Matt Barkley made best choice for himself by returning to USC

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That press conference Thursday -- the one with the suit and the band and the giant Christmas tree -- is not what Matt Barkley is about. A lot of people assumed Barkley's ego had run amok when they saw the wall-to-wall coverage of the USC quarterback's decision to return to school for the 2012 season. Those people don't understand the situation.

Sure, Barkley could have sent out a press release. But USC isn't playing in a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions based on events that took place when Barkley was an eighth-grader. The Trojans don't get a three-hour, nationally televised infomercial like the rest of their mediocre-to-great FBS brethren do. Barkley's announcement, sure to be covered by NFL media because of his status as a likely top 10 pick, made USC the biggest story in the sports world for a few hours. So he took one for the team and made the announcement with the band playing instead of having sports information director Tim Tessalone blast out an e-mail.

If you want to know who Barkley is, consider what he was doing this time a year ago. With USC serving the first year of a two-year bowl ban, Barkley, his parents, his brother and sister, his girlfriend Brittany Langdon, USC punter Kyle Negrete and several others spent Christmas break in Nigeria. There, they worked at an orphanage. They visited a village where, only months earlier, 500 people had been slaughtered because they believed in a different God than the guys holding guns did. Watch the video Barkley produced after the trip.

Now look at Barkley's stats from this past season. Compare them to the stats of Stanford's Andrew Luck, the likely No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft.

After considering all that, it should make a little more sense that the USC band serenaded Barkley when he said this: "The 2012 team has some serious unfinished business to attend to, and I intend to play a part in it."

Barkley's return makes USC -- which at the moment will return 17 starters from a team that went 10-2 and beat Pac-12 champ Oregon in Eugene -- a preseason top five team. It makes Barkley, who probably deserved an invitation to New York this year, a Heisman contender.

I've always contended that if Barkley had grown up in Mountain Brook, Ala., or Round Rock, Texas, and played for the major football power one county over, his legend would be close to Tim Tebow-at-Florida status if he'd had similar talent around him. While great quarterbacks at USC certainly get their fair share of attention -- as Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez can attest -- they aren't mythologized the way star quarterbacks are in SEC and Big 12 country. Given Barkley's ability, values and charm, a school in one of those leagues probably would have built a statue of him when he left.

Barkley's decision is great for college football because college football fans get to watch a phenomenal athlete for one more season. Barkley didn't owe anything to USC. He had every right to turn pro. But he made the best choice for himself.

Did Barkley sacrifice anything by staying another year? Sure, he could lose millions if he gets hurt, but playing in the NFL wouldn't alter the quality of life of Barkley or his family the way it would other players. Barkley grew up in Newport Beach. He doesn't need to buy his mother a house.

Barkley came back because he could afford to. He also came back because he loves USC. He has always loved USC. Even when he knew the NCAA investigation into Reggie Bush's largesse from two wannabe agents might produce sanctions that could torpedo his time there, Barkley still chose to play at USC when he could have chosen to play anywhere. Now, with the postseason ban over and the depth issues from scholarship cuts at least another year away, Barkley has one season to make all his cardinal-and-gold dreams come true.

"I am staying," he said, "because I want to finish what I started."

In March, I sat with Barkley's parents, Les and Beverly, for much of a spring practice. They talked about the trip to Nigeria. They talked about the choice their son would have to make between USC and the NFL. They talked about the adversity their son has faced at USC. The coach Barkley dreamed of playing for, Pete Carroll, bailed after Barkley's freshman season. In came Lane Kiffin. Then, in June 2010, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions hammered USC for the sins of the Bush era.

"Adversity's good, right?" Les Barkley said. "We don't want our kids to have adversity, but when they do, it serves them well the rest of their lives." Then the elder Barkley paused. "It's a trial," he said. "But what's a trial?" Then we talked about Nigeria and South Africa, where the family worked on a 2008 mission trip. Beverly explained that the children they met in Nigeria wake up every morning to a world filled with civil war, religious persecution, hunger and AIDS and still manage to smile. After seeing that, who cares about a coaching change? Who cares about an NCAA penalty?

"It just gives him and all of us a better perspective on what life is really like for the majority of the people in the world," Beverly Barkley said. "When you come back into an environment like this, it makes all of this easier to handle."

Matt Barkley handled this decision the same way he did the choice of where to throw with a 275-pound defensive end bearing down on him: with a cool grace that belies his years. Go back to old interviews of Barkley when he played at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. He sounded like a 10-year NFL veteran then.

But that doesn't mean he needs to rush now to become an NFL veteran. Barkley has the means to wait. He also has the opportunity to accomplish something great in his final season. Barkley has only been dreaming about leading USC to a title his entire life. Now, he has the chance to make that dream come true. For that, the NFL can wait.