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The Last Waltz

Leinart won't be overloaded with academic requirements as a fifth-year senior

August 26, 2005|Gary Klein | Times Staff Writer

Matt Leinart could tango with teammates at the Rose Bowl if USC wins a third consecutive national title.

The Heisman Trophy winner might perform the Nightclub Two-Step in New York if he wins another.

This much is certain: As the Trojans' senior quarterback pursues those milestones on the field this season, he will waltz through the fall semester in the classroom.

Leinart, who announced in January that he would forgo a chance to turn pro and would return for his final season of eligibility, is taking only one course: ballroom dancing. The elective fulfills the final units Leinart needs to graduate with a sociology degree.

Leinart makes no apologies for a light load that will keep him light on his feet.

"I put in my work to get my degree," he said. "I came back for my fifth year, and I'm taking what's necessary for me to graduate. And that's two units."

Hold the snickering.

The NCAA requires that "At the time of competition, a student-athlete shall be enrolled in not less than 12-semester or -quarter hours, regardless of the institution's definition of a minimum full-time program of studies."

However, the rules say, "A student-athlete may compete while enrolled in less than a minimum full-time program of studies," provided he or she is enrolled in the final semester or quarter of the baccalaureate program and is taking the courses needed to graduate.

The exception was adopted in 1975 and has been revised, said Brad Hostetter, director of NCAA membership services.

"The goal is for the student-athlete to graduate, and this exception is there to recognize that there are student-athletes that have done their job in the classroom throughout their previous years and have gotten close to graduation," Hostetter said.

Athletes who complete their degree requirements and graduate must enroll in a full load of courses toward a minor, another degree or a master's program to maintain their eligibility in their final season.

Leinart enrolled at USC in the fall of 2001 and redshirted his first season. He took summer classes throughout his career and could have graduated last spring or during the summer. But after he announced he was returning to school, he left one class for the fall.

"Football is where your mind is, that's all I'm focused on," he said last week. "Obviously, I'm focused on working on my dance moves, but ... "

Jon Ericson says he does not blame Leinart for taking only one class, or the NCAA or USC for allowing him to do so. But Ericson, a retired Drake University professor who was one of the founding members of the Drake Group, a national organization of faculty and others working to restore academic integrity to college sports, said the situation was notable.

"It captures the perfect example that the relationship between college athletics and college is tenuous at best," Ericson said. "College athletics is about big-time entertainment, and college is about education."

The NCAA does not track the number of athletes who take a light load as they conclude their playing careers and prepare to graduate, but Hostetter said the practice was "somewhat common."

USC has nine fifth-year seniors on scholarship on its football roster. Some have graduated and are pursuing a master's degree, another bachelor's degree or a minor. Leinart and receiver Greig Carlson are taking one class to fulfill graduation requirements.

"It's all up to the individual," Coach Pete Carroll said. "I think they've earned that right. They earned that by hard work."

Carroll said having fifth-year seniors with lighter academic loads does not translate into a competitive advantage for USC or any other school.

"Not having a full class load can make you more complacent," he said.

Linebacker Dallas Sartz is among the USC players who envy Leinart's strictly ballroom schedule.

Sartz, a fourth-year senior, says he is taking 13 units this semester. He also is following the example of former teammates who left a few units to be completed during the spring. That way, he can continue to draw a stipend check as he completes his degree and trains for the NFL draft.

But Sartz, who will graduate with a communications degree, said he would like to be in Leinart's dancing shoes.

"It would be great not to have to wake up two times a week to go to class," he said. "It would be a wonderful thing. But it's a tough thing to do if you don't redshirt."

Or graduate from high school a semester early.

Senior punter Tom Malone, for example, graduated early from Lake Elsinore Temescal Canyon High, where he was valedictorian, and enrolled at USC in the spring of 2002. He took heavy academic loads, including summer classes, in his first three years and could have graduated last spring with a degree in political science.

But in January, like Leinart, he announced that he would pass up the opportunity to turn pro and would return for a final season. And, like Leinart, he left himself one class short of graduation.

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