In this cloudless April afternoon, Matt Barkley, the Heisman-hopeful quarterback of the USC Trojans, manages to get five steps out a side door of Heritage Hall before meeting an outstretched hand. The conversation starts like so many of these do — “You don’t know me, but …” — and the couple proceeds to tell Barkley their six degrees of separation, that their daughter runs track, that she’s choosing between USC and Harvard. Barkley listens, nods, and offers a bit of innocuous commentary. As they talk, a high school tour moves past. A few girls turn to each other and laugh as they recognize the blond guy with the backpack. Necks turn to rubber. As Barkley will say, something feels different this spring.
And he knew that would happen when he made the decision in December to return to school for his senior season. For the first time since his freshman year, the Trojans will be free from the postseason ban levied against them as part of the punishment for illegal benefits paid to former star running back Reggie Bush. At the end of 2011, on the heels of beating Oregon in Eugene and dominating rival UCLA 50-0, USC was playing as well as any team in the country. The hope was that although their final top-five ranking was rendered meaningless by the NCAA sanctions, the Trojans could ride their strong season and a possible Barkley return to an inside track for this year’s national title. “That’s what got me excited about coming back,” Barkley says. “That potential for what USC used to be.”
Tonight, the football world will be focused on two quarterbacks poised to be the first players chosen in the NFL draft. Barkley says he’ll watch long enough to see where former teammate Matt Kalil is taken, but that will be it. “Where I am is where I am,” Barkley says. “I don’t see any benefit in thinking about where else I could be.” His day at Radio City Music Hall will come. For now, Matt Barkley is back to restore the glory to Troy.
Les and Beverly Barkley live in an impeccably landscaped, gated community five miles from the Pacific Ocean in Newport Beach. It’s the home where Barkley spent his high school years, and one of several his family has lived in since he was born. All have been in Southern California. So much about Barkley — the perfectly messy blond hair, the surf company T-shirt — reflects his Orange County roots.
Although Les was a Trojan athlete, USC wasn’t a theme the Barkleys pressed onto their children. The family attended the occasional game at the Coliseum, but it wasn’t much more than that, which made Matt’s 60th birthday present to his grandmother all the more surprising. The Barkleys caught it on home video — 8-year-old Matt assuring her that, one day, he’d be throwing touchdown passes for her at USC.
In high school, Barkley starred at football power Mater Dei, a team once quarterbacked by Matt Leinart. As one of the top high school players in the country his senior year, Barkley had his pick of the nation’s top college programs. There wasn’t much of a decision to be made. Barkley made one official visit during his recruitment — to USC. His parents implored him to do his due diligence, but when that meant attending a UCLA-USC game as a guest of the Bruins, Beverly could see that her son’s mind had been made up. “He’s a very happy person. He’s never in a bad mood,” Beverly Barkley says. “And he was just in such a bad mood that whole day. Les asked what was wrong with him, and I just said, ‘He’s at the prom with the wrong date.'”
By the time the 2009 season began, Barkley was named the team’s starting quarterback — the only true freshman in the history of USC football to accomplish that feat. By his second game, he’d already had a signature win — an 18-15 nail-biter on the road against Ohio State in which Barkley drove the Trojans 86 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
After a 6-1 start, the Trojans stumbled late in the season, losing three of their final five games before playing Boston College in the Emerald Bowl. As a preseason top-five team, the 9-4 finish was considered a disappointment, but Barkley’s performance was impressive enough to give USC fans hope for the coming seasons. With the nation’s no. 1 recruiting class arriving that offseason, it was just assumed that the Trojans would be back.
Heritage Hall, which sits in the middle of USC’s campus, is the 70,000-square-foot red brick home of the school’s athletic department, and has been since its completion in 1971. Through the arched doorway is a large cardinal-and-gold carpet on which the school’s myriad athletic achievements are represented — national and conference championships, sport-specific awards, gold medals. At the front of the carpet, each in its own individual case, sit the six Heisman Trophies USC still claims. On the back wall of the expansive lobby are the winners’ jerseys, each with a small plaque detailing their careers at USC. There’s symmetry to the way the six align. There is no way to notice that one is missing.
The turmoil at USC began shortly after the conclusion of Barkley’s freshman season. In mid-January, amid an NCAA probe into possible recruiting violations of basketball player O.J. Mayo and Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, Pete Carroll bolted for a head coaching position with the Seattle Seahawks. Shortly after, it was announced that former USC assistant and then Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin had been hired. Five months later, the NCAA ruling came down.
USC’s football program was banned from postseason play in both 2010 and 2011. The team was stripped of 30 scholarships over the next three seasons, and all football victories from December 2004 to the end of 2005, including a national championship win, were vacated. Bush and all his accomplishments would be disassociated from the school. Soon, that seventh jersey came down from Heritage Hall. Not long after, Mike Garrett, the school’s athletic director and one of USC’s six unstained Heisman winners, would be gone, too.
In a span of six months, the school’s head coach, athletic director, and (from an unrelated decision made the previous November) university president had turned over. Barkley and Kiffin were left as the faces of USC football during the most difficult period of the program’s history. For most 19-year-olds, it would be a lot to ask. Kiffin and others have long maintained that Barkley was never like most 19-year-olds. USC athletic director and former Trojan quarterback Pat Haden arrived in August 2010 and instantly gravitated toward Barkley and his handling of the situation. “It was this upbeat personality he had, this captivating smile,” Haden says. “He had this ‘We can do anything’ kind of belief. Not naivety, but this certain kind of innocence. When you’re around him, you’re smiling, because he’s always smiling.”
Looking back on it now, Kiffin says the challenge brought by the sanctions wasn’t the day-to-day knowledge that each win was futile. It was the influx of distractions that are the nightmare for any college football coach. The sanctions meant that rising juniors and seniors were free to transfer without having to sit out a season. The result was a scramble by schools throughout the country to re-recruit players they’d missed. “It was like free agency in college football,” Kiffin says.
When asked about it now, Barkley laughs. The thanks he received for staying imply that he’d given any thought at all to leaving. “I’ve always loved this school — the students, the colors, the location,” he says. “I couldn’t leave it. I couldn’t have that in my life, to leave USC. It just wasn’t in my blood.”
This afternoon is the type that leaves little doubt why people attend USC. There isn’t a cloud to be seen, and the sun is beating down enough that Barkley ducks under a shaded table outside the USC student center to enjoy his lunch. For the most part, he doesn’t get mobbed on campus. Students respect the line. It’s visiting adults and tour groups that usually bring stares.
Wiping excess salsa off his third chicken taco, Barkley admits to the one instance where he felt his name was wrongly omitted from the likes of Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck. Over USC’s final five games last season, Barkley threw 20 touchdown passes, including three in a triple-overtime loss to Stanford in which he matched Luck pass-for-pass. So when it was announced that more than three finalists would be traveling to New York City for last year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony, the USC quarterback figured he might be among them.
“After hearing who made it and who didn’t, I was like, ‘Really? C’mon,'” Barkley says. He consciously avoided a TV that night, electing to spend the evening with his girlfriend rather than dwell on what might have been. “I think it was better for me overall,” Barkley says. “In a sense, it almost gives me more momentum this year.” The same can be said for the Trojans.
Two seasons ago, the postseason sanctions had been easier to forget. Teams that go 8-5 don’t have to worry about stolen Rose Bowls. By the end of last season, those penalties were impossible to ignore. After one bounce of the ball did them in against the Cardinal, USC tore through its final four games, which included a trip to Eugene to face no. 4 Oregon. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the stands on a cold night in November, Barkley delivered his finest performance to date, finishing 26-34 with 323 yards and four touchdowns. The encore was a six-touchdown game one week later, in the Trojans’ last game of the season, a 50-0 romp over rival UCLA. It was those same Bruins who got to play Oregon in the first Pac-12 championship game. “To see UCLA go up and play in that championship game, we almost laughed at it,” Barkley says. “It was like, ‘Look what you guys are missing out on.'”
As the UCLA win wound down, the USC crowd remained in the stands, something Barkley says wouldn’t have happened in the two years prior. There would still be no bowl game, but even so, this night felt important. It was the final game of the darkest days at Southern Cal, and as Barkley stood on a ladder, sword in hand, to conduct the marching band, the Trojans’ short-lived national obscurity seemed distant. The only worry was how long their star would be around to enjoy it. “He’ll tell you,” Les Barkley says. “After the UCLA game, he was 100 percent leaving.”
On December 21 of last year, in the heart of rush hour, Lane Kiffin, with his wife, Layla, in the passenger seat, pulled onto the southbound 405 headed for Orange County. Kiffin had received a call from Barkley earlier in the day asking the coach and his wife to meet him at his parents’ house around 6 p.m. He spent the entire ride trying to read into the details of the request. Matt wouldn’t ask me to bring my wife if he was leaving, would he? Or maybe he thought she would help lessen the blow. It was the longest 40 miles he’d ever driven.
When the Kiffins arrived, Matt slowly steered his coach toward the living room. He wanted to show him something. Each Christmas, the three Barkley children make an ornament with which to decorate the family tree, a tradition designed to commemorate each year. This year’s was addressed to Kiffin, with a photo of the two embracing following USC’s win over Colorado. Initially, Kiffin wasn’t sure how to respond. Then Barkley told him to flip it over.
“One more year.”
A night of conversation and celebration followed. At one point in the evening, Kiffin decided to have some fun at Pat Haden’s expense. “Lane calls me,” Haden says, “and he tells me [Barkley]’s going pro.” Haden was at a Pasadena hotel with his wife when he received the news. Kiffin reminded Haden that they needed to support Matt’s decision and suggested he call and wish him the best. By the time Haden called, however, Kiffin had already left and Barkley and his father had just stepped out to pick up dinner — and neither of them brought their phones. Almost a half hour passed with no answer.
Before long, Kiffin found out that his prank had gone sour. “At that point, it wasn’t funny anymore,” he says. Kiffin called Barkley’s younger sister, who works in USC’s football office. “Her phone rings, and it’s Lane Kiffin,” Beverly Barkley says. “He’s yelling, ‘Tell your dad to call Pat Haden now!'” The message was relayed to Matt, who used his father’s phone to call Haden. Coming from an unknown number, it took a minute for Haden to believe the caller was actually the USC quarterback and to understand that he had been fooled. “I fired Lane for about 15 minutes,” Haden says.
To aid their son’s decision about entering the NFL draft, the Barkleys contacted everyone they could who might have insight on Matt’s options. Agents came to the house. They traveled to meet NFL personnel. Barkley spoke with NFL players past and present. The hope wasn’t for advice on what to do, but for knowledge regarding how best to do it. Of everyone Barkley spoke to over those few weeks in late 2011, both he and his parents say that it was a two-hour phone call with former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer that left the most impact.
Dilfer’s connection to USC goes back to Fresno State, where as a player he helped evaluate a quarterback recruit named Lane Kiffin. Dilfer’s conversation with Barkley rarely turned to football. Mostly, Dilfer says, it was about the elements of the game he had known upon entering the league. “I wish at the time somebody could have spoken to my life about the professionalism of going to the NFL, that it truly isn’t just a game anymore,” Dilfer says. “You have to have a certain perspective when you enter the league so you’re not shell-shocked by the environment.”
“Matt was like a different person after that conversation,” Beverly Barkley says. “I could see a lightness in him that just wasn’t there before.” At a certain point, there was no more information to be gathered, and one evening, Barkley told his mother and father that the needle had drifted to staying.
“I came here to do something special, and that plan was jolted around when coach Carroll left,” Barkley says. “This senior group, we’ve been through a lot, and the thought of finishing on a great note was something that I wanted to come back and do.”
After Barkley explained his decision to Kiffin and the news was relayed to Haden in its funny-but-so-not-funny manner, a press conference was planned at Heritage Hall for the next day. Barkley and his parents spent the night before fashioning the speech he would give. “We made him write down everything he wanted to communicate,” Beverly Barkley says. “He did the notes, and we worked on the speech together.”
The following afternoon, dressed in a gray blazer and white shirt, standing at a podium in front of an elaborately decorated Christmas tree, Barkley began by thanking his teammates, coaches, and those who had helped him reach his decision. He followed with a bit of misdirection:
“At the end of my decision process, I was affirmed that two wonderful options stand before me. I am prepared to play quarterback in the NFL. It is my dream to play quarterback in the NFL. And I intend to make that dream a reality. … But I know in my heart that I have not finished my journey as a Trojan football player. Our USC football team has been through some tough times, and we have persevered. But the 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part in it.”
The cheers came, as did a knowing smile from Barkley, who looked upward as the band started up and the USC Song Girls danced. When the music died down, Barkley again expressed his love for Southern Cal and his teammates. He continued:
“I am not postponing my dream and objective of playing in the NFL so I can just have one more year of college life. I am staying because I want to finish what I started, finish alongside the most dedicated and courageous teammates I could ever have, and know that for a few shorts years, I dedicated myself fully to achieving all that I can as a USC football player. Thank you. Fight on.”
Inside the 10-foot-high walls surrounding USC’s practice field, another Tuesday session is underway. During Pete Carroll’s tenure, Trojan practices were rock concerts. Fans came in droves. Will Ferrell gave pep talks. Today, the NCAA sanctions are still evident everywhere. Only a few media members and parents line the wall, and the absence of those forfeited scholarships is glaring on the thinned-out Trojans sideline. This is Kiffin’s point of contention when this team, likely to be ranked no. 2 or 3 in the country come August, is compared to the Leinart and Bush years. Those teams were stocked with talent from top to bottom. This one is not.
In breaks between blaring rap and house songs, the sounds of construction can be heard just west of the practice field. Heritage Hall, despite the history it houses, is a relic in the world of major college football. In terms of facilities, USC says it’s 30 years behind. When the $70 million McKay Center opens later this year, it hopes to be 10 years ahead. Right now, the building is mostly exposed insulation, ladders, and hard hats. When it’s finished, it will be a 110,000-square-foot USC commercial designed to make recruits salivate. There are iPads in every locker, video game lounges, and a wall covered with 278 15-inch high-definition TVs ready to fire up whatever highlights are needed to sell that day’s blue-chippers.
The timing is no accident. University President C.L. Max Nikias’s decision to break ground on the new facility came when USC’s players needed something to look toward. Its rise has mirrored the Trojans’.
Along the walkway from the locker room to the practice field, players will pass through a hallway featuring brass likenesses of USC’s 158 All-Americans. Among them are some of the quarterbacks Barkley will likely be among at season’s end, the same quarterbacks he idolized growing up. Haden takes it a step further.
“If this season goes as well as it could,” Haden says, “he’ll go down as the greatest Trojan of them all.”
“More than where I fit on the list, it’s how I handle this whole thing that’s going to be what matters,” Barkley says. “I would want to be remembered for leading USC through a dark time, for being the voice when there was no voice.”
Back outside the student center, Barkley’s lunch is finished. Aside from a few girls eyeing him from another table, he’s been able to finish his tacos in whatever passes for anonymity in Matt Barkley’s life. As he gathers the trash, a middle-aged man in sunglasses and a backpack approaches. “I just wanted to say thank you for staying,” the man says. Barkley looks back and nods in appreciation. “Thank you,” Barkley says as the man turns to walk away. “Fight on.”