The USC football program received some surprising news in recent days when it was announced that Kennedy Polamalu was released from the staff.
Polamalu was a popular running backs coach -- he also held the title of offensive coordinator but did not call plays -- who was in his second coaching stint with the Trojans. He had a reputation as a coach who cared about his players and preached a physical style of football while also having the credibility of being a former USC player who had coaching experience in the NFL.
To say that the loss of Polamalu from the staff was a shock to the players he had coached would be an understatement. As word began to spread over the weekend that Polamalu was gone, many of the players took to their Twitter accounts to voice their thoughts and support:
• “Not only did we lose the best coach, we lost the only Trojan who was on staff. Real sad day” -- fullback Soma Vainuku (@somavainuku)
• “Disappointed” -- recent tailback signee Ty Isaac (@TyIsaac)
• “U dont get rid of coach P now how ignorant was that smh he is the best coach there” -- former tailback Stafon Johnson (@stafonjohnson26)
• “Now why would they do that smh” – former wide receiver Robert Woods (@robertwoods)
Part of the reason that Polamalu struck a chord with so many players is because of his deep USC ties. The school represented so much in his life after coming to the United States from American Samoa at age 12 as a young man who did not speak English. Yet five years later he was student body president at Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei with a football scholarship to USC.
Polamalu was a hard-nosed fullback for the Trojans from 1982-85. He was part of the 1985 Rose Bowl title team and had career totals of 681 rushing yards (he never lost a yard carrying the ball) along with 23 receptions and a 65-yard touchdown pass. Polamalu earned his bachelor’s degree in history from USC in 1987.
When he spoke of his pride in the university, either to the current players or on the recruiting trail, it resonated loud and clear. Even beyond his obvious affection for USC, his players and those he came in contact with had the genuine sense that he cared about their well being and ability to succeed beyond football.
“Kennedy Polamalu is the best coach I’ve ever been around, but he’s an even greater man,” said Stanley Havili, a former USC fullback who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles. “You could tell he cared by the way he coached, he wanted you to understand the game and how it translated to life. We still talk every other week, that should tell you how much he cares about his players even after they are gone.
“I learned something every day working with Coach P. I remember our first meeting with him, we sat and talked football for 30 minutes and it was crazy, our pencils were flying. He gave us a break and all of the running backs walked outside and said ‘we learned more in that 30 minutes than we had in the previous four years’.”
Rhett Ellison was a tight end early in his USC career who moved to fullback for his final season, a move that he credits with helping advance his career in the NFL because of the opportunity to work with Polamalu.
“KP is the best coach I ever had,” Ellison said. “It wasn’t just about football, although he could teach that better than anyone, it was the way he cared about you as a player. He and my dad (former USC linebacker Riki Ellison) were the ones who taught me how to be a Trojan, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
“Coach Polamalu is also the one who moved me to fullback for my senior year and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. What he taught me made me more versatile for the NFL and that helped me a lot last year with the Vikings.”
Polamalu was also known as one of the most effective recruiters on the USC staff, particularly in Southern California. Perhaps his most visible recruiting success came in 2002 when he landed the Poly 4 -- Hershel Dennis, Darnell Bing, Winston Justice and Manuel Wright from Long Beach (Calif.) Poly. In more recent years, Polamalu was the lead recruiter at Gardena (Calif.) Serra, which has sent three star receivers to the Trojans, including Woods, USC's all-time receptions leader, and 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee.
“I think the world of Kennedy Polamalu,” Serra coach Scott Altenberg said. “He really respected the kids during the recruiting process, which allowed him to connect with them. The kids always just said such great things about him. It wasn’t just during the recruiting process either. Kennedy was really good about calling me when they were at SC and giving me updates on how they were doing. You don’t get that from most other coaches. He was real consistent in that way, a real solid guy.”
Sheila Nero, Lee’s mother, said that there were many times when she had questions about issues that would pop up and Polamalu was always there to help.
“I felt like of all the coaches on the staff I could reach out to him and he would be there,” Nero said. “He cared a lot about the kids staying on the right path and giving them good advice. It didn’t matter if it was about classes for Marqise or just making sure we were doing things within the rules, he would always steer us in the right direction. We’re gonna miss him.”
There are many within the USC program who will miss Kennedy Polamalu. He made an impact with the way he coached and mentored so many players and he did it with a respect for the university he loves so much. Coaches like that are hard to come by.