I grew up in Louisiana during a period in the 1990s when it would have been nearly unthinkable that LSU football was going to win three national championships in the first two decades of the new millennium.
Of course, I’m sure kids who called Southern California home around that time would have felt the same way about USC football’s prospects.
The reality today is that LSU and USC are both top-10 programs, and every such program aside from Ohio State has experienced a lengthy downturn since 1990. Some teams, like the Trojans, are struggling to escape theirs — and will now be looking to a fresh face to break the cycle of mediocrity.
The Tigers are in a situation all their own. They found lightning in a bottle in 2019 with Joe Burrow and a trio of future NFL wide receivers, but, other than that voodoo concoction, they’ve lived in the long shadow of Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty. Now, as quickly as he became a legend in his home state, Ed Orgeron is done, and LSU’s fans are joining USC’s in asking: Who’s next?
Until these openings are filled, the debate about which job is more attractive will rage on from L.A. to La. I decided to break the discussion into four categories to see if we can gain clarity:
Ability to win a national championship before getting fired
USC: The Trojans claim seven national championships in the poll era (post-1936), trailing only Alabama and Notre Dame. There’s no doubt it can be done at Troy, and the Pac-12 does not have a program of similar ilk standing in its way year after year. Particularly once the College Football Playoff expands to eight or 12 teams, USC has the potential to receive an invite as often as anyone. And, while athletic director Mike Bohn didn’t make many friends by keeping Clay Helton in 2019 and 2020, his patience and willingness to provide Helton more resources should send the message that Bohn’s chosen head coach will have plenty of leash to build the program back to a championship level.
LSU: The last three men to coach the Tigers have won the national championship. Les Miles’ title in 2007 bought him nearly a decade before Saban ran him out of town. But it hasn’t even been two years since Orgeron took LSU to the promised land and he’s already been downgraded to interim. Apparently LSU brass enjoyed the taste of 2019 and is demanding more of whatever that was. Sadly for the next guy, Saban isn’t going anywhere, so whomever takes this job will have to be wildly ambitious and not care about the risk of being shown the door within three to five years. Playoff expansion would help LSU lessen its dependence on having to beat Saban to compete for the big prize.
Ease of recruiting
USC: During the recruiting years of 2018-21, California produced an average of 45 four- and five-star recruits according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, and a large majority of them hail from Southern California. When the Trojans are right, they should land in the top five of recruiting rankings every year, no questions asked. It is not an exaggeration to say USC does not have to leave a 100-mile radius of its campus to fill its roster with premier talent.
LSU: In the same years, Louisiana produced an average of 14 four- and five-star recruits. But LSU, which does not have any in-state competition, received commitments from about half of those players, despite powers from the SEC and Big 12 trying to invade their turf. LSU has also made inroads in Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex during the last two decades, and the Tigers will only increase the emphasis there with Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC.
USC: Due to the ridiculous success of the Pete Carroll era, USC’s athletic administration fell asleep at the wheel and stopped modernizing its operation and providing the support that coaches at the top programs in the SEC and Big Ten take for granted. USC was still putting together top recruiting classes due to proximity and a generation of kids wanting to be Reggie Bush, but even that waned during the end of Helton’s tenure. In preparation for this moment, Bohn has been building USC’s support staff, so some of the work is done. But there is still reason to doubt USC’s institutional commitment to competing with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world on the gridiron, and the assumption here is that USC won’t be able to offer a salary for a head coach and assistant coaches in the range of what LSU will.
LSU: “It Just Means More” in the SEC, and this is where it pays off most for the Tigers, who are awash in money from the conference’s media rights deals and fundraising and ticket revenues from their insatiable fan base. If LSU as an institution does not prioritize football over everything else, it gets a call from the governor to shape up. That fervor can be a double-edged sword when the Tigers lose, but the passion for LSU football in Louisiana is certainly a positive for the head coach.
USC: Football coaches are an odd bunch. Many of them hardly bother to leave the facility where they work for most of the year, living in full-on bunker mode. A rare one might choose to be out and about in his community, and the good news about USC for that type is that he can do it somewhat anonymously in L.A., where the USC football coach is not viewed as a celebrity. Hopefully, his wife likes the idea of great weather year-round and taking the kids to the beach whenever she wants. But then there’s the harsh reality of cost of living. A big, luxurious home in Manhattan Beach is going to run you at least $4 million. Plus, the California state income tax rate is 12.3%. So a coach would have to really, really want to be here.
LSU: Nobody, particularly a native Louisianan like myself, is going to tell you that Baton Rouge is a better place to live than Los Angeles. Shoot, growing up in Shreveport, I never once heard anyone say anything nice about the state capital other than that I had to experience a Saturday night in Tiger Stadium. The head coach at LSU is a total celebrity, the most-scrutinized man in the state. It fits the type who wants to spend all his time at the football facility and at home, which can be palatial and hardly dent his salary in the reasonable Baton Rouge real estate market. Louisiana’s state income tax for its wealthiest citizens is 6%, and there is no municipal income tax on top of it.
Edge: [Puts college football coach hat on] LSU
So, which job is better?
It all depends on the coach and what he and his family value. USC offers a much clearer path to dominating its conference, better job security, more access to blue-chip recruits, blue-blood tradition and a picturesque life away from campus. LSU offers a recent track record of national contention no matter the coach, never-ending financial support from the conference and the institution, comfortable cost-of-living calculus, an unrivaled game day experience and crave-worthy Cajun delicacies on demand.
If you’re a head coach being considered by both schools, you’ve already hit the jackpot.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.