For three days, University of Southern California players and coaches have trying to convince everyone that they really are HAPPY TO BE HERE - here being Anaheim and the Freedom Bowl, where they will meet Utah on Thursday night. A couple of ill-timed comments from your athletic director, a slip of the tongue, and the Trojans have to make like foreign diplomats stepping off the boat.

"We're happy to be here," says USC coach John Robinson.Sure, they're happy to be playing in a bowl game just 30 miles up the freeway from their home, against a team that finished tied for fourth in the, ahem, Western Athletic Conference, in a stadium where some believe they are jinxed (as in 0-2 and a combined score of 55-16).

"Our team is excited about playing in this game," says Robinson.

Sometimes the Trojans sound like they're trying too hard.

"Our team is happy to be here," says center Craig Gibson.

The next guy who says he's happy to be here gets a whack on the head with a rolled up newspaper.

Well, is it Robinson's fault that his boss couldn't keep his mouth shut? Or that his predecessor suffered from the same foot-in-mouth disease?

Robinson and the Trojans have been backpedaling faster than the Bush administration in the wake of a Dan Quayle speech ever since they learned they were bound for the Freedom Bowl. Athletic director Mike Garrett, who also happens to be one of USC's four Heisman Trophy winners, announced that he would get his team out of its Freedom Bowl commitment, and that USC had nothing to gain by playing a WAC team. USC players were equally unenthusiastic about the game.

Apparently, nobody had learned a thing. The Trojans grumbled about having to play another WAC team, Fresno State, in last year's Freedom Bowl. Larry Smith, serving his final days as USC's head coach at the time, complained publicly that the Trojans had nothing to gain by playing the game; that if they lost it would be a humiliation, and if they won no one would care. Smith recently told the Orange County Register that some of his senior players had told him that they didn't want to play in the Freedom Bowl.

"They were disappointed we'd ended the season with losses to UCLA and Notre Dame," said Smith. "The motivation definitely wasn't there to play another game."

"The only reason we decided to play was we didn't want to cause turmoil or set a bad example for the younger guys," says Stephon Pace, a safety on last year's USC team. "We didn't want to be a distraction."

Too late. Fresno State routed the Trojans 24-7. Quarterback Rob Johnson was so embarrassed by the defeat and by the fact that he completed just seven passes against the country's 98th-ranked defense, that he drove to Las Vegas and hid for a few days.

Five days after the loss, Smith was fired, and Robinson, who led USC to the 1978 national championship before taking a nine-year break to coach the Los Angeles Rams, was hired to take his place. But not even Robinson could prevent history from repeating itself. After a heartbreaking 27-21 loss to UCLA in the season finale that cost the Trojans a trip to the Rose Bowl, Garrett sounded off, echoing the feelings of many USC players.

All-American wide receiver Johnnie Morton says now that he didn't want to play another game, "but after we met with Coach (Robinson), he got us all enthusiastic about playing one more game. We're approaching this very seriously, not like last year."

". . . If you took a poll, I think 90 percent of us are excited about this game," punter Martin Boskovich told the L.A. Times.

"For the week after the game I tried to keep it out of my mind," says center Craig Gibson. "It's hard. But it's over and we have to press on. The seniors don't want to go out losers, so we're going to do all we can to win this game."

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The Trojans' disappointment is understandable, but that hasn't prevented the Utes from making mental notes of what they perceive as Pac-10 arrogance and condescension. Just in case the whole controversy goes away, Utah coaches have been reminding their players of it and stirring up the let's-show-'em motive.

"In our meetings the coaches bring it up, how USC doesn't respect us," says defensive tackle Blaine Berger. "The biggest thing we've got going for us is that we're being underestimated . . . I haven't heard much controversy lately, so I guess they're going to show up."

For the last word on the Freedom Bowl, we turn to Utah's head coach, Ron McBride. "This is great for us," he says. "Everything. It's all new for us. We're just happy to . . . ."

We know, we know. Let the record show: Everybody at the 10th annual Freedom Bowl is HAPPY TO BE HERE. On Tuesday evening the Utes held a pep rally. Now that sounds like they're HAPPY TO BE HERE.

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