VICE Sports Q&A: Mike Garrett

Mike Garrett, a Heisman winner and Super Bowl I running back, was recently named athletic director at Cal State-Los Angeles. He reflects on his career as a football player and, later, as Trojans athletic director.

Feb 10 2016, 6:05pm

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to VICE Sports Q&A, where we talk to authors, directors, and other interesting people about interesting sports things. Think of it as a podcast, only with words on a screen instead of noises in your earbuds.This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Mike Garrett won the Heisman Trophy in 1965 as a high-profile running back at the University of Southern California. In 1967, he was in the starting backfield for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I. After his professional playing career, Garrett returned to USC to serve as the school's athletic director from 1993 to 2010.

Garrett was responsible for hiring Pete Carroll and boosting the USC football program back to national prominence, but it was also on Garrett's watch that USC got slammed with NCAA sanctions based on investigations into violations involving USC running back Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo. Just over a month ago, Garrett started his new job as the athletic director at Cal State-Los Angeles.

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After his impressive collegiate career, Garrett was drafted, in 1966, by the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League. He had a solid rookie season with the Chiefs and found himself starting against the Green Bay Packers on January 15, 1967, in the very first Super Bowl game. It was the NFL against the AFL, and the game was played back in Garrett's old stomping ground: the Trojans' home field at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

I recently listened to Jim Simpson's radio call of Super Bowl I. When you ran out through the goal posts for the introductions, he said, "Listen to the roar greeting the announcement of Mike Garrett, No. 21, who played here at Southern California."

Mike Garrett: It was pretty exciting and kind of nerve-racking. I was beyond myself because I played my last college football game as a Trojan right there at the L.A. Coliseum against Wyoming. To think that just one year later, we were playing against Green Bay and it was in the very first Super Bowl. It was pretty overwhelming.

I always think about Kirk Douglas, the movie star. He had earlier invited me to be a guest at his "Man of the Year" B'nai B'rith ceremony and I always knew that he was in the stands. So I thought about Kirk Douglas and about my family being there to watch me play against the Green Bay Packers in the first Super Bowl game.

Spartacus was there to watch you play?

It was fabulous. Very exciting!

You were drafted by the Rams of the NFL and you were drafted by the Chiefs of the AFL. What made you decide to go with the Chiefs?

I got drafted by the Rams who said they were going to draft me No. 1, but then they drafted me in the second round [No. 18 overall] because I couldn't promise that I was going to sign with them. Then I was drafted by Kansas City in the last round, with the last pick, because they said that the Raiders had told everyone that I had already signed with Oakland.

Eventually, the Chiefs gave me a better offer and I said, "Why not?"

You rushed for over 800 yards and scored seven touchdowns during your rookie season and then, all of a sudden, you find yourself in the first Super Bowl game against the vaunted Packers. Nobody really gave Kansas City much of a chance going into that game. Did your team feel as though you had a shot?

We felt like we were pretty good, but I must tell you, I was kind of overwhelmed because I was a big Packers fan. When they came out of the tunnel and onto the field, I was there mentally announcing their names: Bart Starr, Lee Roy Caffey, Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, and the list went on, but we thought if we could get at them really quickly, we could play with them. And we did play with them until Len Dawson threw the interception in the second half that broke the game open and broke our backs. We never recovered, but I thought that if we had stayed pat, it would have been a game to the end.

I saw a photo from Super Bowl I that showed Dawson smoking a cigarette at halftime. What the heck?

What the heck? Can you imagine that happening now? [Laughs] I'll never forget my rookie year. We would go into the dressing room at halftime and a bunch of my teammates would be smoking. I had just left USC and I said, "You can't smoke!" They said, "What are you talking about? Get out of here!" That was going on, yes.

Halftime at Super Bowl I. User:Jimberg13/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Take me back to that Heisman Trophy year. What was that like for you at USC?

It was a pretty incredible year because my coach, John McKay, called me in right before the season and said, "Mike. I'm pushing you for the Heisman Trophy."

I just looked at him and said, "You're kidding!" I mean, Howard Cassidy, Alan Amechi, and all those great Heisman Trophy winners? I'm going to have a chance to do that? Coach said, "I think you can win it."

I said, "Oh my God!"

I will never forget. I left Coach McKay's office, walked across campus, got in my car, went home, and saw my mom. I said, "Mom. Coach McKay is pushing me for the Heisman Trophy." We just stared at each other.

Was that your motivation that year? You went out and led the nation in rushing that season [with 1,440 yards and 13 TDs].

No, but I do remember my thought process. Before every game, I told myself, "This season is one game. Let's go out and play the best game you can." I wanted to go to the Rose Bowl, so that was really the motivator. It was exciting.

You spent from 1993 to 2010 as the athletic director at USC. It had to be big for you to go back to your alma mater and be in that position.

The exciting thing was that we hadn't won in 35-40 years at USC before the John McKay era. When I got to USC, we hadn't won since the Howard Jones era, so it was perfect spacing that I would return and become the athletic director and create a new uprising of USC football. I'm very proud of that.

What goes through your mind when you think back to your time as athletic director at USC?

I felt that God was very kind to me and gave me a lot of gifts. I was from Boyle Heights, from a poor neighborhood and a poor family so this was my chance to make something of myself. I was going to seize the moment.

What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment as the athletic director at USC?

I think the biggest thing was what Dr. [Steven B.] Sample [USC President] told me when he hired me. He said, "You do your job in athletics. Help the school get more notoriety and winning. I'll do the academic side and we will make this a first-rate university." When we left, that school was comparable to anybody in the country.

Any regrets about your time as Trojans' AD?

The only regret is that I wanted to revamp the Coliseum before I left. We built the Galen Center and we made ourselves a national power. The last phase was the Coliseum.

You must know that you have become a polarizing figure in USC circles. There are a lot of people there who love what you accomplished, but there are a lot of people there who are not real happy with you. How do you handle that?

When you win, people don't like you and people get envious of you. That's kind of what happened. I was saying, "If I'm going to be disliked, dislike me for winning. Dislike me for graduating student-athletes and dislike me for creating a dynasty while I was there."

What was it like when you hired Pete Carroll to become the Trojans football coach in 2000? I think a lot of people had questions about whether or not he was the right guy. Obviously, it turned out to be a good call.

We had watched Pete. You remember those great Bill Walsh 49ers teams? Pete was the defensive coordinator. Then he went to the New York Jets for a year. The owner let Pete go. Then he went to New England and turned that program around. Bob Kraft got rid of him because he wasn't sure that Pete could be the leader.

I knew I was getting a guy who was a defensive coordinator and a coach who was really hungry. He really wanted to show all those people. I said, "I'm going to hire this guy because he is as mad as I was as I tried to make my mark in life." I knew that he was going to be successful, contrary to what everyone else said about him. When they became a winner, people asked me, "How did you know? How did you see that?" I said, "I saw myself in Pete Carroll."

That had to be a great ride. Those championship years. Those glory years.

All you have to do is ask the Trojan fans. Ask them how good that ride was. I can't go anywhere in Los Angeles without someone saying to me, "Boy, that was wonderful!"

Mike, how do you feel now about the whole NCAA investigation into Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, the NCAA sanctions, and how you handled it?

I thought we handled it perfectly. I think things are coming out. There was a lot of envy about how we did things on the West Coast. We're going to find out later that some people just didn't like it and they were going to find a way to counter it. You know what? You can't help those kind of people. You can't change those things. The one thing you can do is do what you are doing the best you can and you take it as it comes. I feel very good about what we did and, as time goes on, I'm going to be proven that we did it the right away.

How do you feel about the way the USC football program has evolved in the past year or so with Pat Haden as the AD?

They have a challenge just like I faced the challenge. Question is, let's see how they do.

Now you are the athletic director at Cal State-Los Angeles. What are your hopes? What are your plans here?

The same dreams. We are Division II now, but we are going to be the best of Division II and dominate it. Hopefully, in the foreseeable future, we will go to Division I. This university reminds me very much of USC. It is on the cusp, academically, to become a great place. We have the tools and resources now to make it a power in athletics. That is my objective.