Stud QB Matt Leinart turned down NFL riches for a shot at another USC national title. Chances are, he'll get it.
LOS ANGELES — “Matt,” barked a gnarled sportswriter in the first row at Pac-10 football media day, “ever think about the $10 million?”
Surely he does, if for no other reason than Matt Leinart is continually asked about it. What he did, in essence, was make the most celebrated snub in history of a rich professional-sports contract, deciding to stay in college for his final year as USC quarterback.
Maybe you regard as magnum stupidity turning thumbs-down to an eight-figure signing bonus and opting to return to the NCAA for little or nothing, but this much is also true: What Leinart did is pretty cool.
Yes, he took note of the contract signed by Alex Smith, the No. 1 pick, with the 49ers: six years worth $57 million, $24 million guaranteed.
“Who knows, it could have been me,” Leinart said. “But whatever, I’m happy with what I’m doing. I’m living in L.A., hanging out. I’ve got a pretty good life.”
He disputes that it’s as glamorous as it’s portrayed. He must be talking about the fact that if you Google “Matt Leinart and dating,” you come up with, in no particular order, reported relationships with Veronica Kay, actress/pro surfer; CaCee Cobb, Jessica Simpson’s personal assistant; actress Alyssa Milano; and Kristen, from MTV’s “Laguna Beach.”
Trojans at a glance
Coach: Pete Carroll, 5th year (42-9).
Playmakers: QB Matt Leinart, RB Reggie Bush, RB LenDale White, WR Dwayne Jarrett, WR Steve Smith, LB Dallas Sartz, DE Frostee Rucker, S Darnell Bing.
2004: 13-0 (consensus national champion). Defeated Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl.
All this, and adulation, too.
“I kind of feel … not like the spokesman of college football, but I think my decision to return to school has really affected a lot of people,” he says. “I’ve gotten a lot of great compliments — kids, parents, all sorts of people.
“If I can send a message to people, that’s what I’m going to send.”
Here’s another message to college football: Look out.
As if USC needed it, it enjoys the bonanza of all that Tom Lemming/Allen Wallace/oh-my-goodness talent surrounding the most accomplished college quarterback in the land.
You envision the L.A.-living Leinart, out with a Southland starlet: “Oh yeah. Have I showed you my Heisman?”
“It’s at my parents’ house,” Leinart said, responding to a question. “I actually asked my mom yesterday. She said, ‘Oh, it’s on the box in the closet.’ “
This is a mouthful, but it’s what could come to Leinart in 2005: He has a chance to become the most decorated college-football player in history — a repeat Heisman winner (only Archie Griffin of Ohio State has done it) on a team trying to win an unprecedented three straight national titles.
Consider this: In his two seasons, Leinart has an obscene touchdown-to-interception ratio of 71-15. Carson Palmer, who won the Heisman in 2002 — but with a lesser cast in his early years — finished with a 72-49 number at USC.
Surely, the offensive arsenal around Leinart affected his decision. The Trojans have eight starters back, including the running-back combo of mercurial Reggie Bush and masher LenDale White, and four of five starters on the offensive line.
Leinart is asked to assess his receivers. He wades through Dwayne Jarrett, the Mike Williams clone who caught 55 balls as a freshman; Steve Smith, who made a touchdown catch against Oklahoma while a Sooner was pinning one arm; and tight end Dominique Byrd, who also had a 33-yard scoring reception with one hand against Oklahoma.
There’s one more — Patrick Turner, the latest 6-5 import from east of the Mississippi, this one a Parade All-American from Nashville, Tenn.
“We’re going to expect a lot from him,” Leinart said.
Considerable focus will be on the controversial coaching shakeup that saw the exit of wizard offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who gives way to quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian and coordinator Lane Kiffin, each in his early 30s.
“The people have changed, but the format is exactly the same,” insisted coach Pete Carroll.
“They’re coming into a situation where we’ve got a great team,” added Leinart. “Those guys have a great offense with a lot of guys back. It’s not like they’ve got to deal with a whole new offensive line or quarterbacks or receivers.”
But on defense, the Trojans are remade. Only five starters return, and among the departed are top-shelf Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson up front and linebackers Matt Grootegoed and Lofa Tatupu.
“We’ll be fine, I think,” said end Frostee Rucker, leaning on one of the many trophy cases at USC’s Heritage Hall. “We don’t rebuild, we reload.”
In reference to the losses, defensive end Lawrence Jackson says, “Those were all great guys. That’s the one thing guys have to get — quick experience. But I think we gain a lot of athleticism in the guys who replace them.”
Not that punting is a big thing at USC, but when the Trojans do, they turn to Tom Malone, whose 44.5-yard average is ahead of the school’s career mark. Meanwhile, the placekicking job is expected to be given to Mario Danelo, son of ex-Washington State and New York Giants kicker Joe Danelo.
Mostly, it’s an embarrassment of riches here, befitting a program that has gone 40-4 since mid-2001.
“You get the collaboration of the best coaches and the best athletes around the nation,” said Rucker.
It’s enough to make a Heisman Trophy winner come back for more.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|It’s testy, with a one-two of Oregon and ASU on the road in Games 3-4, a November date at Cal and a possible letdown game Nov. 19 with Fresno State.|
|Sept. 3||at Hawaii, 4 p.m. (ESPN2)|
|Sept. 17||Arkansas, 7:15 p.m. (FSN)|
|Sept. 24||at Oregon, 4 p.m. (ABC)|
|Oct. 1||at Arizona State, TBA|
|Oct. 8||Arizona, TBA|
|Oct. 15||at N. Dame, 11:30 a.m. (NBC)|
|Oct. 22||at Washington, TBA|
|Oct. 29||Wash. St., 12:30 p.m. (ABC)|
|Nov. 5||Stanford, TBA|
|Nov. 12||at California, TBA|
|Nov. 19||Fresno State, 7:15 p.m. (FSN)|
|Dec. 3||UCLA, 1:30 p.m. (ABC)|