By Chris Mahr
The moment that quarterback Matt Barkley announced that he would be returning to USC for his senior season last December, the comparisons with Trojans predecessor Matt Leinart were discussed more than ever. Two Orange Country-reared, golden boy signal-callers bypassing on NFL riches for a shot at a national title.
Yet closer examination yields more differences than similarities.
Leinart was going for a second consecutive BCS title, while Barkley is pursuing his first.
Leinart seemed less-than-engaged in the non-football side of his USC experience, taking ballroom dancing as his only class during his senior season. Barkley is also only taking one class — on the infiltration of data servers and security websites (huh?) — and designed a free mobile app in a social media class last semester to promote USC football.
Leinart used his “top dawg” status as Trojans QB to mix it up with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. Barkley, meanwhile, is proudest of his friendship with 92-year-old Louie Zamperini, a former USC track star whose stunning WWII survival story is the subject of a best-selling book, Unbroken.
Leinart broke up with then girlfriend Brynn Cameron, the mother of his son Cole Cameron Leinart, shortly before Cole’s birth in October 2006 and was rumored to be dating Paris Hilton. Barkley met his long-term girlfriend, Brittany Langdon, when they were in the same kindergarten class. (Their parents did not let them date until they were 16.)
The biggest, most important difference between the two are their personalities. Leinart always seemed distant, overly conscious of his place atop the college football world and arrogant as a result of it.
Barkley, meanwhile, is the exact opposite.
When the sanctions rained down on the Trojans in 2010, no one would have blamed Barkley — coming off his freshman season — for jumping ship and starting his career elsewhere. He was bred for success, having started at QB in every game he’s dressed for since middle school.
Not only did he stay, he helped keep the USC program afloat.
Lee Jenkins’ excellent story on him for Sports Illustrated’s 2012 College Football Preview documents how Barkley called Trojans recruits to convince them to stay even after Pete Carroll’s departure for the Seahawks. He became both a public (for the camera) and private (for teammates) figurehead for USC’s resolution through their two-year bowl ban.
Think back to how Matt Leinart took the reins in the early-2000s. While he set an unprecedented standard of QB play at USC, he was cooking with a full cupboard, surrounded by stars like Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. With the gift of hindsight, can you honestly say that Leinart would have been capable of rallying his team and program in the face of adversity? Probably not.
Leinart opted to stay for his senior season because he wanted to have more fun (and perhaps because he knew he would never be as successful in the NFL as he was in college). While Barkley is clearly relishing one more year of college, his return feels different. It also seems driven by his desire to see the fruits of his labor, the final bricks of a reconstruction project he helped break ground on in 2010.
He hasn’t pumped his chest about it. He doesn’t try and make it an excuse as to why he’s a better human being than all of us. What Barkley has accomplished is far more impressive. He’s turned USC into a team that non-Trojan fans and non-frontrunners can root for.
I dare Matt Leinart to claim that he ever did that.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.