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Gutted in defeat, spent after playing in one of the most exciting college football games ever, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush gathered themselves and took the high road. Around 9:45 p.m. on Jan. 4, 2006, the pair of USC Heisman Trophy winners traversed the innards of the Rose Bowl toward Texas's locker room to congratulate Vince Young.
The Longhorns quarterback had been unhappy about the presumption of a Three-Pete (Trojans coach Pete Carroll was on a quest for his third straight national championship), and he came into the BCS title game with a point to prove. He proved it, passing for 267 yards and running for another 200, and his eight-yard touchdown scramble on fourth-and-five with 19 seconds to play sealed a thrilling 41—38 victory. With that classy drop-by, Bush and Leinart added a note of grace to the night.
These Trojans could afford to be gracious, no? Their next stop would be the first round of the NFL draft, followed, undoubtedly, by future Super Bowls. Sharing at least a piece of this seemingly gleaming future were dozens of teammates: 24 players from that USC team would end up on NFL rosters (page 44).
The world was their oyster. (Or, for Bush, who had already been shopping for agents, the world was his ATM; in 2010, USC was harshly sanctioned by the NCAA, in large part because of improper gifts lavished on Bush and his parents.) The Trojans' offense was widely proclaimed as the best of all time. But it's one thing for media types to engage in such hyperbole. It's quite another when the men who should know better—NFL scouts, coaches and G.M.'s—succumb to it.
That's unquestionably what happened. Personnel types tended to gaze upon members of those dynastic Trojan teams from 2003 to '06 through cardinal-and-gold-tinted glasses. "You don't think you're doing it, but sometimes you subconsciously [escalate a guy's draft stock] based on the strength of the brand," allows one assistant general manager. "[The Trojans] won 34 straight games, they were very well coached, and they ran a pro-style scheme similar to what you see at this level. The runners had good blockers in front of them, the linemen had great backs behind them. The receivers were so talented that the quarterback was throwing into a wide-open window. What you had was a lot of talented guys that played even better than they were."
The USC Derangement Syndrome was on ample display at the 2006 draft, when 11 Trojans were selected, five in the first 45 picks: Bush, the star tailback (No. 2 overall); Leinart, the dashing quarterback (10); Winston Justice, the right tackle (39); Deuce Lutui, the left guard (41); and power back LenDale White (45). Among them, they would make it to zero Pro Bowls. Bush has only once finished better than 38th in the NFL in rushing. Leinart is now on his third team, backing up Carson Palmer in Oakland. After allowing four sacks in his first start for the Eagles, Justice—nicknamed Winston Bustice by unforgiving Philly fans—had nowhere to go but up. Now in Indianapolis, he's developed into what our assistant G.M. describes as "a functional guy; not a solid starter." Lutui, now a Titans backup, was in the news a year ago when he failed a physical with the Bengals. His problem? He, like White, was overweight. Once they left Carroll's nest, many of his players hit the pavement with a resounding thud.
Under the madcap, manic coach, the Trojans had finished as the AP's No. 1 team in 2003, then eviscerated Oklahoma in the BCS title game the following year. By the end of the '05 regular season, they had won 34 straight and were favored to beat Texas in the national title game. Young, of course, had other plans.
In addition to being a defensive wizard and a peerless recruiter, Carroll also trafficked in a kind of alchemy. He was a master not just at bringing in topflight talent, but also in getting the very best out of those four- and five-star studs. Before leaving the team hotel on game days, the Trojans would gather in a meeting room that they quickly turned into a kind of sporting mosh pit—chanting, spinning, dancing—and then board the bus. Before USC's 35—3 win over Ohio State in September 2008, SI sat in on this primal ritual, the purpose of which was to reinforce bonds and eliminate doubt.
"You've done everything we've asked of you to this point," Carroll told his charges, "and we trust you. Don't hold anything back. You don't have to be cautious. Play the game like you know you can. Count on it. Trust it."
When those teams got on a roll, the Trojans did trust one another, and they held nothing back. The most talented team in the country was greater than the sum of its parts. And for a lot of guys, that was as good as it got.