When USC and Texas play for the national championship in college football next Wednesday in the Rose Bow, Sam Anno will be in the midst of the action.
He’ll roam the sideline, encouraging the Trojan players. He’ll make recommendations regarding the special teams. Anyone who saw him as a Santa Monica High or USC player will see the same fiery guy who went on to play seven years in the NFL, once becoming NFL Special Teams Player of the Year. Or the same leader who was an assistant coach on CIF championship teams at St. Monica (1998) and Santa Monica (2001) with Norm Lacy.
Anno, now 41, was a linebacker on USC’s 1985 team that defeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and played for the Los Angeles Rams in 1987.
When Anno’s playing career ended and he was figuring out what he’d do next in life, I was working for another local publication. He phoned and asked for a job in advertising sales, telling the boss, “With Mitch there, we’re both recognizable names and I could do some selling built around the sports section.”
He was hired and we went out on several projects together, forming a friendship that has remained strong to this day.
When I heard he was going to be a Graduate Assistant on Pete Carroll’s USC coaching staff this season I called to offer my congratulations and suggested a story linking the past to the present.
“Call anytime. I’ll always have time for you,’’ he said.
You meet a lot of people in this business, some easier to deal with than others. Too bad they all can’t be as genuine as he is.
But fast forwarding to now, I called the other night and asked what he has seen while studying films of the Texas team. which is undefeated just like USC.’
“I see a team with outstanding speed and a quarterback who runs the show,” said Anno. “The offensive linemen are athletic. By winning so often the team has gained a lot of confidence.”
Texas quarterback Vince Young finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to USC running back Reggie Bush. USC quarterback Matt Leinart, last season’s winner, finished third.
The game will conclude Anno’s first season in college coaching. It’s an experience he cherishes.
“I love it,” he said. “I love working with the young people and Pete Carroll is phenomenal. He’s a head coach who creates a competitive yet fun practice environment.
“I didn’t know many of the assistant coaches. Several were new to the staff just like me. But we’ve all gotten along great.
“During the season there are days when we work 14 to 16-hour days. It takes dedication. But this is what we all chose to do.”
As a Graduate Assistant, Anno is required to attend classes, too. He’d like to earn a Masters degree and is taking six units a semester, something he’ll do for at least two years.
“It’s a heavy workload but it’s also good to get away from the football environment a little bit,’’ he said.
Anno says being a college assistant is “very different’’ from being an assistant in high school football.
“The hours and the scrutiny of tape is quite different than high school,’’ he said. “We look at the same play from many different angles.’’
Besides being in charge of Trojan special teams, Anno has had the responsibility of organizing the scout team that plays against the varsity in practice.
“These are guys who aren’t likely to play in games and they’re not going to travel, yet their contributions in practice are important,’’ said Anno.
Last season’s special teams coach, Dennis Slutak, resigned to join former Trojan assistant Ed Orgeron, who’d become head coach at Mississippi. Slutak then returned to USC but in a different capacity.
He had been a kicking coach who even instructed at kicking camps. Anno didn’t have the same expertise but quickly gained the confidence of players.
“He may not have the same technical knowledge of kicking but he played in the NFL for seven years, learned a lot and has a lot to offer,’’ said punter Tom Malone.
USC’s special teams struggled this season but Anno met the challenge.
“We changed some personnel and some schemes as the season went along,’’ he said. “By the time we played UCLA, Coach Carroll decided we didn’t want Maurice Drew to make big plays, so we didn’t kick off deep to him.
“The guy is remarkable and we didn’t want him to have the ball.” Actually, UCLA made the same decision about Reggie Bush and there were very few long kickoffs in the game. But the Trojans had a greater variety of weapons and won, 66-19.
One year, when Anno played for the Minnesota Vikings, Carroll was an assistant coach. When Carroll was named head coach at USC five years ago, Anno came to Heritage Hall to offer support.
“It’s hard to believe now after 34 straight wins, but there was some opposition to the choice at the time,’’ recalls Anno. “Some people thought (athletic director) Mike Garrett was making a mistake.
“I came by just to tell anyone who’d listen that Pete is a good man and a good coach.’’
Carroll asked if Anno was interested in joining his staff.
‘I was in private business and felt I couldn’t make the sacrifice,’’ said Anno.
Anno could help coach high school teams in his spare time, but he knew joining a college staff would require a full-time commitment.
“The time wasn’t right then. It is now,’’ he said.. “I feel so very fortunate to be a part of what’s going on at USC.’’
Yes, a championship will be at stake next Wednesday. But Anno has been there before. On a smaller scale, of course, but a huge occasion at the time for those involved – the championship games involving St. Monica and Santa Monica teams.
He was on the winning side both times.