Column: Finally, some good news for college game
We interrupt this seamy, scandal-plagued, cash-grab-of-a-college-football season for the following public-service message:
Matt Barkley is staying in school.
The announcement Thursday that Barkley will return to USC for his senior season isn't really a tale about great sacrifice. He knows NFL-ready quarterback prospects almost always hold their value and he'll likely get his millions soon enough.
It isn't even the most uplifting story in the game this week. That would be Eric LeGrand's appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated commemorating the best sports moment of 2011, when he led his Rutgers teammates onto the field in a wheelchair for a home game in late October, little more than a year after LeGrand was paralyzed playing against Army.
Barkley's decision isn't the newsiest development this week, either, That would be the wrist slap the NCAA gave Ohio State, whose clueless president and shameless athletic director whined that the school had punished itself enough after learning that former coach Jim Tressel lied and cheated his way through the entire 2010 season.
But Barkley's story might be the most surprising, considering how rarely loyalty takes hold across the college football landscape, including the very spot on which he was standing.
Not quite two years ago, Pete Carroll, the coach who recruited Barkley, left for Seattle and the NFL rather than stick around and face the harsh penalties the NCAA was about to levy on Southern California for a host of violations on his watch. The coach Barkley played for the past two seasons, Lane Kiffin, didn't exactly cover himself in glory, either, for the way he departed Tennessee — abruptly — to take Carroll's place.
Barkley and his teammates bore the brunt of the postseason bans and all that upheaval and decided to come back anyway.
"I am staying so I can finish what I started," Barkley said to cheers inside USC's Heritage Hall.
More than a few pro scouts shook their heads at that moment, though, recalling how Matt Leinart made the same call to a similar round of cheers a handful of years earlier.
"It's another year with my pals, no matter how it turns out," Leinart said a few days after his decision. "But I'll tell you what: I didn't want to look back 10 or 20 years down the road and find out I passed on the chance to be a part of something really special."
He was coming off USC's back-to-back national championships and a Heisman Trophy-winning season. He didn't duplicate either achievement in the one that followed and his draft stock tumbled when Texas quarterback Vince Young, who outplayed Leinart in a thrilling Bowl Championship Series finale, declared himself eligible for the same 2006 draft. Leinart, a lock for the top spot a year earlier, tumbled to No. 10 and wound up costing himself millions.
If there's any consolation for Barkley in that example, it's that Leinart, despite proving himself a barely adequate backup in the pros, still made millions. Plus, like Leinart, Barkley will be returning to a Trojans squad with a very realistic chance to win a national championship next season and a strong enough supporting cast — on offense, anyway — to get him a Heisman Trophy.
USC finished 10-2 and climbed all the way to No. 5 before shutting things down for the season. While Barkley loses his best protector on the offensive line — left tackle Matt Kalil already declared for the NFL draft, where could go as high as No. 2 — the quarterback will reunite with receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, a tandem that just might be the nation's best.
We won't know how things turn out, of course, for a while. But it's hardly the bad business decision those NFL scouts panned it as, if only because Stanford's Andrew Luck made the same one at the end of last season and cemented his place at the top of next spring's NFL draft.
And the quartet of quarterbacks who did the same dating back to Peyton Manning in 1997 — Leinart, Tim Tebow (2009) and Jake Locker (2010) — all were gone by the end of the first round the following year.
But minimizing the risk that Barkley is taking shouldn't stop us from marveling at the loyalty he showed to a school and a sport that always rewards coaches and administrators handsomely, but not always the kids who make it all possible.
The lessons the sport has been teaching the past few years — from fleeing coaches to shady conference realignment schemes to university presidents only too willing to look the other way — is that it's every man for himself. By returning to USC for one more year, Barkley signaled he was still about something else.
"That's not an easy decision," said Kiffin, who won't get a better present this Christmas. "Not many people would do what Matt has done."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://Twitter.com/JimLitke.