Leinart dancing through final semester at USC
LOS ANGELES -- Flanked by framed jerseys of Southern California's six Heisman Trophy winners, including his No. 11, Matt Leinart sauntered through Heritage Hall before veering off for a quick break in his busy schedule.
It was Tuesday, which is meet with the media day for the Trojans' quarterback, but he still had time to spend a moment with Dean and Claire Huchel, an elderly couple who man Heritage Hall's information booth once a week.
"Great guy, always says, 'Hi,' " said 83-year-old Dean Huchel.
Leinart gave Mrs. Huchel a big hug.
"Never misses, never does, every time he comes by," she said. "He is just the nicest, most polite, considerate person. He's like that with everybody."
All the attention that comes with being the biggest star in college football apparently has done little to change Leinart.
"People don't understand how hard it is to do what he's doing," USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said. "He's like a movie star in L.A. He's done a fabulous job dealing with the attention. Most 22-year-old kids could never handle what he has to experience."
Sure Leinart hangs around with TV stars now and then, but the big left-hander from nearby Orange County didn't come back for his senior season at USC to be a celebrity. He's back because he likes being a college kid -- and he likes to win.
"He rides a bicycle and wears slippers around campus," said wideout Dwayne Jarrett, Leinart's roommate.
Or as Kiffin describes the 22-year-old All-American: "He's a California dude -- he fits it to a T. If he wasn't playing ball, you'd see him on a skateboard or a surfboard."
Leinart figured to head to the NFL after leading USC to a 55-19 victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl for its second straight national championship and winning the Heisman Trophy.
What more could he accomplish in college? And he was expected to be one of the top picks in the NFL draft, securing his financial future.
Less than two weeks after tossing five touchdowns in the national title game, Leinart shocked the football world when he opted to return to USC.
"There's something special going on here that I didn't want to give it up," he said that day.
Special indeed. If Leinart can lead the top-ranked Trojans to an unprecedented third straight national championship, and maybe pick up a second Heisman along the way, he'll stamp himself as maybe the greatest college quarterback ever.
Ohio State running back Archie Griffin is the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner, doing so in 1974-75.
"I'm not really focused on that," he said. "I know I won the Heisman last year, but that was last season. There's been a lot of hype about Archie Griffin being the only two-time winner of the Heisman, but everybody on our team knows that's not what I'm about."
Considering what he's done so far, and the talent-laden supporting cast he has to work with, there seems to be nothing out of reach for Leinart and the Trojans.
"The players are there," Leinart said. "We could be pretty scary. We realize the expectations people have set for us. We're not focused on that -- we'll just go game-to-game like we always have.
"We've been very good about handling our business, but we haven't proved anything yet this year."
Leinart has a 25-1 record since becoming USC's starting quarterback two years ago as the successor to Heisman winner Carson Palmer, and the Trojans bring a 22-game winning streak into this season.
Leinart has thrown 71 touchdown passes -- one shy of Palmer's school record -- and only 15 interceptions, completing 64.3 percent of his passes for 6,878 yards.
And get this -- Leinart says his throwing arm was nowhere near 100 percent last season, and he was slowed by a sports hernia.
Leinart underwent surgery on his left elbow last January because of tendinitis that hampered him since the second half of the 2003 season and kept him from throwing at all in the summer of 2004.
"It feels fine -- I don't even hesitate to throw," he said.
Leinart began throwing again in late May and worked out with teammates for a couple months before the start of practice.
While he was recuperating, there were a number of photo shoots where he mingled and met celebrities.
Heck, now he's as well known as his pals Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson.
"Pretty much everywhere I go, people recognize me," Leinart said. "It's been fun. It's flattering at times, but it's kind of overwhelming. I keep a low profile."
That's no easy task.
"Being out in Hollywood creates a special scene for him," USC running back LenDale White said. "Everyone knows him."
Leinart wasn't happy when offensive coordinator Norm Chow left USC for the Tennessee Titans, but that blow was softened when Steve Sarkisian, a record-setting quarterback himself at BYU in 1995-96, returned to the Trojans as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach.
Sarkisian was an assistant at USC from 2000-2003 before spending one year as an assistant with the Oakland Raiders.
"Of course I miss him, we had a great relationship" Leinart said of Chow, who called USC's plays the past two years. "I love coach Chow, we'll be friends forever. He moved on."
After Chow left, there was speculation that Leinart might change his mind about returning to USC and enter the NFL's supplemental draft.
"It would have changed my decision if they would have brought in a new guy. They brought Sark back. That was enough for me," Leinart said.
Sarkisian said he and Leinart think alike.
"There's nobody on this team I trust more than Matt Leinart -- our friendship has continued to grow," said Sarkisian, whose children might have Heisman winning baby sitter.
Leinart and his girlfriend, Brynn Cameron, have bugged the coach about letting them watch his kids.
"He's just a genuine good kid," Sarkisian said. "I think the biggest thing is his teammates appreciate him."
A sociology major, Leinart needs two credits to graduate as he begins his fifth year at USC.
"School's done for me -- I'm here to concentrate on football," he said.
Leinart will complete his schooling by taking a class in ballroom dancing with Cameron, a sophomore from Thousand Oaks who plays on USC's women's basketball team.
"We both kind of figured, 'Let's take that.' We'll practice our tango or whatever the heck they do -- the 1-2 step," Leinart said, smiling.
Sure beats working.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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