Some of Josh Rosen’s first childhood crushes were on the universities he dreamed of attending.
He fell in love with Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale in elementary school without setting foot on campus, because their imagery evoked the Ivy League educations his parents received.
He became infatuated with USC a bit later, drawn by the heady heroics of football stars Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart.
By the time he reached middle school, Rosen had discovered what seemed like the perfect blend of sensibilities for a budding quarterback with an intellectual bent. It was Stanford, a school that has produced 32 Nobel laureates and Heisman Trophy winner Jim Plunkett.
“I definitely would have loved to go there, of course,” Rosen said Wednesday. “The whole world wants to go there.”
When he jogs onto the field for UCLA on Saturday evening at the Rose Bowl to play the seventh-ranked Cardinal, Rosen will face the school that didn’t want him back.
It won’t be as awkward as it might appear.
While it’s true that Stanford didn’t offer the standout from Bellflower St. John Bosco High a scholarship even though he wowed coaches during a summer camp in Palo Alto, Rosen said the hesitancy went both ways.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about Stanford,” Rosen said. “It’s a world-class university, it’s incredible, but it’s just L.A.’s a little bit different than Palo Alto.
“As I went through the recruiting process, I went up there twice and wasn’t a ginormous fan of the setting and everything, because I’ve come to realize through the process that a lot of it’s about your environment too and whether you’re going to enjoy the college you’re at. So we just didn’t mesh that well.”
Of course, Rosen didn’t know any of that when he was intent on winning a scholarship during the summer camp. He appeared to do his job. His high school coach, Jason Negro, said Stanford offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren told him he had never seen a quarterback prospect dazzle the way Rosen did.
It didn’t lead to anything except heartache when Rosen returned to Southern California empty-handed.
“I think there was some disappointment there,” Negro said. “He obviously performed well enough to get a Stanford offer.”
Asked about Rosen this week, Stanford Coach David Shaw raved about his strong arm, quick release, high football IQ and engaging personality. Apparently the only thing missing was a spot on the roster.
“The thing with us is that we were investigating all quarterbacks that year and we just didn’t take one at all,” Shaw said. “It wasn’t just we didn’t want to take Josh. We didn’t take a quarterback.”
That might seem curious considering that Rosen is far more accomplished than Stanford counterpart Ryan Burns, who has not thrown more than 18 passes in a game this season. Then again, that’s largely because of the Cardinal’s commitment to their power running game, which Rosen saw as another potential drawback to going there.
“They’ve had supremely talented quarterbacks, but they’re looking for a very specific kind of guy because they have a system that isn’t very quarterback-driven,” said Rosen, who has completed 60.5% of his passes this season for 917 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
“So they want a guy who’s just willing to operate the system and then build him throughout his career like Andrew Luck, where he started out as sort of a game manager and progressed his way through.”
Another factor, Rosen said, was that Stanford didn’t want him to graduate early from high school, which would have required him to wait several months before heading to campus. He enrolled at UCLA in the winter quarter of 2015.
Rosen doesn’t speak in cliches but believes in one: Everything worked out for the best.
He loves living in the nation’s second-largest city and ponders the connections it might produce after college. There’s also the matter of playing for UCLA Coach Jim Mora, who spent four seasons as an NFL head coach and knows what it takes to make it on that level.
Like the universities that once enticed him before fading from contention, Stanford reminds Rosen of what might have been. He seemed almost relieved that the possibility didn’t materialize.
“It’s not my spot,” Rosen said. “I mean, college is a lot more than football and school. It’s about the people and the environment and whether you’re going to actually enjoy the three or four years you’re there.”