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THE MINEFIELD

Sept. 03, 1990
Sept. 03, 1990

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Sept. 3, 1990

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THE MINEFIELD

For USC quaterback Todd Marinovich, fame and talent may not be enough to see him safely through

By Douglas S. Looney

"I have to discipline myself," Southern Cal quarterback Todd Marinovich said recently in what sounded like a hope, a prayer and a plea. "I just have to. I'm finally away from my dad telling me everything to do. And I've got to say I have taken advantage of it. Full advantage. He keeps telling me, 'Come on, you've got the rest of your life to fool around. Not now.' I know he's right. But there are a lot of distractions at SC." At that very moment, two of them walk by. In shorts. "See what I mean?"

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 1990 issue

Last season, his first as the Trojans' starting quarterback, Marinovich, now a 21-year-old sophomore, had some awful lows and some awesome highs as he struggled to assume the mantle of leadership in one of the most glamorous positions in sport. It is not yet a snug fit. Indeed, USC quarterback coach Ray Dorr told Marinovich's father, Marv, at the end of the 1989 season, "Todd has to prove his ability before he can prove his leadership. And I don't feel he is as focused as he was. He plateaued after our 10th game. To succeed, he has to really be on a mission for the next three years." Todd shrugs the comment off, saying, "I'm pretty much where I want to be."

The 6'4", 210-pound Marinovich is a conglomerate of contradictions. Does he want to be a great quarterback or not? Will he emerge this fall as the preeminent player in the land, which many experts think he could be, or will he become another should-have-been? What does USC truly think of him? Is it possible that he may simply go off into the Sierras with his oil paints and exist on fruits and nuts while painting craggy pines?

In sum, the No. 1 question for college football in 1990 is: Whither Todd Marinovich?

Indeed, it has been—and almost certainly will continue to be—a difficult life at USC for Marinovich, who burst upon the world of college football during his hysteria-filled recruitment in the winter of 1988 (SI, Feb. 22, 1988). Almost every football-playing college in the U.S. made a pitch for him. Schools begged. Got on their knees and pleaded. It was not only Marinovich's ability that attracted attention, but also the fact that he was born and bred to be a quarterback. Every decision regarding his young life was made with one goal in mind: that Todd grow up to be a quarterback. Included was the food his mother, Trudi, consumed while Todd was in the womb.

For much of his life Marinovich has been surrounded by a team of advisers who worked on his throwing, running, thinking, sleeping, relaxing and exercising. Others worked with him on strategy, attitude and poise. And eating. Never did a Big Mac or a Twinkie cross Marinovich's lips. Carrots and celery and pasta did. An American kid who had never had a Big Mac? The populace couldn't believe it. The Robo QB, he was called. Hey, come watch the mechanical boy throw spirals. Unquestionably, he had too many people telling him what to do; unquestionably, it seems to have worked—so far.

Project Marinovich was engineered by Marv, an offensive lineman at USC and co-captain of the 1962 national champions. He was the prototypical stage father. In most ways, Marv didn't have a life. He had Todd's life. In 1987, Marv and Trudi were divorced. "I had a captive audience," says Marv. "I told him when to eat, what to eat, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to work out, how to work out. Now I have a hard time getting him on the telephone. He seems to be leading a life-style that is wearing. The interviews, missing meals, bad sleeping habits. Things are just starting to slip. I told him, 'You are making bad decisions, but I can't make them for you anymore.' He went directly from an environment where everything was regimented to a totally open door."

Says Todd, "Distractions, distractions." He's right; there goes another one. She tosses her hair. He rolls his eyes.

Marinovich stares at the ground, then slowly looks up. "Man, it's tough every day to live up to the image of the all-American boy who has never eaten a Big Mac," he says. "And I do get tired of people looking at me funny. Sometimes I just don't want to deal with it."

That probably is why Marinovich sometimes comes across as downright surly. He lives with far too much pressure for a 21-year-old, and here's an example: In December, Marinovich was at an offensive team meeting at the Irvine Marriott during preparations for the Rose Bowl. Assistant coach John Matsko was holding forth:

"Todd, do you know what we want?"

Silence.

"Completions."

Silence.

"To our guys."

Silence.

"This could be a home run play."

Silence.

So was Marinovich being surly? Or did he just figure Matsko's questions required no response? Said Marinovich later, "I was thinking." It could be worse.

In a desperate moment a year ago, Todd went home to his mother in Balboa, Calif., 40 miles from the USC campus, and told her, "I wish I could go somewhere else and be someone else. I don't want to be Todd Marinovich."

Trudi understood, but that sort of attitude has not pleased Marv. Last Thanksgiving, Marinovich had a couple of days of vacation. Marv viewed it as a splendid opportunity for Todd to get in some extra work; his son viewed it as a splendid opportunity to goof off. Todd goofed off. One day in December, during those Rose Bowl preparations, Marv didn't like the way Todd was transferring his weight while throwing. So he arranged for former San Jose State quarterback Steve Clarkson, who previously had worked with Todd on his mechanics, to come by for a refresher session. Todd said he was too busy. He remained too busy. The old man was beside himself. "If Todd had to choose between being a top quarterback or one of the boys, he'd prefer to be one of the boys," Marv fumed.

Whither Todd Marinovich?

The real difficulty is that Marinovich can't decide who he wants to be. He almost always talks in a flat tone, as if speaking with exuberance would somehow indicate weakness. He is not sure what he wants his public style to be. He can't decide if he wants to be a free spirit living on the edge or a guy with a briefcase and calculator who wears both belt and suspenders.

Marinovich's confusion is apparent. At one point, he sits with his chin resting in his hand, projecting a thoughtful air. Moments later, his arms are draped over chairs next to him, a study in nonchalance. He can be hopelessly shallow. Asked to name the main thing he likes about football, he says, "It's the closest you can get to being a rock star."

That's it?

"That's it."

But moments later, talking about art (he is a fine arts major at USC and is just now moving from pen-and-ink sketching into oils) and football, he draws an insightful parallel: "Neither has limitations. The quarterback has the most leeway and the most control on the field. That's just like an artist. In both, it's fun watching nothing turn into something good." Yet, ask Marinovich who he is and he fidgets. He seems to think that if he sits long enough and says nothing the question will go away. It does not. "I am a guy who is really lucky," he finally says, "because I'm doing things that I like and that I'm good at—football and art-all the time. That will keep you happy."

Alas, truth be told, he has a hard time keeping happy, for one reason: No matter how well Marinovich does, it is not good enough. Incredibly, the better he does, the more he falls behind others' expectations. Both UPI and The Sporting News named Marinovich the College Freshman of the Year for 1989. He was the only freshman on the All-Pac-10 team and the first freshman quarterback ever named. He was also the first freshman quarterback to start a season opener for USC since World War II.

Last season, Marinovich completed 197 of 321 passes during the regular season (16 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions) for a 61.4% rate, just .1% behind the NCAA freshman record set in 1983 by Bernie Kosar at Miami. So, what does USC coach Larry Smith see as his team's primary need this fall? "Improved efficiency at quarterback," Smith says. In fact, Smith and Dorr are expecting—what a horrible word that can be—Marinovich to complete 70% of his passes this season. As an afterthought, Smith says, "Of course, we want Todd to proceed at his own pace." Of course. As long as it's 70%. Fans expect even more. Buttons appeared last year that read, IN TODD WE TRUST.

Not long ago. Smith was asked to evaluate Marinovich's performance in spring practice, during which he had completed 306 of 461 passes with only eight interceptions. "I think he did well," said Smith. Period. No elaboration. Smith then lavishly praised the spring practice effort of backup quarterback Shane Foley. At the March 24 scrimmage, Foley was 18 of 22 for 174 yards while Marinovich was 12 of 22 for 154 yards. When Smith was asked if Foley could start this year in place of Marinovich, the coach didn't hesitate: "Sure it's possible. Foley would be starting anywhere else. I tell you, he pushes Todd."

Maybe Marinovich has had too much publicity. After all, he was a legend in the public's mind before he snapped on his USC chin strap for the first time. At Capistrano Valley High School, he set a national passing record of 9,194 yards. In fairness, even the Mona Lisa can seem disappointing if her good points have been wildly exaggerated. Maybe Marinovich's route to becoming the USC quarterback—all that born-and-bred-to-be-a-star stuff—was simply too weird.

Smith wants nothing to do with predicting Marinovich's future. "Don't ask me how a player might look three years from now," he says sharply. "By then I might be selling pencils on Figueroa." If he is, it won't necessarily be Marinovich's fault. However, it would be perceived as such because, as Smith says, "No matter whether problems are quarterback-related or not, the perception will be that he's not performing well." O.K., so what does Smith expect of Marinovich this year? "I expect him to be a lot better. He has the foundation, but there is plenty of room for improvement."

Arriving on the USC campus in a blizzard of acclaim presented an awesome challenge for Marinovich. Says Marv, "Nobody could have been more prepared coming out of high school, and he wasn't prepared." Not for the football, not for the freewheeling atmosphere of collegiate life, and certainly not for the celebrity. Recalling something she once read, Trudi often reminds Todd, "Fame is like perfume. It's great to be around and wonderful to smell, but you don't want to swallow it." The sweet aroma of expectation quickly wore off Marinovich at USC, and nobody was swallowing the theory that he would guarantee the Trojans a national championship. Marinovich was redshirted his freshman year and got to watch Rodney Peete play the position. During the following spring practice, he did not impress the coaches, and last year's preseason prospectus noted unenthusiastically that Marinovich '"could see some action this season."

Then, in the Trojans' final preseason scrimmage, Marinovich's world spun 180 degrees. Smith had decided that Marinovich would back up junior Pat O'Hara, but on Aug. 25, O'Hara was hit, the ligaments in his right knee were ripped asunder, and he fractured his right tibia. Recalls Marinovich, "I felt sick. I saw Pat roll to his left. Then some of the players blocked my view, and I heard Pat scream in pain. My knees went weak, and I got sick to my stomach. The next thing I knew they were calling my name to take over with the first team. So I just had to block it out and try to concentrate. Later, my dad told me, 'Take advantage of the opportunity, go with it, and don't look back.' "

Nearly everyone else connected with USC was looking back at that awful moment on Aug. 25 and praying it was a bad dream. Dorr says, "We weren't ready to give Todd the job." Just 10 days later Marinovich was starting against Illinois, and he admitted to his mom—to whom he admits a lot—"I just realized I'm going to be playing in front of 80,000 people." Says Trudi with a laugh, "I didn't mention the millions who would be watching on TV."

Marinovich's former roommate, Lamont Hollinquest, recalls the feeling on the team that "most of the guys didn't know how well he would perform. Or even if he would." If Marinovich felt a groundswell of support from his teammates, he was badly misreading the situation. After all, here was a team with 18 returning starters, 10 of them on defense. Now, abruptly, a team with national championship aspirations had one perceived weakness: Marinovich.

On the evening of Sept. 4, the Fighting Illini visited the Coliseum for the season opener—and won, in a stunning upset, 14-13. The Trojans were up 13-0, but Illinois scored twice within 3:41 of the last quarter. Marinovich completed 14 of 27 passes for 120 safe yards, but his indecision contributed to four sacks, and he suffered an interception late when USC still had a chance to come back. Most of the blame for the defeat properly lay elsewhere—the defense collapsed—but the coaching decision to, in effect, try to play around Marinovich and minimize his role was a mistake. Says Marinovich, "The coaches told me not to lose the game, that the defense would win it. But I guess I didn't impress too many people." Says Dorr, "What we tried to do was build his confidence and our confidence in him." Neither happened.

Predictably, the burden of defeat landed on Marinovich. Afterward, in the gloom of the locker room, he said, "We weren't bad." Nobody agreed. Steve Springer of the Los Angeles Times, who decided that the Illinois game was sufficient to judge Marinovich, wrote, "The launch of a new era had fizzled." While this was too harsh too soon, it was true that a national championship seemed to be out of the question—gad, 1 for 16 on third downs!—and everybody was furious that one weak link had fouled the works for USC. No one in Todd did trust.

Whither Todd Marinovich?

Then, incredibly, six major turning points ensued in the life of Todd Marinovich, quarterback. In each case, he did extraordinary things. In each case, there were naysayers.

1) After routinely dispatching Utah State 66-10 in a game in which Marinovich was asked to throw the ball only 18 times, the Trojans were not cheered by the prospect of facing Ohio State on Sept. 23. Still, Marinovich figured to do better than he did against the Illini. He did not. On the third play of the second quarter, he sprained his left wrist—he is a southpaw—and left the game with USC trailing 3-0. In raced Foley, who promptly led the Trojans on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Marinovich remembers thinking, "I could lose this job as easily as I got it." Brushing aside the pain in his wrist, he told Smith he was ready to return, and the coach says he thought, Well, O.K., let's find out just how tough this kid is. With his wrist tightly taped, Marinovich promptly threw a school-record 87-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Jackson; he added three more scoring tosses, and the Trojans smashed the Buckeyes, 42-3.

Caveat: Yes, but Ohio State obviously was not the Ohio State of old, so while it looked like a significant win, it wasn't.

2) One week later, playing at Pullman, Wash., USC was dreadful. The Trojans found themselves with the ball on their own nine-yard line, trailing Washington State 17-10 with 3:31 remaining. Then, the Drive. Marinovich started off with three incompletions, but on fourth-and-10 he connected with flanker Gary Wellman for 15 yards. After being sacked twice and completing a pass for 20 yards, Marinovich confronted a fourth-and-five, and hit Jackson for six yards. Twice more he had difficult third-down situations, and twice he succeeded. With four seconds left in the game, and the Trojans on the two-yard line, Marinovich threw a strike to tailback Ricky Ervins in the left flat for the touchdown. Needing a two-point conversion to win, Marinovich went to Wellman for the completion and the 18-17 victory.

Said State coach Mike Price, "We made Marinovich that day. Give us credit. I should get a percentage of his pro contract." For his part, Marinovich insisted, "I'm not amazed." He should have been. Said an admiring Leroy Holt, the fullback, "I think Todd wanted to show the world he was a winner." A monstrous win.

How monstrous? Former President Reagan called. "He gave me his phone number," says Marinovich. "Told me if I was ever in Bel Air to stop by." The win salvaged the season, which almost certainly would have been ruined by a loss in Pullman.

Caveat: Yes, but it was Washington State, which has a 5-41-4 record against the Trojans and historically is included in sentences that contain words like Oregon and Oregon State. So big deal.

3) Against Washington the next week, Marinovich completed 16 of 17 passes in the first half, the one incompletion being a drop. USC won 24-16.

Caveat: Yes, but Washington also was having an off year, the Huskies' secondary was especially troubled, and winning by only eight points was not an impressive offensive performance. Just wait until Marinovich has to try to complete passes against Notre Dame.

4) Two weeks later, in South Bend, Marinovich paid no mind to the ghosts of Notre Dame's past. He admitted he had no idea who Gipp was, who Rockne was, who the Four Horsemen were. Armed with this lack of knowledge, he was brilliant, hitting 33 of 55 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns.

Caveat: Yes, but USC lost the game 28-24 because, in the waning moments, with the Trojans on the Irish 7, Marinovich threw three straight incompletions. (This after an afternoon of making the Notre Dame defense look ridiculous and helpless against his on-target and on-time arm.) See, biggest game since Illinois and the quarterback couldn't get it done. Probably can't win the big games.

5) Against Oregon State, Marinovich lit it up again, 14 of 18. Asked about his performance, he shakes his head. "I can't remember anything about that game," he says. USC won 48-6. But it's no wonder. Beating Oregon State is not a mountaintop experience for the Trojans. Beaver coach Dave Kragthorpe remembers Marinovich as a "poised, calm, collected quarterback who didn't play at all like a freshman."

Caveat: Yes, but it was Oregon State. And wasn't USC's defense great?

6) In the Rose Bowl, against Michigan, Marinovich threw an early interception. But he pulled himself together, connected on 22 of 31 passes and took the Trojans on a 75-yard game-winning drive, starting with 5:15 left. Three times he was in third-down situations, and he covered them all. He was calm, he was cool, he was determined, he was intense, he was smart, he was brilliant. The Trojans won, 17-10.

Caveat: Yes, but Michigan under former coach Bo Schembechler has been traditionally awful in the Rose Bowl (Bo's record: 2-8), hampered by poor preparation matched by poorer execution. Besides, this was not a great Wolverine team; West Coast speed often dominates teams from the Midwest; and the game had no serious impact on the national rankings.

See, Todd Marinovich just can't be good enough. Every time he's great, there is a body of thought that a) he should be greater, or b) lots of people could have done what he did because his teammates were so good. And all too often people are inclined to focus on the dark side. Illinois, for example. And UCLA. That game ended in a 10-10 tie with a pitiful Bruin team (3-7-1), Westwood's worst in years. Marinovich was awful, throwing three interceptions and looking every inch a freshman—a high school freshman. With that debacle on his mind, it's no wonder Marinovich says, "When people tell me how well I'm doing, I can't hear it enough. That's because there have been times when I wished I could have heard it more."

Still, Marinovich could be heading for big-time trouble this fall. The Trojans are not the team they were last year when they went 9-2-1, were eight points from being undefeated and untied, won the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl, had the nation's No. 1 defense against the rush (66.3 yards per game) and were second in total defense (238.4 yards). Only seven starters return this fall, the fewest for USC since the school started two-platoon football in 1965.

With nonconference games against Syracuse, Penn State, Ohio State and Notre Dame on USC's schedule, the potential for disaster is real. Should losses mount, guess who will get the blame. Should the Trojans rise up and have a huge season, it's clear what people will say: A bunch of young guys in the offensive line, defensive line and secondary grew up in a hurry. But what about Marinovich? Naturally, the answer will be: "He was O.K. But we need a lot of improvement out of him. Quarterback is our key problem area."

This lack of confidence could send Marinovich to the pros early. "It's hard not to [go]," he says, "when people start flashing that kind of money at you." He has pro-style vision, throws the fades and deep routes well, and gets velocity on balls into the flat. Marinovich has a first-rate five-step drop but needs to pick up another couple of steps back for the pros, while learning to throw better on the run. Another indication that he might not stay at USC for the full term is that, as his 2.23 grade point average attests, he has little interest in being a student. Says Marinovich, "One of the first things the older guys laid on me when I got here was that C's get degrees, and sometimes D's." Says Smith, "His biggest academic weakness is getting up."

That's a problem. Or a hint. Because while Marv gets intense waiting for a traffic light to change, Todd gets intense about nothing. Could he be short in want-to? "When I was younger, I envisioned playing forever," he says. "But after only two years of college football, I have taken such a beating that now I know I will play just long enough in the pros." Which is how long? "Maybe four years."

Whither Todd Marinovich?

PHOTOPETER READ MILLERDORR TOLD TODD'S DAD THAT THE PLAYER STILL HAS MUCH TO PROVEPHOTOPETER READ MILLERMARV, WHO IS OFTEN AT PRACTICE, HAS MADE HIS SON HIS LIFE'S PROJECTPHOTOPETER READ MILLERMARINOVICH CONFIDED IN TRUDI DURING THE PRESSURED WEEK BEFORE UCLATWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERSTANFORD FELL (ABOVE), BUT SMITH AND MARINOVICH COULD ONLY TIE UCLAPHOTOPETER READ MILLERMARINOVICH DISCUSSED THE STANFORD GAME PLAN WITH HIS COACHESPHOTOPETER READ MILLERWITH SO MUCH CRITICISM, TODD GENUINELY APPRECIATES ALL THE ACCLAIMPHOTOPETER READ MILLERMARINOVICH CANNOT DECIDE IF A CONSERVATIVE IMAGE TRULY SUITS HIMPHOTOPETER READ MILLERMARINOVICH SEES THE PARALLELS BETWEEN ART AND HIS QUARTERBACKING