LOS ANGELES -- What a waste.
That was the message of every text, tweet and call I got following USC’s 21-14 loss to Stanford on Saturday.
A wasted national championship season, a wasted offseason filled with false hope, and a wasted return for QB Matt Barkley, who was supposed to cap his USC career with a Heisman Trophy and a national title.
I heard similar sentiments after Texas beat USC at the Rose Bowl in 2006 to win the national championship. QB Matt Leinart’s decision to return for his senior season was viewed as a failure because he didn’t win the Heisman or the national title that season.
Leinart might have thought it was a waste as he walked off the field at the Rose Bowl that night over six years ago. And perhaps there were similar thoughts running through Barkley’s mind as he walked off the field at Stanford Stadium on Saturday night. It’s natural to have those feelings in the midst of a loss. Time, however, has a way of allowing us to view situations and moments with more perspective and clarity.
The fact is, Leinart’s senior season was probably one of the greatest five-month stretches of his life, filled with moments (“The Bush Push”) and memories (coming back from 21-3 down in the second half to beat Arizona State) he wouldn’t trade for anything.
And though Barkley might not be thinking in these terms now, he has four months remaining in what may be one of the greatest stretches of his life, too.
Some might like to label his senior season a failure after one big loss, but there’s still plenty of time for Barkley to make the most of his final days in college, and whether it ends with a Heisman or a national championship doesn't have to be all that defines him.
No matter what Barkley does from here on out, his decision to return for his senior season was, to my mind, the right call.
Sure, winning a national title or a Heisman Trophy would have been an amazing storybook ending to Barkley’s career at USC, especially following NCAA sanctions that prevented him from playing in a bowl game the past two seasons. Not winning one or both, however, doesn’t make his decision to return a mistake.
Success and failure at the professional level are defined by wins and losses. It’s an understandable criterion; players are paid millions of dollars to win games, and if they don’t they lose their jobs. But that's not the case in college football, not for individual players.
College football is a big business, but players can measure their personal success in other ways. Barkley can think his decision to return for a senior season is a success every time he walks through campus with his backpack on, talking with friends on the way to class.
He can feel good about his decision every time he sets foot on the practice field with his teammates, knowing that together they've weathered the storm of sanctions that has surrounded the USC program these last few years.
Barkley can consider himself successful every time he converses with a USC student on Twitter like some kind of social media guidance counselor instead of an untouchable Big Man on Campus.
He can revel in the excitement of throwing a touchdown pass in front of 92,000 at the Coliseum, and in the uniquely collegiate joy of conducting the Trojan Marching Band after a win.
And he can, in all likelihood, still look forward to flying to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, and to leading USC back to a bowl game in January for the first time since 2009.
These are all memories and experiences that you get only once in your life, and they're not erased because USC came up short against Stanford.
There is plenty of time for Barkley to experience the real world. In fact, it’s about to hit him with all the force of a Stanford blitz in about four months.
The time between now and then, regardless of the score on Saturday night, is something he can cherish.
The sooner he forgets about preseason expectations and realizes that, the better off he’ll be.