The 5 Best USC Football Coaches Of All-Time

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howard jones

You can’t tell the story of college football in America without mentioning USC Trojans. Here, we are ranking our 5 bets USC football coaches of all time.

The Trojans started playing football in 1888, at least that’s what they say, it was probably more like a combination of rugby/football back then.

The school has played in an incredible 55 bowl games. It has iconic traditions, like the Fight On! rallying cry. USC is “Student Body Right” and “Tailback U.” It has classic rivalries with UCLA and Notre Dame. It is S-C.

USC is the school that gave the football world Frank Gifford, Ronnie Lott, Keyshawn Johnson, Marcus Allen, Junior Seau and Lynn Swann.

And yes, O.J. Simpson.

USC Trojans have won eight Heisman Trophies, with Caleb Williams becoming the latest to do it.

The coaches at USC are some of the most legendary names in the sport as well. Here’s looking at the five greatest USC football coaches in history.

5. Larry Smith

Some college football coaches are recruiters, some are strategy guys, some are known for being the CEO and just letting their assistants do the work.

Larry Smith was a builder.

Reared in Ohio, Smith cut his football teeth as an assistant at Michigan under Bo Schembechler. Then he built Tulane into a contender in the late 70s as head coach, then did the same at Arizona.

At USC, Smith doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He took the Trojans to the Rose Bowl in each of his first three years. In 1987, USC lost to a fired-up Michigan State team.

The high-water mark for Smith and the Trojans was 1988 when it was No. 2 and went to South Bend to take on the No. 1 Fighting Irish. USC was favored, but Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice broke a long run early and Notre Dame won 27-10.

Smith could never get USC to that level again. He left after 44 wins in six years and two PAC-10 Coach of the Year awards. He would later coach and build up Missouri. Smith died in 2008.

4. John Robinson

You look back at John Robinson’s USC days and wonder what might have been. USC could have won multiple national titles under Robinson but circumstances did them in.

Robinson kept the John McKay machine rolling. In his first season (1976), USC lost to Missouri in the opener, then ran the table beating Michigan in the Rose Bowl, but they lost the national title to Pitt. I still think they were better than Pitt.

1978 is a crime. USC finishes 12-1. It beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. USC went to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama 24-14. Yet, in the final poll, Alabama was No. 1. USC was No. 2, because of the timing of the losses. USC beat Alabama in Week 2, lost to Arizona State in Week 4.

It’s a crime.

In 1979, USC has a tie against Stanford. Alabama goes undefeated and wins again.

Robinson left USC after 1982 and took over the Los Angeles Rams and directed them to six playoff berths. He came back to USC in 1993 for five years and had a good run. It was a nice sequel, but never as good as the first one.

3. Pete Carroll

California born and raised, Carroll and USC fit like sunshine and the beach. After two uneven stints in the NFL, Carroll took over the Trojans and immediately made them good…and cool.

After a 6-6 season to start, Carroll’s recruiting skills began to pay dividends (maybe we shouldn’t say pay). USC stomped Iowa in the Rose Bowl in 2002, then in 2003, quarterback Matt Leinart is a star and USC wins a piece of the national title.

The 2004 team is simply one of the best college football teams ever. Leinart, Lendale White and Reggie Bush. The Trojans started the season No. 1 and finished the season No. 1. That never happens.

In 2005, it’s all there for USC again, but in the national championship game Texas’ Vince Young scrambled around the end…and well, USC fans know the rest.

The last few years of Carroll’s tenure USC was mere mortals and the NCAA starts sniffing around. It’s not good. Carroll gets out of town to become the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks and is the only coach on this list with a national title and Super Bowl title on his resume.

Carroll won 83 games on the field in his USC career, but the NCAA would like a word on how many of those wins really count.

2. John McKay

When McKay showed up at USC in 1960, the program was being handcuffed by NCAA sanctions (USC people can’t help themselves). McKay’s first two seasons were lousy, but he was given a shot to stick around and in 1962, the golden era of USC football began.

McKay’s team in 1962 finished unbeaten, beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and winning the national title. McKay and USC would add more national titles in 1967, 1972 and 1974. The 1972 USC team – look it up – is one of the best college football teams ever assembled. The closest game was nine points. They beat six other ranked teams.

It was the heyday of student body right – basically every offensive lineman pulls and lets the running back go.

McKay could have stayed at USC forever, but after the 1975 season, the NFL came calling. Tampa Bay got an expansion franchise and McKay was given the reins (and a lot more money). Infamously, the Bucs would lose their first 26 games, but McKay stuck with it and took Tampa to the playoffs three times in eight years.

McKay’s 127 wins are the most for any USC coach.

1. Howard Jones

Every successful football program has a forefather, a builder, a leader, a champion. Howard Jones is that man for Southern Cal.

Jones is considered one of the early fathers of American college football. Born in Ohio, which is, you know, just about where every legendary football coach comes from, Jones played at Yale, winning three recognized championships there. He started coaching, first at Syracuse, then Yale, then Ohio State and Iowa.

He starts moving slowly west and he discovers USC in 1925.

Jones made the Trojans the Trojans. He and Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne were the most famous football coaches of the 1930, except Rockne was more glib. Jones had a reputation as a thinker and being completely engrossed in the game of football.

Jones guided USC to five Rose Bowls and the Trojans won them all. The school claims national titles in 1928, 1931, 1932 and 1939 under Jones. Remember it wasn’t so easy to schedule cross-country games back then, so championships were bestowed by media services and polls.

Jones’ final season at USC was 1940. He died a year later. Jones was a member of the inaugural class of the College Football Hall of Fame.