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Matt Barkley helps put USC, as a university, in a new light

BILL DWYRE

Like it or not, high-profile athletes have more to do with the image of a university than they should. And Matt Barkley's decision to delay his NFL career belies USC's old image as a football factory.

December 23, 2011|Bill Dwyre
  • USC quarterback Matt Barkley is all smiles after announcing that he will return to play one more season for the Trojans.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley is all smiles after announcing that he will… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Let's peel back a layer on this Matt Barkley story.

The deeper significance of what he did Thursday afternoon can be easily lost in the noise and nectar of the moment.

In the last 24 hours, the obvious has been beaten like a drum. Barkley didn't take the money and run. Barkley is a fine young man, a class act and a role model. Heisman trophies and national titles are now real possibilities.

There are so many ways to say these things, and the media found them all. News and chatter come so fast now, and are so indistinguishable from one another, that the end measure becomes the eventual snowball at the bottom of the hill. The size of the Barkley snowball was unmistakable.

But it needs to be said that, while Barkley did a great thing for his football team, he did even more for his university. He took one small step for the Trojans, one giant step for USC.

Consider that he did exactly what Andrew Luck did at Stanford at the end of last season. Luck cited many of the things about teammates and the college experience that Barkley did, and he stayed. But we were less shocked by that one.

Why? Because Luck was from Stanford. And Stanford has long been the embodiment of academic excellence walking comfortably alongside athletic excellence. Stanford kids are usually there because they are the type who get to a fork in the road and look for a side path. When Luck did what he did last year, it seemed merely a further validation.

USC kids? Not so much.

Matt Leinart chose to hang around for another year, even after winning the Heisman. But it was never clear whether that decision was based on a desire to fight on, or on an injured elbow that wouldn't have immediately served him well in the pros. Mark Sanchez, of course, jumped off the Trojan horse before he grew into his saddle.

As an academic institution, USC should not be judged merely on go-pro or no-go-pro decisions of its star players. But, like it or not, high-profile athletes have much more to do with the image of a university than they should.

It wasn't that long ago that USC's image was that of a football factory. There always seemed to be stories about classes in map reading and football players studying for those classes in their shiny new convertibles, "purchased" at a dealership owned by an alum.

A personal favorite was when The Times' sports investigative team uncovered a class at USC in something like sand castle design. It was run by a friendly old professor with season tickets. One semester, it had 35 students, 32 of them either football or baseball players and the other three relatives of football coaches. The reporters found that all but one, a baseball player, had received an A.

The story ran, but the huge question never was answered: What had that baseball player done to get a B?

Those days are long gone. Annual university academic ratings often place USC near the top. USC's endowment has swelled and its faculty holds international stature. Occasionally, in certain categories, its ranking will top UCLA, which must rankle the Bruins more than, well …50-0.

But as leaders such as Steven Sample and others slowly changed both the reality and the image, the football monster reared its ugly head again. Pete Carroll brought back the good old days, as well as a lot of the good-old-boy alums who cared much more about the Bowl Championship Series than grade-point averages. Carroll wasn't an intentional cheat or a bad guy. He just liked it loose and fun, and it was.

Until Reggie Bush got caught.

The damage of that setback, still mostly perception but harmful nevertheless, was mitigated when Max Nikias took over as school president and made Pat Haden the face of the future. Haden made the good old Trojans nervous. Still does. He was one of them, a former star quarterback. But he was also a Rhodes Scholar (never trust a guy who goes off to England to sit in musty libraries in a tweed sport coat) who yapped constantly about academics and clean programs.

When the NCAA came in with its wrecking ball, the good old Trojans demanded that Haden sue. The rallying cry seemed to be: Don't they know who we are? Haden said no, that the football team would take its medicine and work through this with dignity and class. His message was that this, too, shall pass.

And so it has.

But little did anybody know that a college junior with good grades, a rifle for a throwing arm and a pot of gold beckoning him would stand up in Heritage Hall and, in a two-minute speech, do more than almost anybody or anything else in recent time to validate what USC wants to be and has become.

Now, high school freshman football players who wanted to be Mark Sanchez want to be Matt Barkley first. Every university professor who despises the amount of money and energy used on football at the expense of his or her program despises football a tad less.

It is easy to imagine college presidents around the country, upon viewing a snippet of Barkley on the evening news, sitting down in a big easy chair, lighting a pipe and muttering: "Thank God."

That Barkley did what he did in a similar time frame, with reasoning and articulate presentation similar to Andrew Luck, is an un-measurable plus for USC. Stanford will always be "The Farm." But Barkley has done a perfect job of demonstrating that USC has a quality crop too.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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