USC's Leinart weighs his options: hefty NFL bonus or back to school?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Bob Leinart and I stood along the sideline Saturday at the Southern California Trojans' football practice, talking about kids, the college experience and decisions.

"What would you do?" Leinart asked.

Well, knowing what I know now about medical science, I would have had less coffee, eliminated all stress from my life, taken fewer hot showers and worn looser shorts, improving my chances of having a son who might one day grow up to earn millions playing football.

Eleven days after Bob's son pitches footballs at quarterback for USC against Oklahoma, junior Matt Leinart, 21, will have to decide whether he wants to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft and eventually take home a signing bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million, or return to school.

My daughters, meanwhile, probably have already decided to let me take them out to dinner again next week.

"Happiness is the most important thing," Bob said, and he has two sons.

Father knows best, and Bob said, "I think he's going to stay in school."

USC coach Pete Carroll said the same thing, but it's going to be the kid's decision.

A few months ago, Matt told The Sporting News, "Mark it down - I'm staying all five years [at USC]. I'm not going to change my mind. Why would I want to leave what we have here? The NFL will always be there; my life as a college student won't."

A few days ago, Matt said, "I'm not saying there isn't a chance I won't leave; I'm aware of the opportunity and it would be hard to pass up. I'm going to have to explore the different possibilities."

Right now, though, Matt's preparing for Oklahoma tomorrow night in the Orange Bowl, while Bob is preparing for the Jan. 15 mega-decision. Bob has talked to such agents as Leigh Steinberg, David Dunn and IMG, who specialize in representing quarterbacks. He has chatted with several NFL general managers. He knows it's going to be "a weak senior class when it comes to available quarterbacks in this year's draft," he said.

He knows the San Francisco 49ers will have the No. 1 pick, and "most likely trade it," he said, "because they need so much help."

He likes the Arizona Cardinals because they have two good receivers, but they also have a cheap owner. He started to tick off some other possibilities, and it's apparent he has done his homework.

He said: "Matt loves school. He has 18 more units to graduate, but if he comes back next year, he'll probably take a summer school class, work out and get an internship while playing football."

He said the prevailing opinion is that California's Aaron Rodgers and his own son will be the top two quarterbacks in this year's draft if they declare. Rodgers hasn't made a decision, and though Bob said he thinks Rodgers will move on to the NFL, he said Matt told him last week that he has heard Rodgers is going to stay in school.

If Rodgers stays at Cal, that would make Leinart the top quarterback prospect, but where he would go in the first round would be determined by how well he does in private NFL workouts after Jan. 15. And there's the gamble.

There's no question there will be a place in the NFL for Leinart, but now it's simply a matter of economics and how high he might be picked. This year, or next. If Rodgers returns to Cal, Leinart's NFL value increases this year. If Rodgers and Florida sophomore Chris Leak come out together in next year's draft, will it cost Leinart if he waits, too? "It's all good no matter what happens," Bob said, and the way the kid has conducted himself on and off the field, it speaks to the solid job of parenting done by Bob and Linda Leinart.

"I've got to say, he surprises me," Bob said with a laugh. "Take that speech he gave at the Heisman banquet. I was sitting next to Glena Carroll, and when Matt said, 'I'm the 70th guy to win this award and I promise you people, I'll never let you down,' I told Glena I needed a handkerchief. That was a parent's moment."

Give one of my daughters a chance to collect an $11 million signing bonus, and now that would be a parent's moment. And I'd need a handkerchief, too.

T.J. Simers is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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