Bibby shines spotlight on darkhorse Trojans

Coach guides USC vs. Kentucky tonight

Ncaa Tournament

March 22, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- The athletic image of the University of Southern California used to be one of football Saturdays at the Los Angeles Coliseum, of tailbacks in the hunt for the Heisman Trophy and teams in contention for the national championship.

Even when the school's basketball team had some success in the early 1970s, the Trojans were barely noticed in Los Angeles.

Take the 1970-71 season, when USC went 24-2 and finished fifth in the national polls, but didn't even go to the NCAA tournament because both of its defeats were to crosstown rival UCLA, the most dominant team in the land.

"I think when you go to UCLA, you don't think of any other programs," said Henry Bibby, who was an All-American at UCLA during the 1970s and is now in his fifth full season as USC's coach. "But USC is a program that has been building for years."

The Trojans now find themselves on equal footing with the Bruins. Sixth-seeded USC (23-9) meets second-seeded Kentucky (24-9) tonight in the first semifinal game of the NCAA East Regional here at the First Union Center, while fourth-seeded UCLA (23-8) plays top-seeded Duke (31-4) in the second semifinal.

The winners will play Saturday for the right to go to this year's Final Four in Minneapolis.

"USC is kind of a second-hand school to UCLA," USC guard Jeff Trepagnier said yesterday. "Games like [tonight] will help us because we are trying to change the perception in Los Angeles that maybe there are two good basketball schools."

Said junior guard Brandon Granville: "USC is kind of like the new kid on the block. We are trying to make some noise. We are trying to get our program to where those other programs [in this regional] are."

While UCLA, Kentucky and Duke have combined for 20 national championships -- including five in the last decade -- this marks the first time since 1954 that USC has won at least two games in the tournament. With a football program in flux for most of the past two decades, basketball has slowly taken hold.

The long road the Trojans have taken to the national stage is similar to the journey traveled by their coach after his playing career ended.

After coaching the team in Tulsa to the CBA championship in 1989, Bibby interviewed for the head coaching job at Morgan State.

Having coached a year with the CBA's Baltimore Lightning in 1986, Bibby was familiar with the area. He didn't get the job and after two more seasons in Tulsa and three in Oklahoma City, Bibby wound up coaching in Venezuela for one year before winding up as an assistant to interim coach Charlie Parker in 1995. Bibby became the coach later that season.

"The road I've taken has been a lot of stops and obstacles," Bibby said yesterday. "I guess I'm a self-made coach."

Bibby's road included an estranged relationship with his son, Mike, the former Arizona star now with the NBA's Vancouver Grizzlies. It was often in an uncomfortable spotlight during the younger Bibby's two years in Tucson, the first of which ended with the Wildcats winning the national championship.

This season hasn't been without its controversies. There was the suspension by the NCAA of Trepagnier for allegedly taking a trip to Las Vegas that was paid for by an agent. There was the recent flap over the team's walk-ons quitting after they alleged that Bibby wouldn't allow them to sit on the bench during games.

But all those hardships were forgotten when the Trojans upset third-seeded Boston College, 74-71, in the second round last week in Uniondale, N.Y.

"I have played in a lot of championship games -- in high school, in college and in the NBA -- and this is the most satisfaction I have had in basketball," said Bibby, who was the starting point guard on three straight NCAA championship teams at UCLA and a reserve on the 1973 NBA champion New York Knicks. "It might not look like I'm having fun, but I've loved coaching."

Granville, the team's point guard, has felt the brunt of Bibby's tirades.

"My first two years he was constantly pressing me," said Granville. "It was a team joke if I passed the ball to a guy and he took a bad shot, it was my fault for passing it. Coach Bibby is trying to make me better. You have to respect where he has been as a player and a coach and just listen."

One of the places Bibby played was here, playing on the 76ers team that lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1977 NBA Finals and to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals.

"The latter part of my career, I got booed here," Bibby said with a smile. "But I had some very good years here. I hope the people of Philadelphia don't think I owe them one. Dr. J. made that promise, not me."

Bibby hasn't promised USC fans anything. When you haven't been to the Sweet 16 in 30 years, getting this far is more than enough.

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