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The Last Waltz

Times Staff Writer

Matt Leinart could tango with teammates at the Rose Bowl if USC wins a third consecutive national title.

The Heisman Trophy winner might perform the Nightclub Two-Step in New York if he wins another.

This much is certain: As the Trojans’ senior quarterback pursues those milestones on the field this season, he will waltz through the fall semester in the classroom.

Leinart, who announced in January that he would forgo a chance to turn pro and would return for his final season of eligibility, is taking only one course: ballroom dancing. The elective fulfills the final units Leinart needs to graduate with a sociology degree.

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Leinart makes no apologies for a light load that will keep him light on his feet.

“I put in my work to get my degree,” he said. “I came back for my fifth year, and I’m taking what’s necessary for me to graduate. And that’s two units.”

Hold the snickering.

The NCAA requires that “At the time of competition, a student-athlete shall be enrolled in not less than 12-semester or -quarter hours, regardless of the institution’s definition of a minimum full-time program of studies.”

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However, the rules say, “A student-athlete may compete while enrolled in less than a minimum full-time program of studies,” provided he or she is enrolled in the final semester or quarter of the baccalaureate program and is taking the courses needed to graduate.

The exception was adopted in 1975 and has been revised, said Brad Hostetter, director of NCAA membership services.

“The goal is for the student-athlete to graduate, and this exception is there to recognize that there are student-athletes that have done their job in the classroom throughout their previous years and have gotten close to graduation,” Hostetter said.

Athletes who complete their degree requirements and graduate must enroll in a full load of courses toward a minor, another degree or a master’s program to maintain their eligibility in their final season.

Leinart enrolled at USC in the fall of 2001 and redshirted his first season. He took summer classes throughout his career and could have graduated last spring or during the summer. But after he announced he was returning to school, he left one class for the fall.

“Football is where your mind is, that’s all I’m focused on,” he said last week. “Obviously, I’m focused on working on my dance moves, but ... “

Jon Ericson says he does not blame Leinart for taking only one class, or the NCAA or USC for allowing him to do so. But Ericson, a retired Drake University professor who was one of the founding members of the Drake Group, a national organization of faculty and others working to restore academic integrity to college sports, said the situation was notable.

“It captures the perfect example that the relationship between college athletics and college is tenuous at best,” Ericson said. “College athletics is about big-time entertainment, and college is about education.”

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The NCAA does not track the number of athletes who take a light load as they conclude their playing careers and prepare to graduate, but Hostetter said the practice was “somewhat common.”

USC has nine fifth-year seniors on scholarship on its football roster. Some have graduated and are pursuing a master’s degree, another bachelor’s degree or a minor. Leinart and receiver Greig Carlson are taking one class to fulfill graduation requirements.

“It’s all up to the individual,” Coach Pete Carroll said. “I think they’ve earned that right. They earned that by hard work.”

Carroll said having fifth-year seniors with lighter academic loads does not translate into a competitive advantage for USC or any other school.

“Not having a full class load can make you more complacent,” he said.

Linebacker Dallas Sartz is among the USC players who envy Leinart’s strictly ballroom schedule.

Sartz, a fourth-year senior, says he is taking 13 units this semester. He also is following the example of former teammates who left a few units to be completed during the spring. That way, he can continue to draw a stipend check as he completes his degree and trains for the NFL draft.

But Sartz, who will graduate with a communications degree, said he would like to be in Leinart’s dancing shoes.

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“It would be great not to have to wake up two times a week to go to class,” he said. “It would be a wonderful thing. But it’s a tough thing to do if you don’t redshirt.”

Or graduate from high school a semester early.

Senior punter Tom Malone, for example, graduated early from Lake Elsinore Temescal Canyon High, where he was valedictorian, and enrolled at USC in the spring of 2002. He took heavy academic loads, including summer classes, in his first three years and could have graduated last spring with a degree in political science.

But in January, like Leinart, he announced that he would pass up the opportunity to turn pro and would return for a final season. And, like Leinart, he left himself one class short of graduation.

Last week, before school began at USC, Malone said he had enrolled in several two-unit elective classes with the intention of keeping only one.

“Chess, piano, a dance class. Another one I don’t even remember. I just have to figure it out,” he said.

Malone said he opted not to pursue another major or graduate school because he intends to play professionally and did not want to start something he could not immediately finish.

“I’ve done the school, I worked hard and got my degree, which is what I came to do,” he said. “Now it will be a year just to focus on this.”

Cornerback John Walker and fullback David Kirtman, both fifth-year seniors, opted for more rigorous academic loads during their final seasons.

Walker, who graduated with a degree in American studies, is pursuing minors in history and political science.

“The term is student-athlete, so when you set out to prepare for your season, you have to automatically understand that education is going to be there,” he said. “You can’t just focus priority on your sport. Sometimes, that’s when you struggle.”

Kirtman graduated with a business degree and is pursuing a master’s in communications management.

“I figure I’d max out what I can get from the school,” he said. “Two degrees in five years is the best way for me to fulfill my educational needs.”

Kirtman, though, does not begrudge others for taking the minimum.

“It’s one thing to go into your fifth year and you have a bunch of classes and not even be close to being done,” he said. “It’s another thing to be just one class away from graduating. That’s a [fine] accomplishment.”

The rule allowing athletes to be enrolled in less than a minimum full-time program if they are within reach of their degree is similar for Division II and Division III athletes, according to the NCAA. Dan Collen, athletic director at Division II Humboldt State, estimated that only three or four athletes in the last eight years have participated in athletic competition when they were taking fewer than 12 units.

The occurrence is also rare at Ivy League schools and at Division III schools such as Occidental and the Claremont colleges, which do not award athletic scholarships.

Charlie Katsiaficas, athletic director for Pomona-Pitzer, and Dale Widolff, longtime football coach at Occidental, said nearly all athletes complete their degrees and eligibility in four years, mainly because of cost.

Both estimated that on an annual basis, perhaps one athlete in their schools’ entire 19-sport athletic programs might be taking less than a full load in their final season of competition.

“You really don’t see people trying to take advantage of the rules that allow you to compete,” Katsiaficas said. “Nobody is trying to work the system. Some people just end up in that circumstance.”

Leinart hopes to make the most of his situation by earning his degree, leading the Trojans to another title and possibly winning a second Heisman.

Then, it’s off to the NFL, where he could presumably achieve another historic double: appearing on “Monday Night Football” and “Dancing With the Stars.”


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