Zack Jerome: His Arrogance And His Fight
But that's not an insult -- the 29-year-old Director of Social Media and Community for the video game company THQ, USC alumnus and self-proclaimed "Bearfighter" (a reference to USC rivals' mascots, UCLA and Cal) made it very clear that as USC's fanbase is arrogant, and he is unabashedly honest about being guilty of frequent arrogance as well. And it's not necessarily in the traditional sense of the word.
"I think my play on the word arrogant has been embraced by the USC community," Jerome explained. "In person, I'm a little more tactful. The blog is where I swing the axe."
If you don’t believe him, just read his blog. Jerome is the founder and writer of Lost Angeles and is the man who coined "Arrogant Nation," describing USC football fan's often elitist mentality and nonchalant demeanor to losing games.
"Even when I came to visit USC, I just remember seeing what the students were like on game day, and they had this attitude of just not giving a shit, but they were all smart, and they all had big plans," Jerome said. "It was kind of this world where like if you lost, it was like 'whatever, we're not going to lose next week. We’re gonna win anyway.'"
A New Jersey native, he and his family moved to Texas when he was nine, where he first fell in love with football, as the Dallas Cowboys were winning multiple championships. A few years later, his family moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake Village, where he currently resides with his wife, Emily.
After graduating from USC in 2005 from the School of Cinematic Arts, he wrote and sold a couple of scripts and worked in a slew of smalltime advertising jobs, where he was fired. Twice.
One boss told Jerome that he was a good writer but would never make in advertising. Naturally, Jerome's stubbornness came to the surface.
"My entire life, anytime anyone ever gave me that much of a challenge or that much of an ultimatum, I'm so compulsive that I'm kind of hell bent on proving everybody wrong," Jerome said.
Though Jerome gave up on advertising for a while -- he played in a band that was featured on KROQ -- he was inches away from becoming a high school history teacher and a JV baseball coach before a phone call presented him with another opportunity. An old USC professor called to offer Jerome a digital advertising job, where he ultimately excelled. Jerome would have been teaching about biblical-age Trojans had it not been for his beloved alma mater.
"USC has always been kind of that thing that pulled me back in the right direction," Jerome said of his university.
"Basically [my career] started with total failure. The way I liken my career was sort of like a very calculated run down the stairs," Jerome said. "If I thought about what I was doing at any given point too much, I'd probably fall. Just keep your legs moving."
It was in January 2009 when he started Lost Angeles, but it took until that September before the blog went viral. One day, Jerome was presented with pictures of USC gear in UCLA colors on Nike's website and made a post about it.
"I was walking around my office [at Chiat Day, a large advertising agency] of about 800 people working in it," Jerome said, "and people who didn't even know who I was had my blog up on their screen."
The comment thread of this particular post started what Jerome called a "culture war between USC and UCLA" and was awarded 2009's "Best Comment Thread of the Year" award by LAWeekly.com. Jerome then figured he could do well in a job involving social media.
"All social media is trying to get people to have conversations and I got this idea that I was better at that than I was at producing," Jerome said.
He took a job at Saatchi and Saatchi for a senior social media position without official social media experience in an office setting. Then, Chiat Day hired him back before he landed at THQ.
That USC/UCLA comment thread was the beginning of "Arrogant Nation," which officially started following the NCAA sanctions and Lane Kiffin's arrival as head coach.
"When [USC] got sanctioned, I started seeing this whole generation of kids coming into 'SC that were getting down about the idea of USC football," Jerome said. "Which to me was insane, because our team didn't get bad, games weren't just, hypothetically, able to lead to a bowl."
He then made a post called "The Most Arrogant Shit Ever," where he laid out his mission statement: to go undefeated and make a statement to the NCAA that the sanctions were ineffective. But he needed some help to make the arrogant tag stick.
"I had all these ideas in my head that like, 'How am I going to spin it if this team doesn't care, and we just get blown out in a game,' and a couple times, it happened," Jerome said. "But most of the time, how lucky was I that Lane Kiffin just goes for two his first season after every fucking touchdown?!
"Probably the luckiest thing ever when you just said that your whole blog would be about trying to be more arrogant than the other team," he added.
Jerome noticed the solid readership he received during the 2010 season and even created merchandise ("You Can’t Sanction The Endzone" and "Bowls Are For Salad" t-shirts), but he realized his reach when the biggest game of the season -- against Oregon -- occurred on his wedding day.
On that morning, Jerome turned on his TV to watch ESPN's College GameDay, which was taking place place outside of the L.A. Coliseum.
“I was watching that morning in my bedroom, I see all these people waving signs that said 'You Can’t Sanction The End Zone' or 'Bowls Are For Salad,'" Jerome said.
And that was not even the craziest part of the pre-wedding morning.
"One person even had a sign that said 'Congratulations Zack and Emily,' which at that point, I said 'this is the coolest thing in the world,'" Jerome said. Receiving wedding congratulations on national television? Talk about influence.
Through the blog, Jerome began relationships with some of the football players, including quarterback Matt Barkley and punter Kyle Negrete, who valued Jerome's staunch defense of the program and his honesty.
"As players, we can't talk like that," Negrete said. "But the way that he puts it down is catchy, and whether you're a football fan or not, it's really engaging."
During perhaps the lowest point in Trojan football history, Negrete thought Jerome was able to excite the fanbase.
"Every post that he had, there was something he focused on that gave fans something positive to look forward to," Negrete said. "It was something that was rejuvenating. It gave fans something to look forward to out of a season where we couldn't go to a bowl game.
"His words were extremely beneficial to the growth of USC fans and just the excitement that it attracted," Negrete added.
Two-time cancer survivor
And yet, beyond the blogging and overt USC homerism, Jerome is a humbled man, by his career and also with his two bouts against melanoma -- the deadliest form of skin cancer.
His first time was when he was a junior at USC, in the midst of the football season.
"The week after I first had it, I had like 20 stitches in my back and another ten under each armpit when USC lost to Cal in triple overtime in 2003," Jerome said. "I watched that game, I couldn't move, and USC just loses in that game."
After that defeat, USC did not lose until the 2006 Rose Bowl against Texas.
"In a weird way, that time, my recovery and the football team were the same time, and all that was cool," Jerome said.
Cancer is an experience that not many people can deal with adequately, whether one expects it or is diagnosed with it at a young age, which Jerome struggled with, electing to not tell most people.
"I was really anxious to go back being a kid after the first time, so I didn't really talk about it a lot in my classes," he said. "I wasn't even getting great grades during that time period, because as a writer, you don't want to be judged on, 'well, this writing was shit, but he had cancer, so let’s give him an A.' So I didn’t really tell anyone, but at the same time, I'd be lying if I said I could really concentrate on writing."
He admits that he did not do much philanthropically the first time around, but when he was diagnosed again in 2010, he knew he had to do more as a married man supporting himself. He was the keynote speaker for the 2011 USC Relay for Life and has vowed to spread awareness as much as possible, including donating to various organizations.
But the most important thing he does on his blog goes back to this readers.
"A lot of people reach out to me when someone they know go through cancer, and I think again, that's one of the bigger things I do," Jerome said. "I didn't even have to go through chemo, and some people have it so much worse. The best thing you can do is to make people not feel so bad about it and feel like you can still have a pretty normal life going through that. I just try every chance I get to do what I can."
Giving back to his school
On Wednesday evening, Jerome spoke to a mostly-capacity crowd during USC sorority Delta Gamma's annual lectureship on values and ethics at the Galen Center's Founders' Club, where his wife and parents listened to him speak to an attentive audience, at one point reflecting on his cancer and his perseverance.
"Cancer... that's not what's going to get me. It's going to be [Oregon coach] Chip Kelly in my sleep," Jerome joked to a chorus of laughter.
The evening was filled with much joy due to Jerome’s quips, but his purpose was far greater than entertainment. He spoke of ethics in the workplace and how to advocate for yourself after college and simply how to be a better person.
"If you work really hard, you'll find something that works for you," Jerome stated near the end of his talk. He also stressed that loyalty to your co-workers, friends and family is critical, as well as feeling a communal sense in what one does.
Before he took the stage, one of the Delta Gamma sisters called Jerome a "cult hero" to the USC students and fanbase.
"To have people at my school refer to me as a cult hero is really an incredible honor, whether it's true or not," Jerome said after the talk. "In the end, I want to follow in the footsteps of the writers who have been put into USC's hall of fame, but I want to do it on my own terms.
"If I had to be remembered for something coming from Lost Angeles, I'd like it to be the role I played during the sanctions era. If being a cult hero is what it takes to make that happen, it's a role I gladly will continue to play," he added.
To the many loyal readers in attendance Wednesday evening, that is all they want from Jerome: to continue doing it his way. He even likened himself to Batman, intentionally paraphrasing the final lines from the movie The Dark Knight.
"Matt Barkley is the hero we deserve, and I’m saying the things I feel like the school is not allowed to say. I think we need that," he concluded.
When USC was levied with sanctions, many media outlets criticized the program, and Jerome was one of the few standing up for the current team that had committed no act to breach any NCAA violation. As attendance in the Coliseum declined, Jerome inspired students to still root for their school and their football team.
It sounds arrogant of him to say that he's filling a necessary void to have someone speak on behalf of the program outside of bureaucratic limitations. But to his fans, it won’t seem that way.
And if it's true, can it be arrogant?