Pete Carroll left USC ahead of the NCAA posse following the 2009 season, and when the sentence was handed down a few months later -- a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period because of improper benefits to football star Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo -- one Trojan above all stood strong. Then-sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley began calling recruits to tell them he planned to stay.
So even though the table was set for Barkley to make the jump to the NFL following last season's 10-2 record and No. 6 national ranking, it's really not all that surprising he chose to return for his senior season to lead the Trojans, who are ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls, and to stake his claim to the Heisman Trophy.
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As Barkley said when he publicly announced his decision, "The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business, and I intend to play a part in it." He later explained in an ESPN interview, "I felt in my heart I needed to come back and finish what I started.
"The senior class was with coach Carroll. They stuck through it, and now we have a shot to make a statement."
Despite the scholarship restrictions, which are just now beginning to take effect, the Trojans are loaded with nine returning starters on offense and eight on defense. Barkley passed for 3,528 yards and threw 39 touchdown passes last season against only seven interceptions.
He has the best wide receiver combination in the country in Robert Woods (111 catches, 1,292 yards, 15 TDs) and Marqise Lee (73, 1,143, 11). Woods was one of the recruits Barkley talked into fulfilling his commitment to USC.
Long known as Tailback U., the Trojans were a little thin behind starter Curtis McNeal, who rushed for 1,005 yards and six TDs, but they took advantage of Penn State's probation woes to lure Silas Redd from "Unhappy Valley" to a decidedly more glamorous location.
Barkley's college roommate, All-American safety T.J. McDonald, combines with outstanding cornerback Nickell Robey to lead a defense that ran hot and cold, giving up 175 points to Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Oregon and only 108 to the other eight foes. But Barkley managed to win the track meets against Arizona and Oregon, throwing four TD passes in both games.
After ending the season with six more TD passes in a 50-0 rout of cross-city rival UCLA, Barkley was leaning toward entering the NFL draft. "I was on an emotional high, and the way we finished out the season, I thought for sure I was going to the NFL," Barkley said at the recent Pac-12 media day. "Once that settled down and I started looking into it all, I think I made the right call."
Barkley said all the travails associated with a probation he and his teammates did nothing to cause ultimately served to bring the Trojans together as they fought to regain national prominence last season. "It made us stronger in terms of character, and it allowed us to face adversity in a unique way guys our age aren't really used to," Barkley said.
As if to underscore that message, Barkley and his father, Les, arranged for 15 Trojans to travel on an international mission in May to Haiti, where they helped Hope Force International build four homes for earthquake victims. It put the troubles the Trojans faced in perspective and strengthened their resolve for the coming season.
No one is more grateful for Barkley's return than coach Lane Kiffin, who said on media day he figured the Trojans' quarterback would have been a top-five pick.
"His situation was different, and I think it was about him wanting to do something special," Kiffin said of Barkley. "What some people have written, he may go down as the most historic Trojan ever if we do big things this year."
USC's football history covers a broad spectrum. Just say Barkley has a chance to make history for the right reasons.