Shortly before USC took on No. 20 UCLA in its 2001 regular season finale, Antuan Simmons and the rest of the Trojans’ seniors gathered together. Simmons and his classmates had been recruited by John Robinson at the back end of his second tenure as USC head coach and then played for Paul Hackett, who was fired after an embarrassing last-place Pac-10 finish in 2000.
First-year head coach Pete Carroll had offered some reasons to believe the Trojans weren’t too far off from re-establishing themselves as a West Coast power, but they were still missing that spark. Beating the Bruins that week would at least secure bowl eligibility.
“For us seniors, we had a tumultuous time there,” Simmons told The Athletic. “We just wanted to go out with a bang. Us seniors got together, talked about it and of course, you’ve got UCLA. It gives you that extra incentive. That was our mindset going into that game.”
As one former USC player dutifully noted, the 2001 Trojans won’t be remembered as one of the greatest teams in school history. The golden age of modern USC football didn’t begin until the next year. But with one miraculous interception on Nov. 17, 2001, Simmons helped wake up a sleeping giant and provided a glimpse of the electricity and swagger that would soon define it.
“When you think of the Pete Carroll Era, it really started that season — the Arizona game or whatever — but this being kind of the end of the season, the Antuan Simmons play, it kind of put that stamp the Trojans are back, are here,” former USC wideout and current receivers coach Keary Colbert said. “It kind of put everything on notice again. That play was the play of the year. It kind of gave notice to the program. When you look at the next year, you’re talking about a Heisman Trophy winner, two first-round draft picks, you’re talking about an Orange Bowl, the No. 4 ranked team in the country and No. 1 recruiting class. On and on and on. I think when I look back now, that was the beginning of putting the notice and letting everyone know what was to come.”
USC couldn’t become the preeminent program in the sport unless it controlled the West Coast, and it couldn’t control the West Coast unless it owned Los Angeles.