Los Angeles — It began in the 1960s and for a long time it looked as though the University of Southern California would never run out of Heisman Trophy winning tailbacks - or at least legitimate candidates for that honor. Who could ever forget Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, and Marcus Allen? And several other USC speedsters who never actually collected that particular piece of hardware (Clarence Davis, Anthony Davis, and Ricky Bell) still eventually went high in the National Football League college draft. Year in and year out, the USC tailback figured to be good for 1,000 or more yards gained per season.
But it's an entirely different Trojan team that went 8-3 this year and will play Michigan State in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year's Day. USC now lives offensively by the pass, with ``Student Body Right'' replaced in the playbook by ``Wild Blue Yonder.''
This team belongs to Rodney Peete, a 6 ft. 2 in., 195 lb. junior, who not only throws a lot of passes, but completes them. He also runs well enough to play halfback, and all-in-all should make an excellent Heisman Trophy candidate next season.
Peete's talent doesn't end at football either; in fact he resembles 1985 Heisman winner Bo Jackson in his ability to also play baseball at a high level. The Toronto Blue Jays are so impressed with the way he plays shortstop that they have already drafted him.
Rodney also has a wonderful disposition, and the way he diverts praise from himself to his teammates is a quality rarely seen these days.
Peete's ability as a quarterback surfaced early, and he was a great one in high school, but still most major colleges tried to recruit him for some other position. Clinging to old stereotypes about black athletes, they were willing to try him as a wide receiver, a running back, a flanker, or a defensive back, but they weren't entirely sure he could handle the varied and intricate duties demanded of a quarterback. In other words, he would go fine in the ship's engine room but not on the bridge.
Fortunately for the Trojans, they had no such preconceptions. And Peete has proven himself an outstanding leader - the guy who makes it all happen; the clutch performer who came through under pressure when the Rose Bowl bid was at stake; the player Michigan State knows it has to stop to win.
When the Trojans and the Spartans opened the season together at Michigan State on Sept. 7, USC was breaking in a new coach (Larry Smith), with all that such a situation entails in terms of everyone learning a new system.
Michigan State won 27-13 and looked good doing it. And while this isn't meant to take anything away from the Spartans, who are a fine football team, beating Peete & Co. isn't apt to be as easy the second time around, especially in Pasadena.
As Smith recently told reporters: ``Our football team has changed in a lot of ways. Going into our first game, we really didn't know each other. We were still learning. Now we have a better feel for each other and when we beat UCLA to get the Rose Bowl invitation that was a big turning point for us.''
And Peete was the story of that game. UCLA led 10-0 and almost broke the game open on the last play of the first half when safety Eric Turner intercepted a pass on his goal line and streaked upfield. But Peete chased him down, tackling him on the USC 11 to save a touchdown, then brought the Trojans from behind with two fourth-quarter scoring passes for the 17-13 upset that earned USC a tie for the Pac-10 championship and the Rose Bowl bid.
Obviously, a game like that can do a lot for a team's mental attitude.
``Although maturity is part of our story, so is confidence,'' Smith saus. ``Offensively we think we've done a good job of blending the pass and the run. And in the second half of the season, our defense really came together. Probably the thing I like best about us is that we have continued to improve.''
Smith and Rodney Peete go back a long way together.
Peete's father, Willie, who is currently an offensive backfield and special teams coach with the Green Bay Packers, had previously been an assistant to Smith from 1980 to 1983 when Larry was head coach at the University of Arizona.
Rodney also wore a Wildcats jacket during that period as the team's waterboy. In fact, Rod's brother, Skip, was a wide receiver at both Arizona and Kansas.
Asked about his father's influence on him, Peete replied: ``It helped me a lot having a father who is a football coach. I was always hanging around the practices and at night my dad would bring film home and I'd watch too. He'd point out to me what the quarterback was doing and why. He has been my full-time personal coach. I can't describe what an advantage that has been to me. Whatever I am as an athlete I owe it to my father.''