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Blue Bayou

USC recruited running back Joe McKnight out of LSU's backyard, and they're having trouble digesting that fact around Baton Rouge

May 20, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

RIVER RIDGE, LA. — Reggie Bush went from USC to New Orleans and the "next" Reggie is going from New Orleans to USC.

Reverse direction, isn't that what the great tailbacks do?

If this seems like tossing an expectations piano on the back of a kid days removed from his senior prom, well, 1) no one seems to mind and 2) maybe you haven't seen Joe McKnight's highlights on YouTube.

To suggest, as some have, that McKnight's Internet scrapbook doesn't measure up to Bush's montage from La Mesa Helix High is to argue the merits of strawberry ice cream versus chocolate.

Maybe Bush's knee-jerk moves separated more opposing linebackers from their cleats. Maybe Bush was a tick faster. Maybe he had a better film editor.

In person, granted, McKnight doesn't necessarily strike you as USC's eighth Heisman Trophy winner.

Plopped down in his high school coach's office, between classes, he is wearing a fire engine-red polo shirt, jeans and tan work boots. He is not particularly tall (6 feet), big (190 pounds) or imposing.

USC's extraction of McKnight out of Louisiana, however, has been equated to a Bayou Brink's Robbery.

J.T. Curtis, football coach at the John Curtis Christian School, and son of the man who founded the private school in 1962, was supposed to deliver the goods to Louisiana State.

"For Joe to go to LSU, I'm the hero, but that wasn't what Joe wanted to do," Curtis barked from behind his desk. "I was not disloyal to my state. I was loyal to my player."

The backlash has been, in the finest Southern football tradition, unkind.

"Some said I didn't have any state pride by not staying home," McKnight said. "Some would say that I'll go out there [to USC] and sit on the bench for three years."

And the ultimate insult: "Some said I was scared to play in the SEC."

Louisiana has not taken this well.

While performing in this year's Mardi Gras parade, the Curtis School's marching band got jeered.

A member of the band came back and informed J.T.: "You're marching in the next one! They want to kill you and Joe."

Curtis has been told he is "the most hated guy in the LSU community."

John Curtis Christian, located in Jefferson Parish about 10 miles from downtown New Orleans, has won 21 state football titles since 1975, including last year's 2A division crown.

It is now also known as the school that let Joe go.

Could McKnight be that good?

Bob Toledo's first order of business as the new Tulane coach was to personally pay a visit to McKnight.

"I made him tell me no, that he's not coming to Tulane," Toledo said. "He's another Reggie Bush. He's that good. I saw the video."

McKnight announced his plans to attend USC live on cable television, in ceremonies that lacked only a lion tamer. An almost immediate ruckus ensued when McKnight mentioned during his news conference that USC Coach Pete Carroll, during the recruiting process, had patched in Bush with McKnight on a conference call -- an NCAA violation.

McKnight quickly recanted.

"I misspoke," he repeated again during a recent interview. "As far as I know it's over."

The recruitment of McKnight will be part of a book, "Meat Market," by ESPN's Bruce Feldman, to be published next fall.

The University of Mississippi, coached by former USC assistant Ed Orgeron, whose relentless recruiting helped infuse the Trojans' rankings rise, spent months in an ultimately failed pursuit of McKnight.

USC put former NFL star Ken Norton Jr., a Trojans assistant coach, in charge of Operation Tailback Conquest. "From our very first conversation, we just hit it off," Norton said.

Norton described the chase as "challenging" and "fun."

"From the onset, it was not like I was recruiting him like we were the third-best school recruiting him," Norton said. "From day one, to me, he was a Trojan. I recruited him as if he was a Trojan."

Somebody's bound to pay for this in Baton Rouge.

Standing in the carport of a downtown New Orleans hotel after a speaking engagement, LSU Coach Les Miles would have rather talked about his bunions. "I wish him the very best," Miles, through slightly clenched teeth, said of McKnight. "I spend time talking about my players and my recruits. Joe is a tremendous talent."

USC already has nine tailbacks on the roster, all of them prep superstars, so why not make it an even 10? One of McKnight's new teammates will be the nation's No. 2-rated running back, Marc Tyler of Westlake Village Oaks Christian.

McKnight, interested in sports broadcasting, says he was lured west by USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

Those Heisman trophies in Heritage Hall also caught his eye. "Yeah," McKnight said with a grin, "I saw that."

Norton said of all the players he has recruited, McKnight was as savvy and informed as they come.

When he first contacted McKnight, the young star's first response was, "What took so long?"

McKnight also possessed a contrarian streak.

"I think he got so sick of everyone telling him to go to LSU," said Feldman, who chronicled McKnight's recruitment.

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