Matt Barkley makes them sweat
The QB's return to USC is welcome news to coach Lane Kiffin, but he had his doubts
LOS ANGELES -- The drive from Lane Kiffin's home in Manhattan Beach to Matt Barkley's home in Newport Beach takes about an hour, but it seemed as if it would never end Wednesday night, as Kiffin was stuck in rush-hour traffic while his wife, Layla, sat in the passenger seat.
Barkley had called Kiffin that morning around 10, sounding somber, and asked Kiffin and his wife to come to the Barkley house at 5 p.m. to meet him and his family to discuss his decision.
For the next eight hours, Kiffin dissected Barkley's one-minute phone call a hundred times to figure out what his decision would be.
"If he was going to leave, he wouldn't ask me to bring my wife, would he?"
"If he was going to go pro, he wouldn't make me sit in traffic to break the news, right?"
"If he was coming back, though, shouldn't he have sounded happier on the phone?"
As Kiffin sat in his car, he listened to a local sports talk show debating UCLA's hire of Jim L. Mora, made a few calls to recruits and asked his wife what she thought Barkley had in mind.
"Maybe he just wanted to break it to you with me there so it wouldn't be so hard," Layla said.
Layla's theory and the fact that there were no other cars in Barkley's driveway didn't ease Kiffin's worries as he took a deep breath, looked at his wife and finally rang the doorbell.
When the Kiffins walked in, Barkley showed them the family's Christmas tree in the living room, where Matt and sister Lainy and brother Sam make ornaments each year with a picture of something significant that happened in their life that year.
Matt showed Kiffin an ornament he had made for him that had Barkley and Kiffin embracing after the USC-Colorado game in November, in which Barkley set the school's single-game touchdown passes record. Below the picture, it read, "2011 Great Memories."
Kiffin looked at the ornament hastily made out of cardboard and said, "That's neat. Cool ornament, Matt."
Barkley then said, "Turn it over, Coach."
Kiffin had to read the hand-written inscription twice for the words to sink in: "One more year. To the memories next year."
It was easily the greatest and most unexpected Christmas present Kiffin could have hoped for. While outsiders debated the pros and cons of Barkley going pro, Kiffin already had accepted the reality that Barkley, a projected top-10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, was as good as gone.
"I'm probably not supposed to say this, but unless he just wants to do it to be a special Trojan, he ain't coming back," Kiffin said after USC beat UCLA 50-0 to finish the regular season. "Who's playing better than Matt in the country? How do you not draft that kid? He's going up there in the top five."
Barkley apparently wanted to be a "special Trojan" or, as Kiffin said at Thursday's news conference to announce the decision, "the perfect Trojan, Matty Trojan."
When the decision was made Wednesday night, Kiffin and Barkley decided to play a trick on USC athletic director Pat Haden. Kiffin called Haden to break the news that Barkley had decided to go pro but said to call Barkley anyway to find out from him and wish him well in the NFL.
"At 9:03 last night, I fired Lane Kiffin, because at 9:02 Lane Kiffin called me and told me Matt Barkley was not coming back when he was," Haden joked. "So he told me to call Matt and be a good soldier. I was pretty bummed, but I called Matt and he told me just the opposite, so I rehired Lane Kiffin."
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Pranks at the highest level are nothing new around Heritage Hall, where Haden dressed in Kiffin's infamous all-white attire from the Oregon game at the football team's awards banquet and staff members constantly are changing Haden's ring tone on his cellphone to songs such as Britney Spears' "... Baby One More Time."
Barkley even tried to pull a small prank on the standing-room audience packed into the lobby and second level of Heritage Hall to hear his announcement. He wrote his speech with the help of his father, Les, and mother, Bev, who sat beside him at the announcement along with Sam, Lainy, Kiffin and Haden, and tried to hint that he was going to go pro a couple of times during the beginning of his speech.
He looked down at his notes and said he was "fully prepared and ready to move on to the NFL at this time," and then said, "I am prepared to play in the NFL, it is my dream to play football in the NFL and I intend to make that dream a reality" before finally announcing, "the 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part in it."
"How about that one point where I said, 'I intend to make that dream a reality,'" Barkley said with a smile afterward. "I figured a couple people would be caught off guard."
Barkley actually was caught off guard himself at how much USC built up the announcement by staging it in the center of Heritage Hall's lobby with six Heisman Trophies flanking him along with the Trojans' marching band and song girls. It was all slightly over the top for a player who announced he would be attending USC by having his coach call some reporters in lieu of holding a hat-filled news conference.
"I saw the pictures online and I didn't want that," Barkley said. "Not just that it was a giveaway that I was coming back, I just didn't want that image of myself, that's not me. Hopefully, we'll add another [Heisman Trophy] here later, but as of now we have some work to do first."
The one part of the overblown setting Barkley and Kiffin liked was the decorated Christmas tree behind Barkley as he made his announcement. Kiffin smiled as soon as he saw the tree and thought back to the ornament that broke the news to him.
"I'll always remember that ornament," Kiffin said. "What a Christmas present for all the Trojans' fans."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.