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BILL PLASCHKE

Breaking up is hard to do for Pete Carroll

USC coach doesn't handle Mark Sanchez's departure very graciously.

January 16, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

With tears in his eyes, a USC student announced that after attending classes for four years and receiving his bachelor's degree, he was leaving campus to pursue his life's work.

At which point, his beloved professor publicly scorned him for it.

What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing, apparently, if you are Pete Carroll.

Everything, perhaps, if you are Mark Sanchez.

The gap between college football and college education was never more sadly pronounced than Thursday, when a future graduate happily sent out early commencement announcements, only to see a professed educator shred them in disappointment.

Sanchez, the Trojans' starting quarterback who will finish his classwork in May with one year of remaining football eligibility, formally declared that he was leaving school to join the NFL.

Carroll, his coach, publicly treated him like a traitor.

Said Sanchez: "It is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to this university."

Said Carroll: "We didn't see this decision the same."

Sanchez carefully and emotionally thanked everyone from Carroll to the guy who washed his jock.

Yet Carroll was so visibly frustrated, he wouldn't even sit next to Sanchez during the Heritage Hall news conference, then later refused to sit while answering questions.

Said Sanchez: "I will always fight on."

Said Carroll: "Mark is going against the grain in this decision, we know that, he knows that."

Granted, it was a questionable call. Sanchez has started for only one full year, only 16 college games, and he showed consistent NFL skills only in his final game, a 413-yard, five-touchdown Rose Bowl show against Penn State.

Sanchez is currently ranked as the 10th best player in the draft, and there is legitimate debate over whether his decision cost him a Heisman Trophy and a shot at being the No. 1 overall pick.

But there is no debate that Carroll handled it with all the decorum of a jilted lover.

And there can be no argument that, as one who spent four years fulfilling the requirements of a student-athlete, Sanchez deserved better.

"It has been my dream since I was a youngster . . . to play in the NFL" Sanchez said. "Thanks to this great academic institution and football program, I have the opportunity to realize that dream."

Academic institution. Football program. On this day, in this place, the two entities might as well have been Venus and Mars.

In typical USC public-relations fashion, Sanchez was graciously given a chance to say goodbye. But Carroll turned it into something resembling an uncomfortable, awkward breakup.

The surreal gathering in the Heritage Hall meeting room began with two chairs at the front table.

Suddenly, just before the news conference began, one chair was removed.

It was clear, from that moment, Sanchez would be on his own.

The quarterback went first, fighting back tears and talking about "sleepless nights and lots of prayer."

The coach went next, and immediately treated Sanchez not like a college kid who just made a life-changing decision, but like a professional free agent who just opted out of the contract.

"We have compelling information working against the choice going this way," Carroll said.

Sure he does. It's a tough league. Quarterbacks with only one full college season rarely become stars. Sanchez is physically mature but has a lot to learn about playing the position.

Sanchez admittedly looked at how former Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart dropped in the draft after staying for a fifth season, but after his fourth year, Leinart was a Heisman Trophy winner with a bad elbow.

All Leinart would do was drop. All Sanchez can do is get better.

Carroll's evidence, presented to Sanchez at his apartment in a meeting that lasted until 1 a.m. Thursday, should have worked. But did he have to rub Sanchez's runny nose in it?

As Carroll spoke, Sanchez sat in a chair on the side, staring straight ahead, trying to smile through the obvious discomfort.

After Carroll's statement, the coach quickly stood but was asked some questions. Usually he would sit down again to answer them. This time, he stayed standing, as if he couldn't wait to leave.

When he did hustle away, he barely acknowledged Sanchez, lightly shaking his hand and quickly turning away.

If you want to see how other coaches handle this sort of thing, check out last week's video of Georgia Coach Mark Richt with his two biggest stars as they both declared they would leave school early and go to the NFL.

The loss of quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno will devastate his team, but in this news conference, Richt sat between them like a kindly father who has just proudly sent his sons off into the world.

That's how it works in college football. Great players come, great players go, you treat them all with dignity if you want to get other players like them.

And if one of those players actually graduates? You throw him a farewell party, you don't leave him standing with his arms outstretched for a hug.

Later Thursday, Carroll had cooled considerably.

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