Burden of carrying Heisman tag shifts from OU's White to USC's Leinart
Posted: Saturday December 11, 2004 11:40PM; Updated: Sunday December 12, 2004 12:06AM
NEW YORK -- Jason White would have preferred to hand it off to Adrian Peterson, much like he has all season, but he wasn't exactly disappointed with the new recipient, either.
Saturday night, the Oklahoma quarterback passed the torch of reigning Heisman Trophy winner to USC's Matt Leinart -- and by the looks of it, he almost seemed relieved.
"I told him that his life is fixing to change," the 2003 honoree said of the 2004 winner. "He'll realize what I'm talking about here in a couple weeks."
Actually, the laid-back Leinart got a taste of his life just minutes after it was announced that the Trojans quarterback had beaten out OU's Peterson and White by a significant margin. Ushered into a news conference, Leinart was ordered to pose for a long series of photographs, first with the two Wendy's high school Heisman winners, then with the trophy, and every few moments he'd be reminded to smile -- to which he would break into the cheesiest, prom-picture grin imaginable.
White, meanwhile, answered a few questions, then walked out the door -- to freedom.
Just to be clear, White feels as honored as anyone else to be part of the Heisman fraternity. His parents proudly display the trophy on the mantle of their Tuttle, Okla., living room. But in case you haven't heard, White wasn't exactly thrilled what happened immediately after winning the award a year ago -- floundering against LSU in the Sugar Bowl, then reading and hearing the comments from critics suggesting he never should have won the trophy, that there should be a recount, that he should give the darn thing back.
"The biggest thing I felt was worn out," said White. "[The Heisman weekend] is overwhelming. Then as soon as you go home, you go back to practice, then you're off to the bowl game."
So, with his shot at redemption looming Jan. 4 in the national title game, you'll have to forgive White if perhaps he's just a tad bit relieved to be shifting the spotlight to his Orange Bowl counterpart. When the two quarterbacks square off in the first-ever matchup of standing Heisman winners, the onus will be on Leinart, not White, to overcome the tradition of Heisman flops that have in recent years stricken White, Nebraska's Eric Crouch and Florida State's Chris Weinke in their respective title games.
White first planted the seed last summer, when he spoke with Leinart on the phone about what to expect as a consensus Heisman candidate. Before the ceremony Saturday, White, who made it well known this week he felt he had no chance at repeating, told Leinart "he better have that speech ready," to which Leinart replied, "Oh, c'mon, Jason."
White, who as a former Heisman winner gets a ballot, even voted for Leinart -- right after his freshman teammate Peterson.
"I got to see him play a lot in the late [Saturday night] games," said White. "I think Matt shows great character on the field, great leadership, he makes plays. All the things I look for in a Heisman candidate."
Asked afterward what he thought White meant about how his life was about to change, Leinart said, "I have no idea." All he could speak to was what he was feeling at that moment -- joy and downright shock.
Just 16 months ago, the low-key O.C. native was still competing for the right to replace a Heisman winner, much less become one. "I remember watching Carson [Palmer's Heisman victory in 2002] from my couch, and I was just following in his shoes," said Leinart. "I just wanted to play. I could never have imagined this."
Neither could longtime Trojans fans, whose proud tradition is based in large part on its reputation as "Tailback U," with running backs Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen all winning Heismans. USC could have another such player as soon as next year with Reggie Bush. In the meantime, the Trojans are quickly developing another reputation -- as the nation's premier program for developing quarterbacks, much like Miami in the 1980s.
"USC's tradition is first and foremost about winning," said Garrett, now the school's athletic director. "If it takes a quarterback, we'll take it."
Credit vaunted offensive coordinator Norm Chow, who has now groomed two Heisman QBs at USC, one at BYU (Ty Detmer) and a first-rounder (Philip Rivers) at N.C. State. Chow, currently one of two finalists for the Stanford head-coaching job, turned Palmer from an erratic, interception-prone disappointment into the first pick in the 2003 NFL draft, and he's helped the unheralded Leinart become one of the nation's most efficient passers.
Most impressive of all about Leinart's Heisman season -- 66.6 percent completions, 2,990 yards, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions -- was that he did it without his top two receivers from last year (Mike Williams and Keary Colbert), one of the projected starters this year (Whitney Lewis) and with Steve Smith injured for several games. It's a credit to the quality of Pete Carroll's recruiting, the genius of Chow's system and Leinart's own innate ability to run it.
"It's real simple," Leinart said of Chow's offense. "He's not a complex person."
Pity John David Booty and Mark Sanchez, the highly touted young quarterbacks in line to succeed Leinart should he forego his senior season. The bar has been set: Heisman or bust.
Statistically, White had just as good a season as Leinart (65.3 percent completions, 2,961 yards, 33 TDs, 6 INTs), and, in many respects, a better year than his Heisman season. Unfortunately, he was probably correct in his assessment that he lost the 2004 trophy with the way he ended 2003. We hold all athletes to lofty standards, but few more so than those with the word Heisman attached to them. The backlash against Gino Torretta is so great to this day that there were snickers in the media room just at the sight of him onstage Saturday.
Leinart is the latest to carry that burden, just as White has for the past 12 months. Come Jan. 4, one of their legacies will be tarnished, the other complete.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.