We’re here with former USC Quarterback and Tight End Matt Cassel. First of all, Matt, congratulations on your national championship this past season.
Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It was fun for all.
What does being a part of the Trojan Family mean to you?
It’s unique in that you’re part of a family which you don’t know that much about when you first come in. You always hear about the folklore and everything else about the Trojan Family and how it exists, the networking capability that you may have as a Trojan. But then you start to realize that once everything is settled and your college career ends people start to reach out and offer their services and everything that they can do to help out. That’s when you really start to realize how strong the Trojan Family bonds are.
What is your favorite moment of your USC Football career?
I have a number of them, but I would have to say my senior year, against UCLA. I was on the on-side kick team. They kicked it right at me and I jumped up I grabbed the ball, thankfully, and ended up being the hero, I guess, and helped secure the victory. For me, being able to contribute in some manner, whatever facet it was, it helped the team, and I was very pleased. It was definitely a memorable moment for me.
You seem like someone who is always having fun either on the field or doing an Elvis impression before the Vegas Bowl. Are you just naturally good-natured?
Definitely. I’m an upbeat-type person. I try to stay positive whatever I do, whatever activity. You face adversity in college, and for me, it was not playing a lot. You choose to take one approach or another. I think it makes it a miserable time here if you always concentrate on the negative and say, “Why me?…Why am I the victim of circumstance?” For me it was just staying upbeat, not taking anything for granted, and enjoying the time here, because I know it is a short period of my life.
Tell us about the importance of having your family close by during your college career. You got to watch brother play baseball, your mom and sister got to come to SC practices, etc.
It was great. That was one of the reasons I chose USC, one of the deciding factors. From a playing standpoint, from an educating standpoint, and the family standpoint…it was great to have them around, it set up a foundation of support for me. I was always close to home if I needed something, if I needed the home-cooking or anything like that. It was always nice to be able to see your family. I think the guys who come from out of state don’t realize until they get here how special it is to have your family here. You always reach out to guys who are from out of town and offer for them to come over because it is a special thing to have your family be able to experience the whole college experience with you and the football season.
Not many athletes get to play quarterback in college behind two Heisman Trophy winners. Tell us what playing behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart means to you?
First, there’s never been a football player who has played behind two Heisman trophy winners, which is terrible! I don’t know how that occurred for me. (Laughs.) They’re both really good friends of mine and it was a pleasure playing with both of them.
Carson was my roommate. He’s just a laid back guy and an unbelievable person. We’ve stayed friends, and he’s never changed one bit. He’s always been there for guidance and support and anything you need. He’ll help you out any way that he can, and what you see is what you get with Carson.
Matt is a very similar. He’s cool, calm under pressure. From that standpoint they’re very similar. Matt has been in the spotlight since he started at quarterback and I think he’s done a great job of managing the pressure and the situation. That’s something I’ve always admired about Matt. No matter what the circumstances are whether it be the national championship game or off the field pressure and all of the media attention, he’s always kept it real and he hasn’t changed much.
You’re one of the few members of last year’s team who had the opportunity to play under both Paul Hackett and Pete Carroll. What would you say are the biggest differences in programs between the two?
I am forever grateful to Coach Hackett for bringing me in and giving me the opportunity to play for USC. I respect him as a coach. He had a different approach, was more of an authoritarian. He tried to focus the group on managing adversity. I thought he did a good job.
Then Coach Carroll came in. He’s very spontaneous and he’s got this energy and enthusiasm that guys were immediately drawn to. When he was introduced, he put on this video of clips of all of the great athletes, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, that showed them in the heat of battle, and their eyes, and their passion for the game. And I think the message more or less is that you have to have passion in order to play and be successful, and I think guys from that day forth bought in and it immediately set a tone for what the program was going to be about. He has an open door policy, he makes himself available, the players never feel like they’re not being heard. He definitely turned this program around for the better. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around… I think he’ll go down in history as one of the best coaches of all time in college football once it’s all said and done.
What are your thoughts on the program now given the recent coaching changes?
There’s been a lot of coaching changes over the past couple of years, coaches who have moved on. Coach Carroll preaches that that’s what they’re here for, to use their experiences as a stepping stone to get them to better places, and if that’s what they are able to do, then that is great. It’s always tough, especially in college football, to keep a great coaching staff together because obviously they know the keys to success. What people want to do is try to implement that into their system. So they take our coaches in the hopes that they will be able to show exactly what we did at USC and try to do the same thing at their schools.
So I’m happy for all of the coaches. I think it will be a little bit of a change. Coach Orgeron and Davis have a fire about them that is not equally matched by many people, so I’m interested in seeing how team meetings will be run, but other than that, I’m sure Coach Carroll will do a great job on prepping the new coaches and I’m sure that they are all qualified or they wouldn’t be at USC. I don’t feel that there will be any drop off. I think that we’ll definitely miss Chow early, that his loss will be the biggest impact early on… but I think Sarkisian and Kiffin are well-schooled under Chow and that they know what they are doing. And with the talent that we have right now, it’s hard to lose.
You moved to TE at one point in your USC career, and you later asked to move back to QB, why?
I was too small and fragile and got beat up by BKU! (Laughs.) Nah…I played a little bit of special teams as well that year… I thought it was great to have the experience, but in the end, I came in as a quarterback and I wanted to end my career as a quarterback. I felt that when all was said and done I wouldn’t be satisfied unless I went back to the position and gave it one more shot to compete for the number two position…It worked out for me in that I was able to become the number two quarterback and play a lot this season. This by far has been the best year of my career here at USC just from the standpoint of hanging out and enjoying playing ball.
Looking back at your college career, if you had the chance to do it over again, would you do anything differently? Would you have transferred?
Everybody asks this question. Looking back at my career…for me, football was one reason I chose USC. Education was another aspect, as was being close to home. I was in an intense competition to win the starting position from the day I stepped on campus. I have no qualms in saying I competed every day to try to win the position…The decision to start Matt Leinart was a good decision. It was hard to cope with at first, it was hard to deal with, but I think, in the end, it makes you stronger because you overcome adversities that not many people have. You deal with the circumstances, but you also learn how to compete through thick, through thin. It also says something, I think, to stick it out and try to work through the circumstances.
Some people take the easy way out. The first time adversity hits, hey get out, run for cover, and go somewhere else. For me, it wasn’t about that. It was about where I was going to be happy, and I say again the football aspect may not have worked out as I had planned here, but hopefully it will work out at the next level. Hopefully there are bigger things in store. There’s a reason why I chose this school, and it wasn’t solely based on football.
Tell us about any personal USC highlights you’ve experienced off of the field.
One of the most memorable things for me was being a part of the Student Academic Athlete Committee (SAC). We worked to pass legislation for the betterment of student athletes at USC. I was also part of the national SAC. Being part of that group was an activity I enjoyed, that made me feel I could make a difference.
Also, going to the White House, meeting George W. I think the coolest part was the special service on the White House lawn with the semi automatic machine gun. That was kind of cool…I think all of the bowl games for me really capped it off. You’re with the guys, on the road, and all of the food is delicious…You can’t beat it!
How would you compare the experiences of playing in Little League World series as 12-year old and playing in the Orange Bowl as 22-year old?
I think as a 12 year old, everything is bigger than life. It’s 1994, we were called the Earthquake Kids and our team was incredible! At the time there was a strike in baseball so we were the biggest thing going. People were chanting “U-S-A!” We had a parade. Limos picked us up with pizza inside, and as a fat kid, I just ate that up with a spoon! We were in the Rose Parade…They had so many things for us to do as 12 year olds it was unbelievable. So at that point in my life, I think that experience was immeasurable.
And then when you go on the national stage when you play at USC…it’s also unbelievable. It’s hard to describe the intensity and the unbelievable atmosphere that we got to play in week in and week out. It’s so exciting, and the activities, the road trips and the perks for a 22-year old is also immeasurable, so they are quite comparable in many ways, great experiences that have taken place at different points in my life…We lost the World Series 4-3 to Venezuela, however, so if I had to pick a better memory, it would be winning the national championships at USC, because winning leaves a sweet taste.
Speaking of baseball, last year you were drafted by the Oakland Athletics, but didn’t pursue a professional career in baseball. Can you tell us how you came to that decision, and do you see professional baseball as a possible career maybe one day in the future?
Both my brothers play baseball, and I played baseball in high school, so it’s been in my family for a long time. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I talked to Coach Gillespie and he was awesome…As for baseball in the future, I don’t know. At this point I am focused on the NFL as a possibility in the future. That’s what I’m training for. We’ll see.
What are your thoughts on trying out for the NFL this spring; what is your tryout regimen, who are you working with, and how is that coming along?
Trying out for the NFL is fun, because it’s what you always see the seniors prior to you doing, and it’s filled with excitement because it is the next level. Now that your opportunity is here it’s very exciting and it’s one of those times when you wake up every morning fresh and ready to go because you know that it might be an opportunity for you to do something you always dreamed of.
For me personally, I think it is time for me to possibly reinvent myself, because I played in the shadows of two guys who have obviously done well. I believe in my capabilities to play as a person. Now is the time for me to go out and make another name for myself, maybe at a different level. So that’s exciting for me.
My preparation is non-stop. It’s five days a week, it’s running with the track coach (Quincy Watts) in the morning, lifting here at school, or in Manhattan Beach with a personal trainer. I throw with the trainers including Ken O’Brien three times per week. He’s been a great mentor and a great person to have in my corner. Now it’s kind of just getting ready for this combine (March 23d). I’m ready to go.
If for some reason it doesn’t work out with the NFL this coming year, are you considering any other football leagues, such as the Arena Football, or leagues out of the country?
It’s a tough decision process, one that you have to put a lot of time into. For me right now it’s been complete focus on getting to this step and seeing if I can get an opportunity to play in the NFL, so I haven’t really entertained any other ideas, although I’m confident I will have other options playing football if for some reason the NFL doesn’t work out. I’m also thinking of the possibility of having a career in something else. I am in a position where I do have my education [Cassel has a B.A. in communications, with a business minor]. I have good contacts and I’ve met a lot of great people here who are willing to help me out. I’ve actually used part of this time to go out and interview with different companies and find out what different options I have out there. Because you never know what’s going to happen and you need to have a back up plan.
We understand you’re working on getting a real estate broker’s license. Can you tell us what draws you to this career?
The last two summers I’ve had internships in real estate and I’ve enjoyed the field. I feel it’s a field I’d be very interested in possibly going into after college. I worked for a development company last year. I worked for a well-known private home mortgage company the year before, so I have the experience in the real estate field and I’ve been drawn to it, so I decided getting a broker’s license could be handy no matter what I decided to do. That was my thought process. It’s preparing for the future, I guess, is what it is.
Are you thinking of any post-graduate education?
I actually wanted to get my MBA at USC. But there are strict requirements now with work experience. So I opted to get my business minor, which was great. I don’t regret it, but I would have loved to have received an MBA. Whether or not I go back in a year from now and get another degree or my masters, I don’t know yet, but it is a possibility. Once I get a few years of work experience under my belt.
Tell us something about Matt Cassel that most people do not know.
Matt Cassel the person is definitely more laid back than a lot of people think. I am a jokester. The players had me doing impressions of Coach Carroll every two weeks. The skit was entitled “Do the Trojan.” (Laughs.) I love my dogs. I enjoy golfing and dominos. I like to read for pleasure, I like the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. I am a huge AC/DC fan. I put on a little Thunderstruck and Hell’s Bells and we’re good to go on the running and the jogging! I’m also a big jazz fan. The last movie I saw was “Ray.” I loved it. Amazing artist, amazing story.
Who are your closest friends on the team?
The Killer Bees! It’s the quarterback crew. During practice we all get to wear the yellow jerseys, so we call ourselves “The Killer Bees” – Brandon Hance, Matt Leinart, Billy Hart, Mike MacDonald, John David Booty, Rocky Hinds. We’re one of the closest groups you can get. I think really this season we became a very close group. We always hung out together and we always did everything together. So “The Killer Bees on a swarm” is what we call it when we go out and we’re on the swarm. Others I really enjoy hanging out with are Lofa Tatupu, Shaun Cody, Dallas Sartz, Ryan Kalil, Sam Baker. That’s my crew!
With the USC football chapter in your life closing, how do you want to be remembered?
I would like to be remembered as the guy who went out and competed every day, never took anything for granted. The guy who competed his butt off whether it was a tough situation or an easy situation. I stuck to what I believed in and I didn’t run from adversity. I think hopefully in the end it is something people can admire me for. I was always true to USC. I respect the tradition, the heritage. I have a great passion and love for just being a Trojan, being a part of the heralded background, the history. I am a Trojan through and through. I will always be a Trojan.
Anything else you want to say to the USC fans as your college football career ends?
Fight on. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of this great, great program and the history of it all.