"I have to discipline myself," Southern Cal quarterback Todd Marinovich said recently in what sounded like a hope, a prayer and a plea. "I just have to. I'm finally away from my dad telling me everything to do. And I've got to say I have taken advantage of it. Full advantage. He keeps telling me, 'Come on, you've got the rest of your life to fool around. Not now.' I know he's right. But there are a lot of distractions at SC." At that very moment, two of them walk by. In shorts. "See what I mean?"
Last season, his first as the Trojans' starting quarterback, Marinovich, now a 21-year-old sophomore, had some awful lows and some awesome highs as he struggled to assume the mantle of leadership in one of the most glamorous positions in sport. It is not yet a snug fit. Indeed, USC quarterback coach Ray Dorr told Marinovich's father, Marv, at the end of the 1989 season, "Todd has to prove his ability before he can prove his leadership. And I don't feel he is as focused as he was. He plateaued after our 10th game. To succeed, he has to really be on a mission for the next three years." Todd shrugs the comment off, saying, "I'm pretty much where I want to be."
The 6'4", 210-pound Marinovich is a conglomerate of contradictions. Does he want to be a great quarterback or not? Will he emerge this fall as the preeminent player in the land, which many experts think he could be, or will he become another should-have-been? What does USC truly think of him? Is it possible that he may simply go off into the Sierras with his oil paints and exist on fruits and nuts while painting craggy pines?
In sum, the No. 1 question for college football in 1990 is: Whither Todd Marinovich?
Indeed, it has been—and almost certainly will continue to be—a difficult life at USC for Marinovich, who burst upon the world of college football during his hysteria-filled recruitment in the winter of 1988 (SI, Feb. 22, 1988). Almost every football-playing college in the U.S. made a pitch for him. Schools begged. Got on their knees and pleaded. It was not only Marinovich's ability that attracted attention, but also the fact that he was born and bred to be a quarterback. Every decision regarding his young life was made with one goal in mind: that Todd grow up to be a quarterback. Included was the food his mother, Trudi, consumed while Todd was in the womb.
For much of his life Marinovich has been surrounded by a team of advisers who worked on his throwing, running, thinking, sleeping, relaxing and exercising. Others worked with him on strategy, attitude and poise. And eating. Never did a Big Mac or a Twinkie cross Marinovich's lips. Carrots and celery and pasta did. An American kid who had never had a Big Mac? The populace couldn't believe it. The Robo QB, he was called. Hey, come watch the mechanical boy throw spirals. Unquestionably, he had too many people telling him what to do; unquestionably, it seems to have worked—so far.
Project Marinovich was engineered by Marv, an offensive lineman at USC and co-captain of the 1962 national champions. He was the prototypical stage father. In most ways, Marv didn't have a life. He had Todd's life. In 1987, Marv and Trudi were divorced. "I had a captive audience," says Marv. "I told him when to eat, what to eat, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to work out, how to work out. Now I have a hard time getting him on the telephone. He seems to be leading a life-style that is wearing. The interviews, missing meals, bad sleeping habits. Things are just starting to slip. I told him, 'You are making bad decisions, but I can't make them for you anymore.' He went directly from an environment where everything was regimented to a totally open door."
Says Todd, "Distractions, distractions." He's right; there goes another one. She tosses her hair. He rolls his eyes.
Marinovich stares at the ground, then slowly looks up. "Man, it's tough every day to live up to the image of the all-American boy who has never eaten a Big Mac," he says. "And I do get tired of people looking at me funny. Sometimes I just don't want to deal with it."
That probably is why Marinovich sometimes comes across as downright surly. He lives with far too much pressure for a 21-year-old, and here's an example: In December, Marinovich was at an offensive team meeting at the Irvine Marriott during preparations for the Rose Bowl. Assistant coach John Matsko was holding forth: