|Matt Barkley (right) is enjoying the strong bonds he's made at USC. (US Presswire)|
LOS ANGELES -- Matt Barkley hustled to an appointment recently in a tux and T-shirt, sporting a walking cane and a loosely-worn, what-the-hell bow tie. Basically, USC's quarterback looked like a mugged groomsman.
The campus barely blinked even as a humble Heisman favorite was flat-out calling attention to himself.
"I don't see him get hounded [by students] when he walks across campus," AD Pat Haden said. "You see the tour groups when they come through. They leave the tour guide and go talk to Matt."
USC's current biggest tourist attraction is playing the part perfectly. To be young, free, single and a senior quarterback at Troy is one of our society's greatest honors. On this day, though, it is an honor society that has Barkley's attention. The get-up has something to do with his initiation into the Skull and Dagger, a group known for its elaborate pranks. Barkley giggled to himself. S&D had simultaneously put up "closed" signs on every campus restroom. Talk about L.A. gridlock.
"He's having a blast," Haden added, "being a college kid."
But something wasn't truthful in that letter of intent on Signing Day. It didn't say the innocent would be punished. It didn't warn that glory would be taken away, suddenly and shockingly. It didn't include a disclaimer that seven years later, Barkley and his teammates would be paying for the sins of a rogue tailback. It didn't mention all this when Barkley came to USC in 2009:
• The loss of the head coach (Pete Carroll) and offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian) who recruited him as well as the school's AD (Mike Garrett).
• Space reserved at the bottom of the commode for current players when the NCAA (bleeped) all over USC in the Reggie Bush case.
• Banishment from two bowls and a possible Pac-12 title.
Skullduggery, you might call it for the native son of Orange County, hero to the USC tradition and possible future contributor to an already crowded Heritage Hall trophy lobby.
That was motivation enough for Mr. Tuxedo to walk into a room that day for the ultimate follow-up interview. Four years ago, Barkley, his parents and high school coach sat around a table at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., discussing an unlimited future.
On the brink of the next great USC quarterback's final college season, CBSSports.com attempted to put the band back together for a retrospective. This time the gathering included Barkley, his mother Bev and coach Lane Kiffin. This time, it was in USC's sports information office for a live look-in on Barkley's life and USC's history.
"We kind of look at life a little bit differently [now]," said Matt's dad Les Barkley who arrived later in the day from a mission trip to Haiti. "Life deals you some difficulty." We have been able to learn this much over the past three years: Matt Barkley really loves USC. He has had chances to leave it -- twice. No one could have blamed him if he did. Part of the foundation of what brought him here – Carroll, etc. -- is gone. The Bush penalties rose up like a long-dormant disease.
"There's nothing I can do about what Reggie did," Barkley said. "It doesn't take away anything he did on the field. He's still one of the greatest players who has ever played. What he did, yeah, it sucks. It's either going to make my mindset worse because I'm making an excuse or [it's] how can I make the best of the circumstance."
As you read this, circumstances have carried him and 15 teammates to a mission trip to Haiti. As part of their faith, the Barkley family has been overseas several times helping poverty and disaster victims. This is different. This time Matt recruited his teammates for this life-changing event. They have gladly followed, so much so that the travel roster had to be capped.
Too many Trojans wanted to go.
Here's the payoff: If USC's NCAA-ravage depth holds out, the Trojans could be all the way back. Largely because Matt Barkley stayed.
"There's a lot of reasons kids come here," Kiffin said. "It's not for everybody. This is the big stage. This is the NFL."
That could be an ominous statement. When Bush was here, he got paid like a pro from outside sources. Meanwhile, during Barkley's USC experience, the program has paid for the sins of others. The Trojans have gone from powerhouse to outhouse and perhaps back again, in a time frame that started with Barkley's commitment as a junior in 2008.
Barkley hastened the healing in January by returning for his senior season. During his announcement, the communications major explained his reasoning, slapping a label on the 2012 season: Unfinished business.
If USC fulfills its promise -- some have it as the preseason No. 1 -- Barkley's arm, guidance and decision-making will leave him as one of the program's all-time greats. Maybe the all-time great considering the unique circumstances.
"I never would have pictured that," Barkley said. "I never could have pictured the coach I committed to, leaving. I never could have pictured the severity of the sanctions. At the same time, I don't think I could have pictured the team we have now and how much I love it."
A bond already had been forged when players gathered in the Barkleys' Newport Beach backyard in June 2010 for a cookout. It was in the immediate aftermath of those NCAA sanctions. Over friendship and fried animal flesh, they promised to each other that this wasn't the end.
"It was sad," Bev Barkley said. "You would never choose that journey ... You don't realize how bad [the penalties are] going to be. It was likely constantly pulling a bandage off of [a wound]."
At least they were there together in their time of misery: Center Khaled Holmes who had been friends with Barkley since sixth grade, defensive end Devon Kennard, a one-time five-star recruit with only 18 career starts, D-end Kevin Greene, a Bible studies partner.
In less than a month, USC will mark the second anniversary of those penalties -- some of the worst in NCAA history. The Bush fallout included that two-year bowl ban and a loss of 30 scholarships. Kiffin called it his program's own personal "death penalty." Les Barkley had more of a world view: "There are 30 young men who not going to a Division I school on scholarship."
USC will survive, but you'd have been crazy two years ago to think it two years ago, or that Matt Barkley would be part of the rescue. Juniors and seniors were allowed to transfer without sitting out because the sanctions. Barkley, then a sophomore, wouldn't have been blamed if he left for his final two years of eligibility.
Wasn't he tempted just a little bit?
"No, I wanted to come here since I was a little kid," he said. "That didn't change once the whole thing went down. I thought of that as an easy way out. When it all went down I almost looked at it as a challenge. This is where I want to be."
The NFL beckoned after the kind of 2011 season that propels juniors to the pros -- 3,528 yards, 39 touchdown passes. If Barkley had stayed, Haden already had promised interaction with the likes Mark Stevens, a USC board member and genius venture capitalist who has successfully thrown a few bucks at Yahoo, Google and YouTube. If he stayed, Barkley could enjoy the spectacular new McKay Center football complex. If he stayed, equally spectacular freshman receiver Marquise Lee was waiting with an obvious conclusion: "Matt really appreciated what he had had around him."
"I don't feel finished," Barkley finally told his father. "I don't feel complete."
One day Barkley's decision may be considered the link between USC dynasties. Pre-Barkley: USC went to seven consecutive BCS bowls. With Barkley: 9, 8 and 10 wins. Had USC been eligible last season, it would have played in the first Pac-12 championship game. Not bad for a "downturn".
With 9,054 career yards, Barkley is on pace to break the career passing record at one of the game's great quarterback factories. He has already set the Pac-12 single-season record with those 39 touchdowns last season. No USC quarterback has been as accurate (69 percent) in a season.
Haden considered all this and thought of something:
"If Matt plays well this year, this will be the 15th year of good-to-superb play going back to Carson Palmer," he said. "That's the difference between USC and every other college program."
Another point: If Bush had never put his school in NCAA jail, Barkley would almost certainly be gone -- wouldn't he? -- having played in three bowls and possibly won the first Pac-12 title.
"If we had not been on this journey of ups and downs coming back wouldn't have so special to me but it is," Barkley said. "We're having so much fun. It's starting to peak. I don't think it's peaked yet."
Today, somewhere in Haiti, Mr. Tuxedo's teammates are realizing what they've gotten into. With no bowl to prepare for, Barkley and his family visited Nigeria for 10 days during Christmas 2010. In that span, they discovered it's not necessarily an advantage to be a westerner in the middle of a Christian-Muslim conflict. They visited a village where 400 people had been massacred earlier that year. With tensions rising, the Barkleys were moved outside of the city of Jos. The next day their location was bombed.
"Danger," Barkley said, "is something you have to consider."
The Haiti Trojans are being welcomed gladly. They're building homes for Haitians living under nothing more than tarps at the moment. They had to get shots for malaria. They will experience abject poverty. During one of his visits, Les Barkley watched a 16-year-old give birth on the street.
The profound nature of his faith hit Les during a recent flight back to L.A. There on the in-flight TV screen was a commercial for his organization Hope Force International. He was pictured holding that baby.
"It's neat they're all going down together, particularly given what the team has been through the last few years," Les Barkley said.
That's what this, isn't it? The frat's last road trip. A final chance to be together. Well, until football starts.
"We're very spoiled right now," Kiffin said. "We're probably not going to be a situation again where all our best players are our best kids."
If that translates into USC having the best team, even better for everyone -- from Haiti to Troy.