Where is everybody?: No fans, fewer players as USC Trojans open first camp after sanctions
LOS ANGELES – Something was missing for Southern California coach Lane Kiffin in his first practice of training camp, and it wasn't the fans that once lined the Trojans' practice field.
"I didn't really feel any different," said Kiffin, the former USC assistant who ran his first official practice as head coach Wednesday. "Having been here six years before, it's the same walk, same grass, same door ... except we used to have more players."
After major NCAA sanctions shook the foundations of USC's athletic department in June, the Trojans now have fewer bodies in uniform than nearly all major programs — just 70 scholarship players, well below the NCAA limit of 85, along with relatively few walk-ons. Scholarship reductions and transfers are taking an obvious on-field toll on Kiffin's first team at USC.
Kiffin plans to adjust by running practices more on the NFL model, which requires fewer players, once injuries thin the Trojans' ranks even further. Until then, he's getting a vivid look at what he's got available on a team that already knows it won't finish its season in a bowl game.
"The only way we're going to be able to express ourselves is to win 13 games," tailback Allen Bradford said. "We know it's going to be difficult this year. You can't just go half-speed because there aren't any fans out here at practice anymore. You can't rely on fans to get you going. We're playing for a tradition. We're playing for a school. We're playing for ourselves."
The Trojans still went through a super-sized practice on the first official day of camp, working out from mid-afternoon until sunset on campus. The workout seemed more organized and much less boisterous than the standard practice under former coach Pete Carroll, whose practices sometimes seemed anarchic to observers.
New USC president Max Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden stopped by on their second days on the job to watch the Trojans — and they had plenty of elbow room on the sideline. The NCAA's sanctions also banned many fans, boosters and complete strangers who watched the Trojans in years past, often crowding three deep along the fence near the practice fields.
The NCAA believes that all-welcoming mentality played a major role in the oversight lapses that allowed scandal to overwhelm a program that had won seven straight Pac-10 titles until last season.
"It's definitely different," quarterback Matt Barkley said of the sparse sideline attendance. "I don't necessarily think it's a bad thing. Once our parents start coming around here, it'll be different. I was watching a practice last year on tape, and it was just outrageous how many people were on the sidelines. There's a lot more organization now."
Wednesday's practice was watched mostly by media members who had to sign a detailed form before being allowed onto the field.
Everybody who attends a practice at USC must swear to abide by the stringent guidelines set by the NCAA and the school, including "not to have any contact with any USC prospective student-athlete (or their relatives or friends) while at a USC Football Practice. This includes in-person contact and written or electronic communications, either directly or via a third party."
Attendees also must "certify that you are not an agent or any such agent's employee," and anyone who has made a financial donation to the USC athletic department also is banned.
Aside from the forms and formalities, the Trojans made it through their extra-long practice with good spirits, even after a mid-workout urging from Kiffin to pick up the tempo.
"Everybody is coming out here and trying to get that jump," said Bradford, who has the early lead on the race to be the Trojans' starting tailback. "Coach Kiffin said, 'If you want to change your playing time, change it out here.'"