Keyshawn Johnson was the MVP in both Cotton Bowl and the Rose Bowl during his two-year career as a wide receiver at USC. He says they were wonderful experiences that he will always remember, carrying memories of the pageantry with him as he embarked on a 10-year professional career.
But playing in those storied bowl games, even being named MVP in them, wasn’t what he had his eyes on when he transferred to USC from West Los Angeles Junior College for the 1994 season.
His eyes were always on something bigger -- playing on Sundays.
“That was always my goal since I was a little kid,” he said.
And that’s why he doesn’t think the fact that the Trojans (still under NCAA sanctions) are not eligible for a bowl game for the second straight season has had much of an effect on the players’ mindset or their motivation.
“They’re playing for a lot more things than Bowl games,” he said this past week. “You’re playing to finish your education, you’re playing for NFL scouts and you’re just playing to dominate the conference as a whole to leave some sort of legacy at the university.”
Quarterback Matt Barkley has said repeatedly that the sanctions imposed by the NCAA in the wake of the Reggie Bush improper benefits scandal, have not changed the way he approached last season or preparing for this one, which begins Saturday against Minnesota.
"We’re going to win as many games as possible,” Barkley said. “That doesn’t change. That’s what we’re going for.”
So much has been made about what these players have to play for, with no bowl game, conference championship or national title possible at the end of the season. But most of these players, except for those who transferred from junior college a year ago, have already played in a bowl, the last being the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco in 2009, just before Pete Carroll left for the NFL and the NCAA lowered the boom.
And, the younger guys believe their chance will come next year. But that still is not what they are focused on as this season begins. “It’s the chance,” Barkley says, “to get better.”
And that’s exactly what Coach Lane Kiffin has preached, as he was telling his team a year ago of the sanctions and then again this past spring in discussing the school’s failed appeal of the NCAA's decision. And it’s what he was preaching as the school landed a top-10 recruiting class in light of all the negative publicity. He really had no choice but to stress the next level as a motivating and recruiting tool.
"The majority of the players we deal with are four and five-star players, the best in their areas, all potential NFL players,” Kiffin said. “I’d love to say college players’ number one motivation is the color on their helmets or their university or their families. I’m sorry to say that’s not the truth. The facts are, their number one motivation is the National Football League. We have a roster made up of players who have their sights on the NFL and rightly so.”
To this, Johnson nods his head emphatically.
"Sure it’s an extra (enticement) to go to a University and have a shot to play in a bowl game and a chance to fight for a national championship," he said. "But if you’re sitting around worrying about one game . . . I mean, it’s one game."
Even when you’re the MVP.