When USC Coach Ted Tollner made the decision late in the season to promote quarterback Rodney Peete over veteran Sean Salisbury, it could have been construed as a desperation move.
Peete had obvious athletic skills, a quarterback who was equally adept as a passer and runner. But his experience was minimal--a 19-year-old redshirt freshman who had never started a game.
Surely, his inexperience would betray him. It hasn't happened yet.
Peete led USC to wins over UCLA and Oregon and, with any luck, he could have a 3-0 record as a starting quarterback. He did everything he could to beat Washington in his first start, only for the Trojans to lose, 20-17, when tailback Ryan Knight fumbled on the Husky one-yard line with the game-clinching touchdown in sight.
Even Tollner has been surprised by Peete's coolness under fire, his poise in critical game situations.
But Peete was prepared by his background to be more mature than his age. He has been playing with the big boys for a long time.
"That was mainly due to my brother, Skip. He is three years older than I am, and I used to tag along with him and his friends in every sport," Rodney said. "I think that helped me more than anything. It allowed me to play against better competition. Once I got to high school and played against guys my own age, it made it easier."
Skip Peete just finished his senior season as a wide receiver at Kansas. The Peete brothers also benefited from the counseling of their father, Willie, coach of the running backs for the Kansas City Chiefs and a former assistant at Arizona.
"Both of the boys have been around athletics all their lives," the elder Peete said. "Even as little guys they were always going to football and basketball games."
Willie Peete is modest when asked how he's figured in the success of his sons. But Rodney says that in the summer months, Willie Peete would supervise workouts for his sons. It was an ideal situation. Rodney had a wide receiver, Skip, to catch his passes, and there was Willie to supply technical advice.
Having a father as a coach is obviously beneficial for an athlete trying to refine his skills. But it could also be counterproductive if the father disputed the theories of his sons' high school or college coaches.
"I never said a coach was wrong," Willie said. "I reinforced what coaches told them, building on what they wanted done."
But Willie has provided Rodney with some tips that any coach would endorse. An example:
"Many teams (including USC) signal in the plays for the quarterback," Willie said. "Let's say the play is 'I 28.' Instead of just repeating the play from the coaches, I've told Rodney to convince the linemen and the backs that the play is going to work before calling it."
Willie Peete got an unexpected emotional lift as the Chiefs were flying into Los Angeles for an early October game with the Raiders.
Told that he could listen to the USC-Oregon State game on the airplane's stereo channel, Willie quickly put on a headset.
He smiled broadly and announced: "Rodney has just thrown a touchdown pass." He listened some more, smiled again and said: "He just threw another one."
Rodney Peete is a low-key athlete with an illuminating smile.
"When he's home, you hardly know he's there, although he enters into family conversations," Willie said. "But with his friends he may be a prankster. I know that everyone wants to be with him."
Peete was a a football, basketball and baseball star at Sahuaro High School in Tucson through his junior year. Then, when his father became an assistant coach with the Chiefs, Peete played his senior season for Shawnee Mission High in Kansas City, Kan.
"He was used to a wide-open brand of football in Tucson," Willie said. "In this area they basically run the football. Because it was a different type game, I think it helped him adjust to college."
Now Peete, inexperienced but mature in a sense, is preparing himself for Saturday's Aloha Bowl game with Alabama, a team that Tollner says is the best the Trojans have met this season.
"Some people are saying that Alabama is going to kill us, so we're fired up to play a great game," Peete said. "Overall, I'd compare Alabama's defense to UCLA's. They have quick guys up front, big and fast like UCLA's Tommy Taylor and Mark Walen. There really isn't any weakness in their defense, and they have two great players in the line in Jon Hand and Cornelius Bennett. Their defensive backs are big and will hit you. It's probably the biggest challenge for our offense this year."
It has been conjectured that a 6-5 team such as USC probably doesn't have any business playing in a bowl game against a team with Alabama's credentials (8-2-l).
Peete takes a different view.
"I'm just fortunate to be at a school like USC that can be invited with such a record," he said. "You probably wouldn't see a team with a lesser tradition going to a bowl. Washington is also 6-5 and going to a bowl. I'm really happy about it. We've been playing good football the last three games and we're going into the game with some momentum. This is an opportunity for us to get some respect back, because we lost some games that we should have won this year."
Since becoming USC's No. 1 quarterback, Peete has certainly done his part. He has completed 59.2% of his passes for 379 yards and 3 touchdowns. He has accounted for 65 more yards by running this season, the most for a USC quarterback since Vince Evans had 86 yards in 1976.
Salisbury is USC's all-time passing leader. But the knock on the fifth-year senior is that he didn't contribute enough big plays at critical junctures of a game.
Peete adds an element of excitement to what had been a stodgy USC offense. He teamed with Hank Norman on a 68-yard pass play to set up a touchdown against Washington and threw a scoring pass later in the game. He made three big plays against UCLA--a quarterback draw to sustain the winning touchdown drive, a fourth-down rollout for a first down at the three-yard line and a one-yard sneak that beat UCLA with only 1:13 to play.
He adds another dimension to the offense by his ability to run, whether planned or improvised.
"The offense hasn't really been altered for me," he said. "They've added the quarterback draw and sweep, that's about all. We've always had the bootleg and rollout plays. It's just that when I'm in there, we may run them a little more than when Sean is playing."
Salisbury, a fifth year senior, was naturally disappointed to lose his starting job--and Peete commiserates with him.
"Sean and I are good friends," he said. "There is no animosity between us. If there was a grudge, there might have been some differences on our team. I really feel bad for him because he has had a lot of ups and downs in his career."
When Peete was being recruited out of high school, he made one stipulation to schools: He wanted the opportunity to play both football and baseball.
He was a starting shortstop and second baseman last spring until he was hampered by a strained hamstring and he intends to play baseball again next spring as a center fielder.
"Don Buford (an assistant coach) told me they want me to go into the outfield because they have a lot of infielders," Peete said. "I said I wouldn't mind that because I just want to play. If you can hit they'll find a place for you to play. Buford said that scouts were more interested in me as an outfielder."
Peete says that he doesn't have a conflict between football and baseball. He just favors the sport that is in season. As to his future?
"I'm not ready to give up either sport until I'm finished with my four years here," he said. "I'm going to continue playing and have some fun."
He can delay the decision as to which sport he'll eventually choose for a professional career.
It seems that USC has another John Elway-type in its program. As for Peete, he has the best of both worlds.