LANGSTON — Mike Garrett sits in a barren office on a barren campus on the barren Oklahoma plains in the middle of summer, 1,372 miles from Southern Cal's idyllic campus, and talks national championships.
Talks of national championships and moving Langston University into the NCAA, and not just to Division II, where Langston's old Oklahoma partners have settled, but Division I, be it I-AA or even pie in the sky of I-A.
Garrett won a Heisman Trophy with USC in 1965, and a Super Bowl ring with the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs; he was the USC athletic director who hired Pete Carroll, spurring a Trojan renaissance.
Now, at 69 years old, Garrett is running the athletic department at a 2,500-student school in rural Oklahoma with few resources and little tradition. Yet Garrett is talking championships.
The Road to Rome, he calls it. Rome, Ga., hosts the NAIA championship game, and Garrett is unabashed in his plan. Win the 2013 NAIA title, spur school spirit and alumni pride, build up the finances and Langston's profile, and then do the same thing all over again in the NCAA.
“I think it's a good story,” said Barry Switzer, who helped Garrett stage a golf tournament in Tulsa last spring that raised $100,000 for Langston. “Segregated school, doesn't have any funding at all, really. They've got aspirations and dreams. I'm impressed with the guy.”
Garrett talks big. He's also produced big. USC's athletic budget was $18 million when Garrett was hired as AD in 1993 and football had become mediocre. When Garrett was forced out in 2010 amid NCAA scandals in football (Reggie Bush) and basketball (O.J. Mayo), the Trojan budget was approaching $100 million and Carroll had built a powerhouse, winning 79 games in the seven seasons of 2002-08.
But there is nothing big about Langston. Nothing big except Garrett's dream.
Garrett did not attend an historically black college. Did not even grow up in an area where segregated higher education existed. Garrett grew up in East Los Angeles.
But on those grand old Chief teams of Hank Stram, Garrett had plenty of teammates who came from historically black colleges.
Buck Buchanan went to Grambling. Willie Lanier went to Morgan State. Jim Kearney and Otis Taylor went to Prairie View. Jim Marsalis went to Tennessee State. Robert Holmes and Frank Pitts went to Southern U.
“But more importantly, I grew up in the projects,” Garrett said. “One thing I wanted to do was never have to move back to the projects. Some people along the way helped me achieve my goal.
“So when they asked about an historically black college, it was like me going back to my roots and try to make something happen. I identify with a lot of the kids here, because they have a chance to change their lives, and do it academically and athletically. I can't think of anything more exciting to do at this time of my life than to be at Langston and fight the fight.”
It's a fight, all right. Langston does not award athletic scholarships. It grants tuition waivers to some, and Garrett hopes to implement scholarships eventually. Langston's athletic budget is $4 million, and the Lions have only three home games this season; their four games outside the Central States Football League are all road games against NCAA Division I-AA opponents, for which Garrett plans to make $100,000 to bolster the budget.
And the expectation of winning was gone when Garrett arrived.
“Langston has a great school spirit, alumni has a great spirit,” Garrett said. “But they've kind of lost that drive in athletics, other than that homecoming game, where there's a battle of the bands.”
Who knows what the alumni and students expect from Langston football? But Garrett does not mince words about his expectations.
In less than a year, Garrett replaced five of his seven head coaches, including football's Mickey Joseph, who was replaced by Dwone Sanders. And no one this side of George Steinbrenner is as brutally honest as is Garrett.
“What we want to do is become a reckoning body in NAIA sports, then move up to Division II and become a force there,” Garrett said, “with the whole guise of branding the university and bringing in better students. Oklahoma did that with Bud Wilkinson.”
Garrett is buoyed by Langston's 17-14 loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff last season in Little Rock. UA-Pine Bluff went on to win the SWAC championship in Division I-AA.
“That told me we had the nucleus of really dominating at the NAIA level,” Garrett said. “I don't think an NAIA team can beat us. As a result, our goal is to win the national championship.”
The NAIA coaches don't necessarily agree. They've got Langston ranked 23rd in the NAIA preseason poll.
But NAIA coaches didn't hire Sanders. Garrett did.
“I can guarantee you this, there have never been any NAIA coaches who have been put under more pressure than I'm putting my coaching staff under,” Garrett said. “The talk is national championships 24 hours a day.
“If you're around the kids, all the talk is national championship, national championship. It's very exciting.”
Langston president Kent Smith arrived in June 2012. He had been vice president of student affairs at Ohio University but was enticed to Langston for many of the same reasons that drew Garrett. The chance to create.
“We are equally yoked in the way we view the university's opportunity to change young people's lives,” Smith said.
“I don't think we've realized our full potential yet. I just think our best years are ahead. There's so much opportunity here.”
Smith's first hire was a Heisman Trophy winner. Smith had hired a search firm, which contacted Garrett. He was intrigued by the challenge and restless of sitting around his Pasadena, Calif., home. So Garrett and his wife flew to Oklahoma on their own dime, walked the campus, talked to some longtime Langston people like Ruben Oliver, director of the school's physical plant, and decided to take the job.
Smith said Garrett brought instant credibility, not just because of a certain piece of hardware, but all those years directing a department like USC's.
“We're so fortunate to have him,” Smith said. “Our students get to interact with someone who has operated at the highest level.”
The vision of Smith and Garrett is not new. Build up a university's brand with athletics. Make the public take notice. Attract more and better students. Grow the finances. The entire university benefits.
It's a tried and true formula on every level. Doesn't always work, but it's worked often enough to prove that it can work. But can it work at an outpost like Langston?
“In the black community, everybody knows about Langston,” Garrett said. “In the white community, older people remember Langston.”
Older people also remember the first of USC's five Heisman-winning tailbacks.
“People in industry and corporations, my age or maybe a little younger, they remember Langston and they also remember me,” Garrett said. “It entices them to talk to me and think about Langston and believe that things could happen.”
Garrett hopes to call on some old LA friends, if Langston wins big. Get them on the train, too. But again, winning is mandatory.
And historically, it's been tough for Langston to win. Limited resources. Disorganization. Scheduling difficulties, going back 40 years, when Oklahoma schools formed a new conference ostensibly to exclude Langston after some conflicts.
“It's no different than what I tried to do at USC,” Garrett said. “Hadn't won in a long time. My whole deal is, if you can't win national championships and be at the cutting edge, you don't want to play.
“If you're competing well against I-AA schools, there's no limit to what we can do.”
Garrett is nothing if not a dreamer. And at a place like Langston, it has to start with a dream.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.
Born: April 12, 1944
Hometown: Los Angeles
College: Southern California
Honors: Two-time All-America tailback, 1965 Heisman Trophy
NFL: Eight seasons, 4 1/2 with Kansas City, 3 1/2 with San Diego.
Honors: 1967 All-AFL, scored Chiefs' first touchdown in 23-7 win over Vikings in Super Bowl IV
Post-football career: director of business development for the Great Western Forum, worked for the San Diego district attorney's office, Southern Cal athletic director 1993-2010