LOS ANGELES - Pete Carroll's last recruits are playing their last game for the University of Southern California on Saturday.
They are fifth-year seniors who were signed at USC in 2009 by Carroll, who told them he had no plans on leaving, and they all envisioned more of what Carroll had brought to the program in the previous seven years: Rose Bowls, BCS championship games and good times at practice, at games, after games.
None of them expected to see five USC head coaches during their five-year careers. None of them expected to play in zero Rose Bowls.
And certainly none of them expected to see teammates sparring with one another in the locker room after last year's season-ending 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, what many say was the low point in their Trojans careers.
"It was just pointless," fifth-year senior offensive lineman John Martinez says of the chaotic scene sparked by a rift between the veterans and younger players. "I really don't know who started it, but there was a lot of yelling, an awful lot of yelling, then the next thing I knew fists were flying. The coaches couldn't even break it up. It got so serious that Coach O (then-assistant coach Ed Orgeron), even with his loud voice, couldn't break it up."
The fight lasted a few minutes, he says, and no one was hurt. But the damage was palpable. Three years after the departure of Carroll, the once-mighty USC team was mediocre on the field and disgruntled off it.
"After that bowl game," offensive lineman Kevin Graf says, "we were very much a team divided."
How USC got to that low point - and how the Trojans emerged from another bizarre, strife-filled season this year to become a resurgent team on the verge of a 10-win season - is in large part the tale of Carroll's last recruits, this season's fifth-year seniors. There are eight of them, plus sixth-year senior Abe Markowitz, not counting walk-ons and transfers.
The Trojans who began their careers under Carroll and will end their careers Saturday in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State have endured one of the most zany, unsettling, and even joyous, roller-coaster rides in recent college football memory.
"I don't know that anyone has gone through what we have," Graf says. "We've had four different head coaches in one season, a total of five different coaches since we've been here. It's been hard. It's been different. I feel like I could go through anything after what I've been through here."
Carroll to Kiffin
Devin Kennard was a high-school All-America defensive end in Phoenix who was drawn to the USC glory that preceded him. From 2002 to 2008, the Carroll-led Trojans won seven consecutive Pac-10 titles and appeared in seven consecutive BCS bowl games, winning six. The Trojans won two national championships, played for a third and won two Heisman trophies - Matt Leinart in 2004 and Reggie Bush in 2005.
Though the trophy case ultimately would be thinned considerably by the NCAA investigative findings that Bush and his family received improper benefits during his collegiate career, there was an aura of dominance at USC when these players were recruited.
But even before he signed at USC, Kennard felt things going amiss. In December 2008, Washington hired then-USC assistant Steve Sarkisian as its head coach. Sarkisian took USC's defensive coordinator and defensive line coach, Nick Holt, with him.
"I was a little concerned that Carroll might be leaving, even though he told me he wasn't going anywhere," Kennard says. "Then, just before signing day, my position coach (Holt) leaves. Then, a year later, Carroll left. I was kind of disappointed, but by then, I understood that college football was a business. And I came to USC to be a part of the university and carry on greatness, and that could still be accomplished with or without Carroll."
Carroll left USC for the Seattle Seahawks in January 2010. Then-athletic director Mike Garrett hired Lane Kiffin as his replacement.
The hire seemed a little strange to Kevin Greene, who was a redshirt freshman at the time.
"I grew up in Oakland, and all I knew about Kiffin is that he had coached the Raiders, and that had ended badly,"recalls Greene, now a fifth-year senior linebacker. "When he got hired here, it was sort of an eyebrow-raiser for me. I mean, I was a Raider fan, and those weren't the best of times when Kiffin was there."
Kiffin was hired amid uncertainty of impending NCAA sanctions. When they landed in June of that year, they were a shocker - a two-year bowl ban and a three-year scholarship penalty resulting in the loss of 30 total scholarships.
The penalties ultimately would cripple the program, but none of the effects were felt yet in 2010, which turned out be a 10-2 season in which the Trojans would have played in the Pac-12 title game if not for the sanctions. The players had a mix of emotions at season's end.
"It was a great year, but then we got punished for something that none of us had anything to do with," Graf says. "We were pretty mad about that. Why punish us?"
A season to forget
But there was plenty of hope for 2012, when they would be eligible again for a bowl game and a Pac-12 title, even a national championship. All of that seemed possible, especially after quarterback Matt Barkley, who had emerged as one of the top players in the country, announced he would return for his senior year to take care of what he called "unfinished business."
Instead, 2012 for USC became an unmitigated disaster. The Trojans became the first team to begin the season ranked No.1 in the Associated Press poll and finish it unranked. They lost five of their last six games. Barkley's Heisman Trophy campaign fell apart early, and he missed the last two games, including the Sun Bowl, with a shoulder injury.
The 14-point bowl loss to Georgia Tech would rank as one of USC's most humiliating for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact Georgia Tech had to get a waiver from the NCAA to even play in the game since it had a sub-.500 (6-7) record.
USC's performance on the field that day was as ugly as the postgame locker room scene.
"I felt like I saw a lot of the camaraderie we built at the start of the season just go to smithereens," Martinez says. "The seniors like Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes and Curtis McNeal and T.J. McDonald had a standard they were trying to uphold. But I felt like all the other people kind of just checked out. A lot of guys just floated away."
There is a lack of consensus on what caused the collapse and who was to blame for it. As Graf says, it was a team divided.
"There was a lot of finger-pointing toward the coaches," Graf says. "When you have such amazing players and we aren't getting done what we want to, it's definitely going to go to the coaches."
The head coach?
"Yes," Graf says. "I don't want to blame (Kiffin), but I don't believe we had the correct leadership going for us. Coach Kiffin was doing what he thought was right. His style just didn't work for us."
Kennard, though, says he always supported Kiffin.
"I can't say he lost the team," Kennard says. "I was behind him 100%. It was just difficult times. The way I look at it is, no matter what the coaches are doing, it's up to the players to go make plays."
Kiffin's seemingly shaky job status was an ongoing issue, but athletics director Pat Haden stuck by him and even released a video in the summer saying Kiffin's job was not on the line in the 2013 season.
That all changed when the Trojans were embarrassed on the field early this season, first in a 10-7 loss to Washington State and then in a 62-41 loss to Arizona State that dropped the Trojans to 3-2 and tied a school record for points allowed.
Haden fired Kiffin late that night after the team returned to Los Angeles from Tempe, Ariz.
Orgeron to the rescue
The team had eight games left to play. Haden handed the reins to Orgeron, Kiffin's assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach who was known for his booming voice on the practice field and for being beloved by his defensive linemen.
Thus began probably the most surprising and enjoyable eight-week run of these fifth-year seniors' careers. Even though USC lost to Notre Dame and to UCLA in Orgeron's last game, the six victories and the turnaround in the atmosphere around the program would rekindle in some players the passion for playing football.
For eight weeks, it became pretty close to what they imagined it would be when they signed on in 2009, and they finished the regular season 9-4.
"Coach O is the ultimate player's coach," Graf says of Orgeron. "He was like, 'I want you guys to enjoy playing football again.' A lot of us had lost that. He brought it back for us. He made practice and meetings and film enjoyable. He made you want to be a better player. Coach O is one of those guys you don't want to disappoint. He's like your dad. When you have that attitude about your coach, that's when attitudes turn around and you can have a great team."
The highlight was a 20-17 upset of then-No.4 Stanford at the Coliseum. Some of the players and the news media began to feel that if the Trojans won out, Orgeron would get hired full time. But after the Trojans lost to UCLA, it didn't take long for Haden to hire Sarkisian.
Orgeron was asked to remain on staff but declined. He said goodbye to the players in an afternoon team meeting the day Sarkisian was hired, and it quickly became a sob session.
"Everybody was crying," Graf says. "The whole team felt guilty. You had guys yelling out, 'I'm sorry we couldn't do this for you.' We felt like we had Coach O's future in our hands, and we let him down."
That night, they met with Sarkisian, head coach No.4 for the fifth-year seniors.
"I think he'll be a great coach," Graf says. "At the team meeting, he was very energized. He really showed he loves this place. I think it was good for the players to see that, especially since we had grown so accustomed to Coach O showing how much he loves it here."
Haden picked offensive coordinator Clay Helton to prepare and run the team in the Las Vegas Bowl. That's head coach No.5.
It's not the BCS title game.
It's not the Rose Bowl.
There won't be any Heisman Trophy winners on the field.
But there probably won't be a postgame brawl in the locker room, either.
None of the players interviewed say they would have chosen another school in 2009 if they knew then what they know now.
And they all said there is a lot to play for Saturday.
"I feel like this is total redemption," Martinez says. "Coach O was always talking about that 10th win. That would be the win that puts the stamp on the season. We did it. We conquered it. We overcame it."
David Leon Moore, USA TODAY Sports