Looking Back with Jeff Kopp
All of us have the same dream. We’re recruited by the greatest University on the planet to play football for the one of the greatest college football dynasties ever. We arrive on campus as a freshman, the Southern California sun is shining, the girls on campus are beautiful, and we don the cardinal and gold for the first time as we hit the practice field. Life is so very good. The first part of the dream is better than ever imagined. Now, the season needs to start, the Trojans need to go undefeated, and then we can play Michigan in the Rose Bowl for a chance at the national championship. That’s how the second half of the dream is supposed to happen.
You walk onto the Coliseum floor for the first time. It is magnificent, all that you ever imagined. The Trojan crowd is ecstatic. This is what U.S.C. Football is all about. Traveler is running around. The world famous Trojan Marching Band is playing “Conquest” and it’s obvious your dreams are going to come true. Yet, in your first ever game as a USC Trojan, you lose to Memphis State. Ouch.
That was the legacy of Jeff Kopp. One of the infamous linebackers in the history of USC linebackers. He came in during the last two years of the Larry Smith era. He endured the Memphis State loss, the loss to Fresno State, and rebounded when John Robinson returned, ending his season year as Captain of the USC Trojans as he helped lead the team to a lopsided victory in the Cotton Bowl against Texas Tech. Jeff then went on to a six year career in the NFL, finally playing for Pete Carroll in New England before he retired. TroBob, one of the Herd’s football historians, said of Jeff, “I remember Jeff as a very solid, tough, hardnosed linebacker. He was one of those guys who was always in the middle of things. He was a terrific interview and the postgame show always seemed to gravitate toward him at some point. e has a terrific sense of humor. I think he would have been one of the media friends on these championship teams much like Ryan Kalil, Frostee Rucker, and Omar Nazel were.”
We appreciate Jeff doing this interview for us. He’s been very involved with the Trojans over the last few years, writing a column for Ryan’s uscfootball.com as well as working on Trojan radio shows, and though he currently resides in Florida Gator country, he’s a great member of the Trojan Family, and we want to thank him for his years as a Trojan Football player and for his continued support of USC. Fight On, Jeff.
You were recruited by Larry Smith. What was your recruiting like? What was Larry Smith like as a recruiter? And finally, what sold you on USC?
Recruiting was a lot of fun for me because I had never really spent a lot of time outside of the SF Bay Area growing up. At the time it was pretty cool to have USC, ND, Nebraska, Michigan, and others knocking on your door. Larry was a pretty good recruiter, I mean look at the talent that he brought in just in my class with the likes of Boselli, McGinest, and Conway. Of course it is not really that hard to sell USC when you just won the Rose Bowl and bring a young lad into the locker room to be part of that experience. The campus visit didn't hurt either, coming from a pretty small town I had never seen so many good looking women in one place......I mean the professors and academic challenge were what sold me.
You played for two different coaches, the not-so-revered Larry Smith, and the legendary John Robinson who was coming back with high expectations to lead USC back to glory. The last two years of Larry Smith didn't inspire comparisons to any great Trojan dynasties. Can you explain what you liked and disliked about each coaching style? What was it like playing for Larry Smith as he faltered his last two years? And what were the expectations on the team as JR2 started?
I'm not going to BS you at all. The last two years under Larry Smith sucked. Not because of Larry, it was the losing. Losing is not something I take very well so obviously those two seasons were a tough time in my life. Loosing affects you of the field as well. It felt like school was harder, social life was more difficult and so on. The head coach takes the fall but it was just as much the players fault as his. At the end of the day we are the ones who have to execute and perform on the field. Looking back we can all be armchair coaches and say that our personal did not match our style of offense and defense but football is running, catching, tackling and kicking, we did not do any of the very well those two years. I'm not going to say anything negative about Larry because I liked him, it was just time for a change. When we heard that John Robinson was coming back as a team we were all very excited......about what I have no idea but if your have a National title ring on your finger you tend to demand a certain amount of respect.
A lot of Trojan fans and Herdmembers enjoy the open practices of the Pete Carroll tenure. Pete encourages fan interaction with the players and coaches, and Pete has especially embraced the Herd. What was the difference in Smith's practices and Robinson's practices, and how did each coach interact with Trojan fans in general?
Larry's practices were hard and long. We literally beat the crap out of one another all season. Very physical. Jr's practices were physical as well but the tempo was quicker, drills ran faster and were full of purpose, meaning the team learned with every drill.
Who were some of your favorite teammates who you played with? And do you still keep in touch with any of them?
Man, I had a lot of really good teammates and friends during my years a SC. My roommates for all of college were Boselli and Kris Pollack so we went through a lot together on and off the field. Rob Johnson, Joe Barry, and John Allred were also roommates at some point so we naturally shared a lot of great experiences together. Good and Bad. Some of the other guys I have memories with are Scott Ross, Pat Harlow, Matt Gee, Don and Craig Gibson and of course Dave Webb even though some of them were seen through the bottom of a beer mug. I live in Jacksonville, FL as does Boselli so we always see one another. Rob Johnson and I have become really good friends over the years and we talk all of the time and when I visit CA with my family a few times a year we always get together.
What was it like to play linebacker at USC? Though USC was and is infamously known as Tailback U, and recently thanks to Carson and Matt, it could almost be renamed Quarterback U, but the long lineage of great USC college and NFL linebackers is equally impressive. Was that ever acknowledged by the coaches, "hey, you're a linebacker at USC, you have standards to live up to?" or was there no pressure because the legends don't whisper from the shadows...?
When I arrived at USC there had been a long line of really tough, good LB's. Duane Bickett, Jack DelRio, Ricky Gray, Rex Moore, Scott Ross and Junior Seau to name a few so I did feel honored and pressure to be at least half the player some of those guys were. The standards and expectations came from the former players, not the coaches. Scott Ross constantly reminded me of this. I can remember meeting Jack DelRio when I was a Soph. and he told me he was watching me play, Junior Seau said the same thing at a different point so yeah, there was big time peer pressure.
Your playing history had its downs and ups. I started with the downs since your freshman year was Smith's horrible 3-8 year of 1991 which included a loss to Memphis State. Was that a slap in the face? You come to USC to lose to Memphis State in your first game? And that was followed by the infamous and heinous loss to Fresno State in 1992? For one, how did that feel to be a part of a USC team to lose to Fresno State? And secondly, did you feel any vindication when USC recently beat Fresno State...even though it was closer than some of us would've liked?
To be honest I did not even know a thing about Memphis State. That was just a shock. I was a freshman and had envisioned being in the Rose Bowl and beating Michigan, then to wake up in the nightmare of losing to Memphis State was a very harsh reality. The whole Fresno State thing was another big downer. Losing to them was awful but very few realize the talent that they had on there team, Trent Dilfer, Lorenzo Neal, Ron Rivers and several other guys that made it into the NFL. It was like the perfect shit storm for us. We were not very good, being in the Freedom Bowl at the time was a major step down for USC from the Rose Bowl, Larry Smith was on the brink of being canned and we all knew it, and Fresno State was high as a kite. Beating Fresno State recently I could of cared less. A win is a win unless it's ND or UCLA.
Now that we covered the downs, the ups started in 1993 when JR returned and USC beat Utah in the Freedom Bowl. Was the feeling that USC was on the upswing after losing the same Freedom Bowl game to Fresno State the year before, or were the expectations still too low? The next year, your senior year, you were a team captain. What was that responsibility like? And how did you feel to go into the Cotton Bowl and really whip that Texas Tech team? Did you think this was the start of the return of USC to greatness?
Beating Utah in the Freedom Bowl was a good thing but I suffered huge that entire Bowl week. I was covered from head to toe with Poison Oak that I got when I visited home for the holidays. It was really bad, my body was like a big swollen turnip. Not good. Being team captain is something that I hold very high amongst my athletic accomplishments because my peers had voted for me. I always tried to practice hard, train hard, play hard and study film hard. I think teammates notice that and hold you in high regard. I was not perfect by any means on or off the field but I would suffer and be there in the end no matter what type of sacrifice I had to make. The Cotton Bowl was a blast. We ate a lot, drank a lot, and kicked some Texas ass and got a trophy for it.
You've seen the Trojans go on major streaks against their rivals the last few years, the 2006 UCLA game doesn't need to be included in this conversation. What was it like to play against UCLA, and to never beat Notre Dame though you were present for the tie in 1994?
Man, you are killing me! I just mentally got over that streak a few years ago and now you suck me back in to that dark period. Just when I think I'm out.............
You had a six-year long pro football career. What's the difference between college and pro football; teammates, coaches, the atmosphere, your approach to the game? What are some of your most special memories of playing pro football?
The NFL is a business. It was fun but there are no bands, no scholarships, and no frat parties. Everyday in the NFL a player in my position had to fight to keep a roster spot. It is very demanding physically and emotionally but I wont lie to you, the paychecks make up for some of that. It was an honor for me to play in the NFL for so long and I had to earn every minute of it. With the support of my wife Alycia (also a Trojan) we kept plugging along even after being released several times. In the NFL those that work really hard on and off the field get more chances. My years in Jacksonville were the best. Being on the same team as two of my college roomates, Boselli and Johnson made it even better. Making it to the AFC championship game in 1996 and to the playoffs three of my first four years was cool.
What was it like to play for Pete Carroll for the New England Patriots, and then to run back into him years later as the Head Coach of your alma mater? What do you see as the difference between Pete as a pro football coach, and Pete as the coach of the USC Trojans?
I played for a lot of head coaches in the NFL, Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Coughlin, Ted Marchibroda, Brian Billick, Pete Carroll, and Mike Holmgren. Pete was my favorite by far. I was at a point in my career where he really brought back the enthusiasm and my passion for the game. When he was being interviewed for the job he called me and we talked about USC, not about football, but about the campus life, the athletic department, the academic support for athletes, etc. He wanted to know what a players perspective was. I thought that was brilliant.
Going back through the uscfootball.com archives, a few years ago you wrote columns for Ryan Abraham, "The Jeff Kopp Files." I remember reading those. They were very good reading and insightful in regards to Trojan football. They can be found in the archives here http://usc.rivals.com/content.asp?SID=995&CID=310790. So it seems that recently you were still very involved with USC Football at least from a journalistic standpoint. You also did some broadcasting for KMPC. Are you still interested in that field? And what is your current relationship with the USC Football program?
I do like to put my opinion of things out there. Last year I was brought in by the local CBS station in Jacksonville to do the Jaguars Post Game Show. I had a good time but I just do it for fun. I own two bicycle stores www.TrekJax.com and race professionally as a cyclist along with having a great wife and two children..... so I have a lot on my plate. I have just committed to writing a cycling column for www.samsportsline.com so I have no desire to go any farther in TV. No time for that!!
Finally, can you sum up your feelings about your time at USC, about being a part of Trojan football history, and of your feelings about the Trojan family?
Living in Northeast Florida in the middle of Gator country so I don't get much USC coverage. I watch the games every chance I get but out here you root for the Gators or you end up in a swamp! I fly my colors when needed.....meaning when it comes throwing down some smack or some beatings I honor the Trojan Family and do it with the fierceness of a Trojan army.