Andy Enfield's California Dream
Credit: Photograph by Andrew Cutraro

It is an hour after dawn on a warm fall day, and the palm trees sway outside the sky windows of the University of Southern California's Galen Center. It's the kind of morning that will come in handy for Andy Enfield, USC's new basketball coach, when a high school stud from Chicago or Coney Island comes to visit. He will tell them about 80-degree January days, being honored on the ESPYs last year, and hanging backstage with Charlie Sheen before going on Leno. In a phrase: L.A., baby.

But there are no championship banners, no Final Fours in 60 years, no regular season conference titles since Ronald Reagan. Instead, hanging from the rafters are giant photos of USC players having moments of severely limited glory – three tournament wins in 11 years, one more than Enfield won last year with Florida Gulf Coast University. One picture stands out: a Gollum-pale Brian Scalabrine bulling his way to the basket as a cheerleader stares into the void.

Enfield hopes that's the old USC. The one where a recruit's dad sees that picture of a jovial ham-and-egger and the reality that USC hasn't done jack shit in basketball for a half-century settles in like a sketchy fish burrito and he drives his boy the 12 miles to Westwood and UCLA's 11 NCAA titles.

Right now, Enfield, 44, doesn't have the luxury to deal with such macro issues. He's trying to teach his team basic defense. He whistles a stop to a drill.

"You're not gonna play in the NBA or Europe with defense like that," says Enfield in a voice more cutting than loud. Enfield's rep as a self-deprecating, gap-toothed wizard is all physically and metaphorically true, but there's also a flash of snark and shark. "There reaches a point where you're wondering why you're playing six minutes instead of 20. I did it last year. Players passed me on the way to the bench and I just smiled, and they'd know why they'd gotten pulled."

Enfield's inherited USC squad is a gamy stew of Egyptian seven-footers, Orange County gunners, and a backup center who once averaged a point a game for Virginia Commonwealth. Enfield would never say it, but there are not five players on his roster he'd have recruited himself.

Last March, Enfield was having his "One Shining Moment," the cornball song played over NCAA tournament montages. He led Florida Gulf Coast University – established in 1991 and so unknown it was called Florida Golf Coast by CBS – to two of the most improbable upsets (over Georgetown and San Diego State) in tournament history. In two weeks, Enfield went from FGSU (no alumni over 37) to USC, with its 340,000 alumni, ginormous endowment, and rabid fan base. Now he's having one big, fat careful-what-you-wish-for moment. Enfield knows better than most that last year's prince can be mauled by sports radio trolls and soon be back coaching at Central Bumblefuck State.

So he works on the basics while trying to keep a smile on his face. I mention that his players seem upbeat after last year, a debacle that included a 14-18 record, two deposed head coaches, and a half-empty arena where the PA announcer mocked participants in free-throw contests. Enfield's predecessor, Kevin O'Neill, was a yeller and not considered a guy who derived any pleasure from his job. That's not Enfield. The fun of watching Florida Gulf Coast's run last spring was the pure joy of his players swaggering, just barely in control in an up-and-down NBA style that became known as Dunk City.

"I'm looking for players who are long," says Enfield, watching his guys run the court. "Players who can run and play defense. Players like who go to Duke."

It's an interesting analogy, since USC basketball is most comparable to Duke football – historically forgettable. He's at USC, where football is king and basketball is the 17th diversion below legalized weed and In-N-Out Burger.

Enfield knows he has miles to go. He sees something he doesn't like and jumps up. Nikola Jovanovic, a blade-thin Serbian freshman, has just launched an errant 15-footer. "Nikola, you settle for that fallaway jumper in the face of a 7-foot-2 guy one more time, you're not gonna play for a week," says Enfield. "Take a step and drive past him! Maybe we failed you as coaches this summer, and for that I'm sorry, but you're too good a player to do that." Jovanovic shoots Enfield a hangdog look but gets the message. Enfield sits back down.

"What were we talking about? Oh, yeah; you try to teach the kids that the game is most fun when you put together both offense and defense. I don't think yelling works unless you have a presence like a Bobby Knight." He flashes his Opie Cunningham smile. "And I definitely don't. My vision in college basketball is it needs to be fun. It needs to be fun for the players and for the fans."

But what about for him? Andy Enfield will have to wait and see if the fun ever starts.