Leinart could take pro riches now ... or follow in Manning's rare footsteps
Posted: Wednesday January 12, 2005 11:48AM; Updated: Wednesday January 12, 2005 12:07PM
Here are the top five things on my mind this week ...
Will Matt Leinart stay at USC? The Orange Bowl MVP says it's a toss-up.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
1. USC's Matt Leinart: Stays or leaves?
I talked to Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, on Tuesday (for a story about another subject in an upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated). First thing I asked him was, "Are you still flying, or are you wiped out?" His answer came back in half a second: "Wiped out.''
Once in our conversation, he referenced his future by saying, "If I'm here next year ...,'' and once with the words, "Whether I'm back here or not ...'' There has been buzz in California about a Pete Carroll/Norm Chow/Leinart package deal to the 49ers, but all three have denied that it's in the works. Leinart is a cool, caring guy. He acknowledges that this is the toughest decision of his life. USC would be a prohibitive favorite to three-peat if he returns, and he would continue to have the time of his life. The NFL money would be sick and it's foolish to argue that Leinart, a 21-year-old who has been in college for three-and-a-half years (or three-and-a-half years longer than LeBron James), isn't ready to work for a living.
My default position on this is that the athlete turns pro. Too much money, too much opportunity. But it doesn't always happen. The last guy to cross me up -- and everybody else -- in a big way was Peyton Manning. He didn't have a national title as a sendoff. Leinart does. I'm guessing Leinart leaves. But I'm not placing any bets.
2. Speaking of Manning, we keep hearing about what a great season he's had and how he's playing at a level no other quarterback has achieved since Otto Graham. What has he won? At Tennessee? With the Colts? Don't you think there's a little too much hype going on?
Here's what I think about Manning: He has spent almost his entire life preparing to be a better -- and a more successful -- quarterback than anybody who has played the game. And not just because his dad gave him good genes (although he clearly did).
This is a guy who conducted summer workouts for his wideouts in high school and together with his adolescent buddies devised an entire system of audibles (based on pilot's names from Top Gun). This is a guy who worked so hard at Tennessee that his offensive coordinator, David Cutcliffe (recently fired as head coach at Mississippi) had to start coming in early in the morning to keep up. Manning's roommates called his bedroom "The Cave,'' because he spent so much time watching video.
One moment I will not forget: During Manning's junior year at Tennessee, I was talking with Cutcliffe and asked him to compare Manning to some other guys he had worked with. Cutcliffe, a gentleman with a capital G, snapped back, "Don't compare this kid to anybody. He's different. Before it's all done, you're going to be talking about Super Bowls and Hall of Fame and maybe the best ever.'' Manning has carried his work ethic and professionalism all the way up the ladder and he's about to lead a team with precious little defense all the way to the Super Bowl. Too much hype? I'm not sure there's enough.
3. In the track and field world -- and you're a track nut, right? -- is college becoming an unnecessary evil?
Yes, I'm track nut (sue me), and yes, it looks like going to college is losing popularity on the road to success in the sport. Last weekend, five months after leaving Colorado, distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein beat top Kenyans in an international cross country race. Alan Webb was the top miler in the U.S. last summer, two years after leaving Michigan after one year. There are a bunch of others in all events.
College track grinds people up and subjugates the individual in favor of team goals. It's not the ideal way to beat athletes from other nations who train as individuals. (Although it's a nice way to get a free education.) The jury is out on this one, but as long as shoe and apparel companies will support the top runners, I think we're looking at a trend.
4. Randy Johnson. New York media. Discuss.
Beat writer's nightmare. Headline writer's dream.
5. Will the NCAA's new graduation rate-based incentive program really force schools to do a better job of educating Division I athletes?
It's tempting to be cynical whenever the NCAA does something aimed at lending credibility to the oxymoron "student-athlete.'' However, in this case, there is reason to be mildly encouraged. The new legislation promises to strip scholarships -- as many as nine in football and two in basketball -- from programs that fall below a 50 percent graduation rate and subsequently allows players to flunk out or leave in poor academic standing. These are potentially harsh penalties. They should have an effect.
One of the NCAA presidents who backed the plan, Jon Wefald of Kansas State, praised the new rules in the Kansas City Star. Wefald's head football coach, Bill Snyder, teaches a full-credit course about his sport. I'm guessing that the new penalties will give rise to more laughable courses like Snyder's, thus facilitating better graduation rates. Like I said, it's tempting to cynical.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden weighs in with a Viewpoint every Friday on SI.com.