USC Football: Where Glory Collides With The Peter Principle

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As embattled USC football coach Clay Helton prepares his Trojans to conclude a disappointing 2019 campaign against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Friday night’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, it’s helpful to remember that the Peter Principle was conceived by a professor from … well, USC.

Yes, Laurence J. Peter, the Canadian psychologist, was on the USC faculty when he wrote The Peter Principle, that famous but rarely read book about how people tend to rise through the ranks of their organization till they’re in over their heads—and then stay there. 

Which brings us to Helton. He was an unglamorous internal figure in the USC football program, promoted to bring a more mature and steady approach after the brief and stormy tenures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. 

He’s had modest success, taking the team to two major bowl berths in his first two full years as head coach, though fans grumbled even then that his talented teams had a knack for getting clobbered by other blue-blood programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame—due at least in part to the nice-guy coach failing to prepare star athletes for the full physical rigors of football at the highest level.  

Then came a losing campaign in 2018, despite a talented roster, and this year’s mixed bag, with some impressive wins against unimpressive teams and worse results against more impressive ones. Along the way, the team’s ability to recruit top high-school players for future seasons declined precipitously, an omen of future woe. 

Fans and the national media believed it was a foregone conclusion that Helton would be dismissed after this season. And they were rightly surprised that a new USC athletic director, Mike Bohn, with the full support of a new USC president, Carol Folt, chose to retain the underachieving Helton. 

Why would the stewards of one of the country’s premier athletic heritages seem to be so content with declining attendance, angry fans and reduced interest among prospective athletes?

This brings up a paradox involving USC. The university wasn’t just home to Laurence J. Peter, it was also home to Warren Bennis, the father of the modern academic field of leadership. Bennis recruited Steven B. Sample and later helped select C. L. Max Nikias to help an ambitious university community and proud alumni body to achieve elite status, and those leaders delivered, as seen by USC’s rise from around 50th in U.S. News & World Report’s national university rankings at the outset of Sample’s tenure in 1991 to the low 20s in recent years. They also recruited faculty superstars in emerging disciplines, pulling top talent away from Harvard, Caltech and Stanford. 

It’s been said that USC is the quintessential L.A. institution, reflecting its bold, brassy, obnoxious, nouveau-riche host city. But it is also a deeply ambivalent and insecure institution.

Ambivalence can create inconsistency or even paralysis in the athletic departments of universities like USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and other schools. They might not mind fielding a dominant football program like Nick Saban’s at Alabama, but don’t want to make quite as many compromises to the NCAA student-athlete ideal in order to do so. 

Having worked many years with Steve Sample, it would seem fair to say that he would have been content to have a football team that would occasionally earn a Rose Bowl berth while staying off NCAA probation. He was a pragmatist in the vein of former University of California president Clark Kerr, who quipped that a university leaders’ job is “providing parking for faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.”

But during Sample’s tenure, he and athletic director Mike Garrett stumbled backward into the hiring of Pete Carroll (after many other candidates said no), resulting in a breathless era of winning, saturation ESPN coverage and Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell on the sidelines. One could argue that, while they would never admit it, that USC administration never intended for the football team to be so good, so high-profile, so much the target of jealous rivals and overzealous NCAA enforcers. 

Carroll resurrected the hopes of a dejected alumni base that had begun to believe that USC couldn’t be both a rising academic institution and the sort of football factory that it was in its 1960s and 1970s heyday. Carroll has now been the coach of the Seattle Seahawks longer than he was the coach at USC, but he still haunts the program and its fan base, who have been so far refusing to lower their expectations to pre-Carroll levels.

The entire college athletics model is in flux right now, and the tensions between big money and academic standards are rising. Amidst this, it’s possible that Folt and Bohn are surreptitiously deemphasizing football in order to allow the university’s improved academic profile to come to the fore. Though they’ve taken vicious blowback for keeping Helton, that blowback is far less than what they’d receive if they came out and said they don’t really plan to keep pace with Alabama, who just happens to be their first opponent in the 2020 season.

Let’s finish, though, by returning to Laurence Peter’s notion that incompetent people can keep their position in spite of their bumbling. How can something seem so confounding yet ring so true? 

Peter explained that, in many organizations, only the super-incompetent and super-competent folks get a pink slip. The former group gets pushed out the door because their performance is so catastrophic as to be beyond spin control or forgiveness. The latter group has to go because all the ordinary people in a hierarchy feel threatened, and the hierarchy’s job is, above all, to protect itself. 

But if a person has simply reached a state of incompetence but not super-incompetence in his job, Peter offered the encouragement that such a person will oftentimes be able to endure for years in his position. Why? Perhaps colleagues appreciate those long hours he puts in, and they feel sheepish about dismissing someone who works harder than they. Maybe they’re optimists who believe he’ll get better with time, or they just don’t feel they have the time to conduct another job search. Or, just maybe, they know that he’s been around long enough to know about the skeletons in the organization’s closet, which means they can’t get rid of him without paying a huge price themselves. Or, Peter mused, his superiors might not be superior enough to notice his inferiority, because—bingo—they’ve reached their own level of incompetence. 

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As embattled USC football coach Clay Helton prepares his Trojans to conclude a disappointing 2019 campaign against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Friday night’s San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl, it’s helpful to remember that the Peter Principle was conceived by a professor from … well, USC.

Yes, Laurence J. Peter, the Canadian psychologist, was on the USC faculty when he wrote The Peter Principle, that famous but rarely read book about how people tend to rise through the ranks of their organization till they’re in over their heads—and then stay there. 

USC Coach Clay Helton keeps his job

Clay Helton has managed to survive in his position as USC football coach despite reasonable … [+] predictions of his dismissal. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Which brings us to Helton. He was an unglamorous internal figure in the USC football program, promoted to bring a more mature and steady approach after the brief and stormy tenures of Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian. 

He’s had modest success, taking the team to two major bowl berths in his first two full years as head coach, though fans grumbled even then that his talented teams had a knack for getting clobbered by other blue-blood programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Notre Dame—due at least in part to the nice-guy coach failing to prepare star athletes for the full physical rigors of football at the highest level.  

Then came a losing campaign in 2018, despite a talented roster, and this year’s mixed bag, with some impressive wins against unimpressive teams and worse results against more impressive ones. Along the way, the team’s ability to recruit top high-school players for future seasons declined precipitously, an omen of future woe. 

Fans and the national media believed it was a foregone conclusion that Helton would be dismissed after this season. And they were rightly surprised that a new USC athletic director, Mike Bohn, with the full support of a new USC president, Carol Folt, chose to retain the underachieving Helton. 

Why would the stewards of one of the country’s premier athletic heritages seem to be so content with declining attendance, angry fans and reduced interest among prospective athletes?

This brings up a paradox involving USC. The university wasn’t just home to Laurence J. Peter, it was also home to Warren Bennis, the father of the modern academic field of leadership. Bennis recruited Steven B. Sample and later helped select C. L. Max Nikias to help an ambitious university community and proud alumni body to achieve elite status, and those leaders delivered, as seen by USC’s rise from around 50th in U.S. News & World Report’s national university rankings at the outset of Sample’s tenure in 1991 to the low 20s in recent years. They also recruited faculty superstars in emerging disciplines, pulling top talent away from Harvard, Caltech and Stanford. 

It’s been said that USC is the quintessential L.A. institution, reflecting its bold, brassy, obnoxious, nouveau-riche host city. But it is also a deeply ambivalent and insecure institution.

Ambivalence can create inconsistency or even paralysis in the athletic departments of universities like USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and other schools. They might not mind fielding a dominant football program like Nick Saban’s at Alabama, but don’t want to make quite as many compromises to the NCAA student-athlete ideal in order to do so. 

Having worked many years with Steve Sample, it would seem fair to say that he would have been content to have a football team that would occasionally earn a Rose Bowl berth while staying off NCAA probation. He was a pragmatist in the vein of former University of California president Clark Kerr, who quipped that a university leaders’ job is “providing parking for faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.”

But during Sample’s tenure, he and athletic director Mike Garrett stumbled backward into the hiring of Pete Carroll (after many other candidates said no), resulting in a breathless era of winning, saturation ESPN coverage and Snoop Dogg and Will Ferrell on the sidelines. One could argue that, while they would never admit it, that USC administration never intended for the football team to be so good, so high-profile, so much the target of jealous rivals and overzealous NCAA enforcers. 

Carroll resurrected the hopes of a dejected alumni base that had begun to believe that USC couldn’t be both a rising academic institution and the sort of football factory that it was in its 1960s and 1970s heyday. Carroll has now been the coach of the Seattle Seahawks longer than he was the coach at USC, but he still haunts the program and its fan base, who have been so far refusing to lower their expectations to pre-Carroll levels.

The entire college athletics model is in flux right now, and the tensions between big money and academic standards are rising. Amidst this, it’s possible that Folt and Bohn are surreptitiously deemphasizing football in order to allow the university’s improved academic profile to come to the fore. Though they’ve taken vicious blowback for keeping Helton, that blowback is far less than what they’d receive if they came out and said they don’t really plan to keep pace with Alabama, who just happens to be their first opponent in the 2020 season.

Let’s finish, though, by returning to Laurence Peter’s notion that incompetent people can keep their position in spite of their bumbling. How can something seem so confounding yet ring so true? 

Peter explained that, in many organizations, only the super-incompetent and super-competent folks get a pink slip. The former group gets pushed out the door because their performance is so catastrophic as to be beyond spin control or forgiveness. The latter group has to go because all the ordinary people in a hierarchy feel threatened, and the hierarchy’s job is, above all, to protect itself. 

But if a person has simply reached a state of incompetence but not super-incompetence in his job, Peter offered the encouragement that such a person will oftentimes be able to endure for years in his position. Why? Perhaps colleagues appreciate those long hours he puts in, and they feel sheepish about dismissing someone who works harder than they. Maybe they’re optimists who believe he’ll get better with time, or they just don’t feel they have the time to conduct another job search. Or, just maybe, they know that he’s been around long enough to know about the skeletons in the organization’s closet, which means they can’t get rid of him without paying a huge price themselves. Or, Peter mused, his superiors might not be superior enough to notice his inferiority, because—bingo—they’ve reached their own level of incompetence. 

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