), that startling juxtaposition and its implications could make all the difference.

To label Carroll as loose and Brown as tight would be an understated injustice to both. Carroll often borders on luminous, radiating a childlike joy that might seem disingenuous if the man hadn’t been in character for a lifetime.

Carroll is the coach who was chastised by the machismo police in New England for the crime of riding his bicycle to Patriots training camp. He’s the man who revels so deeply in the college game he has fight songs — and not just the redundant Trojans theme — piped into USC’s summer camp dining hall, commonly polling incredulous freshmen for their favorites. This is the coach who, when asked to share his seminal big game memory, scrolls back to his peewee playing days.

“My first big game was the Thanksgiving Day game when I was a Pop Warner player,” said Carroll, genuinely transported by the recollection. “We played a team from San Diego. … To me it was the Rose Bowl. I think I was 12 at the time. I was the single-wing tailback, backing up the mercurial Kenny Johnson at the time, and played defense and safety. … As a little kid your eyes are so big and you’re floating on the energy and excitement of it. I don’t feel a whole lot different going into this game than I did back then.”

Even as the cynic within bridles, it’s impossible not to believe Carroll, the coach whose favorite f-word is “fun,” the coach who yesterday likened the running style of Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush to the improviso of a master jazz musician.

Even beyond his technical talents with X’s and O’s, the acumen that given a month of preparation many believe will produce an unusually stout USC defensive performance tonight, perhaps Carroll’s ultimate coaching gift is his magnetic, contagious passion and his fearless belief in his players.

“I’ve never dreaded a game,” he said. “I’ve never gone to any game where I wished I wasn’t there, was worried about the outcome in the sense that I wasn’t going to enjoy it. … We’ve grown up in the last four or five years here such that we look forward to creating this kind of hype and being in this kind of situation. You can’t get a big enough game for us.”

It doesn’t matter whether fans or media buy into Carroll’s outrageous aura of optimism as long as his players do.

“He has such complete and total faith in you that after a while you start almost believing you can’t lose,” Bush said. “It’s hard to explain because it sounds arrogant, but it’s not. He’s just so positive that you almost forget losing is a possibility and you can’t imagine letting him down. If I could, I’d play for him forever.”

There are those who might scoff at that, but a 34-game winning streak, two straight national titles and a 45-1 record since mid-2002 are proof Carroll is selling some fairly potent stuff.

In fact, Brown would like both his players and the rest of the world to think he’s got an ample supply of the same stuff. Brown has learned to talk a pretty good game, but it’s impossible to fake absolute belief. Read between the lines and there’s still the unmistakable tinge of defeatism and diffidence in Brown’s personality. Perhaps that’s unavoidable because of a 5-20 career coaching record against top-10 teams.

Asked the same question yesterday about what he considered his first big game experience, Brown’s response had a remarkably different tenor than Carroll’s.

“I think probably it was our Wake Forest game in 1990 when I was at North Carolina because we were down 24-10, and if we lost I was going to be fired,” he said. “Those will start coming into your mind as big games. We won it, obviously. We killed them 31-24 late. Not that I remember, but [it was] on a wheel route to Bucky Brooks.”

It’s impossible to miss that Carroll’s moment was one of unadulterated joy in the process, one in which he didn’t even relate the score, while Brown’s was one tempered with jeopardy and primarily rooted in the bald reality of result.

Texas insiders contend Brown never has been more relaxed. And that the team’s infamous big-game collapses (see Oklahoma, 2000 to 2005) could be a thing of the past now that Brown has surrounded himself with proven coordinators like Greg Davis and Gene Chizik, the mastermind behind last season’s stunning Auburn defense.

Plus, Texas folks will point out this group of Longhorns belongs as much to All-American junior quarterback Vince Young as to Brown. And nobody would argue that Young’s championship mentality has mitigated some of Brown’s big-game tension. Perhaps the Longhorns permanently cleared a psychological hurdle earlier this season when they finally won a monster game by dropping No.4 Ohio State (25-22) in Columbus.

But on some level, Brown’s own tension and latent doubt probably has to percolate into the psyche of his players, particularly as they prepare to face an epic USC bunch on a stage and with stakes no current Texas player or coach has experienced.

“You never know how your team will respond to a stage like this. We were at the same venue last year, but the stakes are higher,” Brown said. “So many times teams in this setting try to be someone they’re not because they do want to win so badly.”

When USC takes the field tomorrow night, Carroll won’t be wondering how his team will respond. And his Trojans likely will be too focused on the fight to fixate on the result.

“We’ll be off the ground a little bit when we get in that locker room because it is that time again to express all of our confidence and all of our trust we have for each other in our performance at the Rose Bowl,” Carroll said. “My job is to orchestrate that. That’s what I’ve been doing is trying to orchestrate that mentality that lets these guys fly on game day.”

College football rarely has seen such a conductor.

Postcard from Los Angeles:

• The Rover would like to declare USC the runaway winner in the Rose Bling Bowl. Carried by the duo of junior tailback LenDale White and sophomore wideout Dwayne Jarrett, both of whom sported the insanely gaudy fruits of a jeweler called Jacob and Co., the Trojans crushed Texas in the flash category this week. Jarrett sported a diamond crusted watch that didn’t appear to tell time but would have served Santa far better than Rudolph’s nose. But White’s necklace/medallion combo featuring a fist-sized gold visage of Jesus edged him for MVB honors.

• Texas coach Mack Brown might be wrapped tighter than one of J-Lo’s skirts, but he’s certainly not humorless. Asked yesterday whether he was concerned USC has a serious home-field advantage playing just 15 miles from its campus, Brown responded with a classic bit of Southern wit: “Oh, we’ll have a lot of fans there tomorrow. Ours got a map out and found their way out here.”

• The Rover would like to take a moment to recognize the Beverly Hilton, the Rose Bowl media hotel, as the new leader in the clubhouse for in-room appointments. Proving that owner Merv Griffin has kept up with the times, the Beverly Hilton offers both a flat-screen TV in the john (presumably for those can’t-miss “Wheel of Fortune” moments) and a 36-inch flat screen with HD on the bedroom wall.

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