LANGSTON, Okla. – Mike Garrett’s next stop after being forced out at Southern California might as well be an entirely different world.
Instead of sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on his way to work leading the Hollywood of college athletic programs, his commute now includes a twisting drive past cow pastures and grazing areas for his new school’s research on goats.
The 1965 Heisman Trophy-winning tailback who started bringing USC back to national prominence by hiring Pete Carroll to lead the football program is taking on another transformation project far away from the glitz and glamour.
His new job is to lead the athletic department at tiny Langston University, a historically black college in rural Oklahoma that competes in the NAIA. Just like at his old home, Garrett has set the same expectations: win national championships.
At his last stop, Garrett oversaw the creation of the “it” team of the last decade in college football. The Trojans won two national championships and three Heisman Trophies, with celebrities turning the L.A. Coliseum into a great place to see and be seen.
Garrett’s tenure ended when the football and men’s basketball teams were sanctioned for breaking NCAA rules although the football team emerged from the penalties to grab the No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press’ preseason poll Saturday.
It’s that kind of positive notoriety that Garrett wants to bring to Langston, giving people across the country a reason to pull up the website to see what the school’s about.
“That’s what we want here. That’s why we’re trying to be No. 1,” Garrett said in an interview Saturday. “We want the story out, which means that’s our expectations.”
Garrett was drawn to Langston by President Kent Smith Jr., both sharing a vision of putting a bigger emphasis on athletics as a building block for the academic side.
“Mike told me some stories about the USC that we know today,” Smith said.
“Many, many years ago, they were at a similar place to where Langston is today, and Mike bought in early at USC in terms of utilizing athletics as a mechanism to help the university to build its brand academically.”
At this point, Langston’s best-known sports star is Hall of Fame basketball player Marques Haynes, who in 1946 led the Lions to a victory against the Harlem Globetrotters before joining the team himself.
For Garrett, the formula to create a higher profile is simple.
“We must play great football, start drawing crowds and generate revenue. When that happens, then everything else falls into place,” he said. “So, that’s my main objective now: Producing a great program, people wanting to see it and then other things will unfold.”
Down the road, that could include a potential move up from the NAIA to one of the NCAA’s lower divisions. The Lions, coached by former Nebraska quarterback Mickey Joseph, already play a challenging nonconference schedule against Division II and Football Championship Subdivision opponents.
Just last year, they beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the Delta Classic 4 Literacy and the rematch is set for Sept. 1 in Little Rock, Ark. Road games at defending NAIA champion St. Xavier and Lamar of the FCS also are on this year’s schedule.
“Our reality is that Langston University can compete nationally,” said Smith, who officially started in June and hired Garrett later that month. “We are competing nationally, certainly academically and I believe with this guy’s leadership, you’ll see us turn a corner and do things we never dreamt of doing even athletically.”
Garrett understands that the challenges, like the landscape, are far different at Langston than they were at Southern California and it starts off with far more limited resources.
“Certainly, it’s not as if we have a gold mine and we can just do whatever we want to do. There are fiscal challenges, but you make choices. And I think there will be choices that we have to make,” Smith said.
“I have made a commitment to Mike. We will make some financial deposits, if you will, into athletics.”
Joseph said he hopes that will mean an increased budget for scholarships and recruiting, to attract more high-caliber players.
“He’s been places where they’ve won national championships, so he knows the direction where he needs you to go to put you in that title game and give you everything that you need to be successful,” Joseph said. “When I come to him and say, `Hey! I need this,’ he already knows. `Yeah, you need that. You should have said that yesterday.'”
Garrett got a ringing endorsement from starting quarterback Jac’Quon Miles “I love that guy. He’s cool.” and it’s because of how he’s gotten involved with the team. On an everyday basis, Garrett will visit practice and provide tips to Miles in the huddle, trying to make him a better leader.
“I’ve met a lot of athletic directors who became bureaucrats, that all they did was stay in their offices and then later when they retired, they said, `You know, the thing I missed is I didn’t connect with the kids,'” Garrett said. “And I find being in my office, at times, very trying and the only joy I can find quite often is to go out on the practice field and go out and watch them practice.”
His message has been that the Lions have talent, and that there could be something special in the making.
“We’re such a quiet monster right now,” Garrett said. “But once we start doing the things we do, it’ll be something … I’m not saying it’s easy. All I’m saying is it’s terribly possible, and I’m very excited about the process.”