CollegeFootballNews.com 20th Anniversary: 2004 Interview with USC QB Matt Leinart
CFN interviewed rising USC superstar QB Matt Leinart back in 2004, just before he went on to win the Heisman and lead the way to the national championship.
2004 CFN Interview with USC QB Matt Leinart
In our 20th year of existence, CFN will occasionally post some of the classic articles and interviews as they appeared way back in the day. Welcome to our conversation with one of the all-time greats, future NFL Hall of Famer and USC Trojan legend, QB Matt Leinart.
Matt Leinart interview, as posted in August of 2004
Who doesn’t want to be Matt Leinart?
Who doesn’t want to be the starting quarterback for one of the nation’s premier programs, play for national titles, and be a top Heisman candidate and a rising pro prospect?
He gets to be the best quarterback in the second largest city in America, at a school with star-studded alumni and weather in the mid-70s every day.
He gets to date TV star pro surfers and hang out with Jessica Simpson, and he gets to all but live the college version of the Entourage life. But on this day, for just a brief moment, I have no interest in being Matt Leinart.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss the college lifestyle at least a little bit, but I don’t miss the stress of taking finals.
I was out at the USC campus in late April and got a chance to sit down with the Trojan star an hour before he had to go run his 40-time on USC timing day and two hours before having to take a Spanish final.
Yes, Mr. Superstar College Guy has to go to class just like everyone else. And then he can go off and be Matt Leinart again.
But don’t think this all has gone to his head. Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach to the stars Norm Chow couldn’t stop raving about what a good guy and a good worker Leinart is. And now, if he can have another season like 2003 and lead his team to the national title, he’ll have to be considered the greatest Trojan quarterback ever.
That might all come later, but after I talk to him he has to go prove he knows his Spanish while I get to go have drinks by the beach. Nyah.
CFN: So what’s your 40 time going to be?
Matt Leinart: I honestly have no idea. I didn’t get a chance to run it last year because I had a little injury. But I think I’ll be faster than I was during the season.
CFN: Does it really matter? You’re don’t need to be Michael Vick for this team.
ML: It really doesn’t, but I always want to get quicker and faster to move around, and if I can get an extra first down or two by getting there faster, that’s not bad. It’s the type of thing that I need to keep working on.
CFN: It’s one of those weird things the pros care about. Tom Brady doesn’t run a 4.4 yet the scouts are going to care about that.
ML: It’s not that I don’t work hard on it, but I’m not fast. That’s not my game, but I wouldn’t mind to be faster so no one makes a big deal out of this.
CFN: You have a final in two hours. I used to be a basket case in college before a big exam.
ML: Yeah, I have a Spanish final coming up and I have to do my oral presentation before my written work. I’m not worried about this though; it’s an easy one for me. It’s weird because the last day of school is today, and I don’t have any finals next week and then they all hit in a two day span so I’m able to space everything out a bit. I’ll spend all next week studying.
CFN: Everyone analyzes college football players like NFL stars when doing their previews and prognostications forgetting about this side of things. Is it all tougher now that you’re now officially “Matt Leinart Heisman candidate”?
ML: It’s tough sometimes but you’ve got to do it. I’m not really one of those guys who gets caught up in hype, but things have definitely changed. Sometimes you don’t feel like going to class as much because of everything else going on, but it’s part of what I need to do. Not to sound cornball or be a cliche, but I have to be the leader and set an example and if that means that I have to get to class and work hard in the classroom, that’s what I have to do.
I want to do that stuff, too, along with getting to enjoy all of the perks that go along with being in my position. Sometimes you have to spend all day in the weight room and meetings and practice to go along with being a regular college student, and it can be tough sometimes. It’s not that bad though and like I said, it can be fun.
CFN: Last year when I was out here all the buzz was about high school hotshot John David Booty and how he was going to be the next Carson Palmer. Now things have changed so much and all the attention is on you. You have to be confident to compete for the quarterback job at a place like this, but is it a little shocking to you how much things have worked out in less than nine months?
ML: I knew I could do it and I knew I was capable of doing some good things, but you just don’t know until you’re out there and get the shot. Once I got my cockiness back that I had in high school, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean the confidence to know that you’re good and can get the job done, then I felt like this was my team and that I could be a good leader. J.D. is a great player and there was a lot of hype, but I could only do what I could do and not worry about anyone else.
CFN: If you’re playing at a place like this you know you’re in for competition with the best of the best.
ML: Oh yeah, you know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s awesome. We made each other better and he helped me to work even harder knowing that I have to be better than ever to play here. If you let all the outside distractions affect your game, you’re not going to be good. Once things got going and we started rolling as a team it was all uphill, or I guess downhill, from there.
CFN: What has been the most surprising part about all of this success?
ML: There wasn’t really one thing. I think just being a part of this team, being the quarterback of a national champion, being the MVP of the Rose Bowl, I mean, you can’t even realistically dream of all of that. I was just hoping to come in last year and win games and not lose my position. As it kept going it was unbelievable. Heisman talk? All-America teams? It’s all sort of unreal.
CFN: Did the players get into the whole LSU-USC national title stuff last year?
ML: To be honest, not really. Coach Carroll does a great job of schooling us on stuff like that. No one tells us what to say and what not to say, but he makes us understand that there are certain things we can control and other things we can’t. Obviously the BCS and not going to the Sugar Bowl was nothing we could control. Beating Oregon State late last year, going to the Rose Bowl and beating Michigan were things we could handle. We were national champions and I think a lot of people think that, too. No disrespect to LSU, they had a great season and deserved to be in the Sugar Bowl as well. I have no hard feelings about how things turned out. Our goal is to get to the Rose Bowl, and we did that.
CFN: You’ve seen LSU play. How would you have handled the blitzing style of defense they’d throw at you?
ML: I think the Pac-10 doesn’t get a lot of recognition for how good the defenses are and I did see some good blitzing teams last year. Washington State was a really good defense. Cal had a good defense. I think the thing about LSU is that they looked really fast. We wouldn’t change for them, we would’ve used our speed to play our game. We’re fast too.
CFN: The Pac-10 is tough but it’s not the SEC. You guys should theoretically beat everyone by a few scores. Do you guys take a cocky attitude that you should be winning and winning big or is that just being dangerous?
ML: You kind of want to have confidence that you know you can win, but you have to take it one game at time. Cal was a perfect example last year. It’s not like we overlooked them, but we were flat and we didn’t take advantage when we had chances to win. We have to play hard every week. There are some Pac-10 teams still trying to find their way up from the bottom, but there are three to five teams that can step up and beat us.
CFN: Considering where you were last year, did watching the NFL Draft this year take on more meaning for you? Now you’re going to be a part of it soon.
ML: It’s actually kind of funny. I always thought the draft was cool and you get closer and closer to being at that stage and it’s really cool to see guys that you played with get drafted. I mean, I threw to Keary (Colbert) last year and now he’s off getting drafted. I was really happy to see that, but I couldn’t watch the draft because I was off on a sailing trip. It was the most miserable three days of my life. I hated the trip to begin with, and then I missed the draft. I had my parents tape it and then I watched when our guys got picked.
CFN: That has to be weird at a place like this where one minute you’re hanging out and playing with another college student and then bam, they’re millionaires and you have a Spanish final.
ML: Yeah, but that’s cool though. It’s awesome to see it when all of the hard work pays off. You have to work your butt off with school, weights, classes, meetings. It’s worth it after four or five years here.
CFN: So then do you agree with Mike Williams and Maurice Clarett leaving early?
ML: I hear the argument that if you’re 18 you can go to war but you can’t do things like drink or play in the NFL, but I don’t think you should be able to leave early. In Mike’s case, he’s the exception and maybe Larry Fitzgerald. Mike was simply more physically talented and was an extremely gifted player. He could have made the jump.
CFN: Williams was ready from Day One. He could have gone pro as a freshman.
ML: He knew how good he was. He knew he was that good and ready to play at the next level. Obviously it helped when Clarett stepped out, but I just don’t think most players are ready. They need to mature and need to play college ball. If high school players want to try it it’s just dumb. They have no chance. We get superstar high school players here who look ready and really aren’t.
CFN: Playing at USC is not like playing at your typical college town with big time media types as opposed to the smaller market media that most players get to deal with. With no NFL team here USC and UCLA is it. How do you handle the media and all that football attention focused on you?
ML: The media here is definitely big-time. You have people covering us, covering the Lakers, covering all the teams we have here, but you’re right. There’s no NFL and it is a little bit of a fishbowl, especially for me considering the position I play and the team I play for. You have to be careful what you do and what you say because the media will be there. It’s not hard, but you have to just stay out of trouble and not say anything too dumb.
CFN: How much pull do you have in this town? Are you at the point where you can name drop and get into places?
ML: (sheepishly smiling and measuring his words very carefully) Uhhh … I don’t want to get in trouble here. Let me put it this way. There are tons of things that I suppose I could do and advantages I could have just because of who I am and the position I play, but I’m not really like that. It’s just not how I am, but there are perks that go along with all of this. But like I said, man, they’re watching so you can’t screw up at all.
CFN: With all the high profile alumni and all the stars in this town, have you had a big geek out moment meeting a celebrity?
ML: I’ve met tons of people. Not really athletes, but I’m sure that will change soon. I’ve met lots of entertainer types. I just met Jessica Simpson.
CFN: That is really cool.
ML: Yeah, that was nice. And actually, her and her husband are big SC fans, or at least he’s a big SC fan, so I got to talk to her about SC football for a while. I’ve met people on TV shows and actors and people like that.
CFN: It helps that you were dating someone like Veronica Kay (professional surfer and WB’s “Boarding House: North Shore”).
ML: Her show came out two months after we were together and she was getting a ton of exposure and a ton of publicity and I met a ton of people through knowing her. We still talk and we’re still friends. It’s tough though. I can only imagine what celebrity couples go through. We just experienced a very small touch of it during the season. You have no life and no privacy and that was just us. I can’t even think about what celebrity couples have to deal with.
CFN: Dating hot surfers, meeting celebrities, playing for national titles; other than this Spanish final, I want your life.
ML: Oh yeah, man, I wouldn’t trade this for anything in the world. I remember Coach (Norm) Chow talking early last year and he kept telling me my life was going to change in a hurry and to be ready for it. It was a complete 180 from where I was and there’s no way to really prepare for everything that happens.
I didn’t have to deal with everything that Carson used to deal with, but as the season went on it was more media, more interviews and more attention. It’s annoying sometimes and sometimes frustrating, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like it. I like having all the pressure on me and I like it being my job to lead the team to win. That’s what I want to focus on this year. There’s no better place to be and win than at Southern California.
Photo credit: USC Athletic Department