Before leading USC to national title, Matt Leinart nearly went to Michigan

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Matt Leinart did it all as a college quarterback.

The face of the Southern Cal juggernaut in the early 2000s, Leinart won a Heisman Trophy and a national championship with the Trojans in 2004 and compiled a 37-2 record as a starter while throwing a program-record 99 touchdown passes for head coach Pete Carroll. It led to Leinart being taken No. 10 overall by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2006 NFL Draft.

Quarterback Matt Leinart starred at USC before he was drafted by the Cardinals, but nearly went to Michigan.

It would be hard to imagine Leinart in any uniform other than the Trojans as he eventually earned induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. But, as one of the top quarterback recruits in the nation, Leinart nearly made the choice to come to Michigan and play for coach Lloyd Carr.

“It was really close for Michigan,” Leinart said this week on The Ryen Russillo Podcast. “I had my best friend’s brother there and, remember, SC was terrible. This was still prior to Pete Carroll. This was the summer before that year.

“I remember having a conversation with my mom and telling her like, I really love Michigan. It would fit me. I’ll never forget, she broke down in tears. ‘You’ll never make it there.’ She did not want me to leave.”

So, Leinart went to Southern Cal, clearly a good choice for him.

However, he did offer up quite the interesting recruiting story. As a star at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California, Leinart was unsure of his decision to attend Southern Cal. He took a visit to Oklahoma as they were preparing to play for a national championship, but he didn’t love it in Norman, Oklahoma.

That led to a trip to Michigan for a week-long team camp. At the time, the Wolverines needed to see Leinart throw before offering him a scholarship. So Leinart went, and thanks to knowing guys on the team, he stayed in a house full of players for the week, leading to a raucous few days.

“In that house was Dave Terrell, the great receiver that went to the Bears who ended up one of my good buddies for long time,” said Leinart, now a college football analyst for Fox Sports. “Bennie Joppru, the tight end for Michigan that played in league for like five or six years. Just bunch of good dudes in that house, like eight dudes.

“We got wasted like every day, and I was 17. I remember going to the camp like two days in a row hung over and I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m gonna (blow) this opportunity.’”

One particular night at Rick’s American Café still stands out for Leinart.

“Any Michigan alum that’s gonna listen to this will know what I’m talking about, it was just their bar,” Leinart said. “The football guys like ran that place and I got so wasted. I’ll never forget. I passed out right there, this 17-year-old kid, this big-time recruit trying to get a scholarship. They had to carry me out of Rick's Café.”

Leinart bounced back, though, and before he left camp, he secured the scholarship offer.

“I don’t know if it was the next day or the day after and I had to throw,” Leinart said. “So I threw with John Navarre — who I would have competed with at that time, I guess — in the Big House, which was pretty sick, with some of the top receivers at that camp and I threw pretty well. Lloyd Carr brought me up to his office and ended up offering me a scholarship that day.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau