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Matt Leinart dishes on NIL, athlete opportunity, and a $10K cash offer in 2004

Matt Leinart

In December 2004 at the College Football Awards in Orlando, Florida, Matt Leinart was offered $10,000 in exchange for his autograph.

“I remember walking around the resort with my brother and some random dude came up to us. ‘Hey, will you sign these? I got $10,000 cash,’” Leinart recalled.

His response: “No, I’m good.”

Leinart, who would days later take home the Heisman Trophy Award, never thought twice about breaking the long-standing NCAA policy on ‘amateurism,’ barring players from being compensated for their name, image and likeness.

“It never was talked about that much, at least for me, just because it wasn’t there. We didn’t have that opportunity, so I didn’t waste my time thinking, ‘Well, I should have made this.’ I was a 21-year-old kid, loving college, playing football and trying to focus, and get to the NFL Draft. It never crossed my mind,” Leinart told The NIL Deal in an exclusive interview.

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“I was a part of an era where the teams that I was fortunate to play on made USC millions and millions of dollars while I was there with Reggie [Bush],” Leinart continued. “The rules were in place so you didn’t really think twice about it, you just played for your college, you loved it, and then you hoped to play in the NFL.”

Every now and then, Leinart wonders what life would have been like if NIL existed back then.

“I can’t tell you 20 years ago if I would have gone to USC or not,” Leinart said. “I always think of myself back at 18 and how would [NIL] have influenced my decision if there was money on the table. I try to put myself in these kids’ shoes and I can’t. It’s hard because I didn’t live it… People over the years have always been, and especially now that it’s legal, ‘Imagine how much money you would have made if you were in college,’ and now I’m thinking like, ‘Holy crap, yeah I probably would have made a lot of money’, but you know, that didn’t happen.”

‘The grass is not always greener’

A lot has changed since Leinart last laced his cleats for the Trojans in 2005.

Of course, NIL’s introduction to the high school and collegiate landscape has led to an immense monetary influx for the student-athlete, but it has had an equally fascinating effect on the way schools operate. A new element to recruitment and the Transfer Portal by way of the NIL collective has become an essential piece to a school’s ability to build success. 

As someone who worked in the industry of football just about his entire life, Leinart sees NIL a bit differently than the casual fan, donor, or even student-athlete. Now 39, Leinart said that there is a give and take. There is plenty of good — for the athlete, institutions and the NCAA at large — but there is also a negative aspect NIL has had on the college landscape.

“There’s a lot of issues right now in college athletics, but the Transfer Portal is a big one. Very few people transferred [when I played], and if you transferred, you’d sit out a year and you kind of just held on, you competed and if you’re good enough at the end of the day, you’re gonna play, but it doesn’t work out that way. There were too many penalties,” Leinart said. “I’ve seen way too many players transfer and all of a sudden they’re lost in the shuffle. The grass is not always greener, there’s not always a home on the other side and you’re risking a full scholarship in the hopes you find something else.”

Leinart continued: “I think there needs to continue to be tweaks on the Transfer Portal. The players have a lot of power now and that’s something that we did not have up until two years ago and they’re demonstrating that and I think it’s a good thing. I think people are just scared, there’s all these inflated numbers being thrown around and people are scared because it’s different and it’s changed.”

The Transfer Portal has created a “free agency” feeling, a first-of-its-kind scenario in the NCAA. It’s good, as Leinart says, because athletes can freely go as they please, but it comes with the risk that players will get ‘lost in the shuffle’ as he put it.

Adapt or get left behind

Over the past 18 months, the presence of a school’s collective has alleviated the nerves of athletes, with players able to sign on and receive guaranteed money at their new home, regardless of their performance on the field.

At the head of these collectives are some of the most powerful and influential people on campus. At Syracuse, it’s Adam Weitsman, who just the other day convinced four-star junior Elijah Moore to commit to the Orange. Down in South Beach, it’s LifeWallet CEO John Ruiz, who continues to sign Miami players to his brands.

Now more than ever, an institution’s donor base has immense power, with the ability to give their money to programs — and in some cases specific players — in order to acquire and retain top talent. 

As the adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and as of recent, signs of irresponsibility have slipped through the cracks. Jaden Rashada, the four-star recruit from Pittsburg, California who recently decommitted from Florida after an NIL deal worth $13 million reportedly fell through.

“I’ve read a lot on it and actually know [Rashada] and I feel bad for the situation in general,” Leinart said. “I just think the NCAA has dropped the ball again because of the rules, or the lack thereof. I think the competitive balance is what scares a lot of people because obviously you have a couple of major conferences and a lot of schools with very deep pockets who can form these collectives or can get a group of alumni and powerful people to make sure that players are getting deals.”

But while the collective’s money flow supports short term success for schools, Leinart says it takes more than money to win.

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“You have to shift and you have to adapt to the new policies of [the NCAA]… Look at TCU this year, they are not on the same playing field as Georgia as far as talent, but TCU got to the college football playoff and they’re not paying players millions and millions of dollars. At the end of the day great coaching wins, developing players wins.”

Leinart continued: “I’ve talked to so many coaches and very powerful people at universities and they’re like, ‘We have to adapt. If we look at it as a negative thing, then it’s going to be a negative for us and it’s going to negatively impact our university and players. We have to look at it as a positive, we have to adjust, we have to adapt, we have to change. And if we do that, then all of this stuff will level itself out.’”

Expansion is the future

But how do these schools adapt and change in the ‘new NCAA’ while trying to walk the fine line of legality? Leinart believes it comes down to opportunity — one of which, the expansion of the playoff in college football.

“There’s a lot of people saying [expanding the playoff] makes the regular season meaningless or a school like Tulane versus USC in a quarterfinal match, Tulane has no shot, but [expansion] opens the door for more schools to get in, more group-of-five schools, more mid-tier Power Five schools that just aren’t going to get in the top four. What does that do? It helps with recruiting, it helps with making more money for your university and gives that opportunity for other schools to get a seat at the table. The more money for the university, the more money that can go back into these kids pockets for NIL deals,” Leinart said.

But while expansion gives schools a seat at the table, the realignment of the Power-Five conferences continues to pose a threat to conferences losing major players. With USC and UCLA set to join the Big 10, the PAC-12 is left with Oregon, Utah, and a hopeful Colorado team to lead a conference who in recent years has struggled to produce multiple Top 25 teams by season’s end. With Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC, that leaves playoff newcomer TCU, Kansas and Kansas State to run house down South. Leinart believes that while expansion is helping some of those programs grow and sustain wealth, NIL and realignment may create a push towards an extreme outcome.

“Expansion really helps because when USC and UCLA announced [they were joining the Big 10] everyone said Oregon’s gotta go because even though their brand is huge they can’t carry a conference on their back financially. But with expansion, Oregon’s path to the college football playoff is way easier, which goes back to what I just said: More money, more opportunity. Regardless, it certainly seems that college football is on its way to an AFC-NFC model like in the NFL, and at some point you have to believe that there’ll be a player’s union coming sooner than later.”

Hall of GOATs

Over the past year, Leinart has stayed involved in football to support college athletes and monetize their NIL — albeit through a screen.

Hall of GOATs, founded by Leinart and college teammate Greig Carlson, is an arcade style simulation game featuring big hits and even bigger celebrations. In an interview with The NIL Deal in December, Carlson described the game as Madden ultimate team meets NFL Blitz.

RELATED: USC great Matt Leinart’s arcade-style video game, Hall of GOATs, sets 2024 launch date

The duo has already partnered with USC quarterback Caleb Williams to work on the project, with the Heisman winner launching his player NFT in late December.

“Greig and I are boys. We’re family, we played together. We saw a lot in our days at USC, we see a lot now and we wanted to kind of join forces and, and figure out a way where we could build something that can help these kids ]because] 98% of kids aren’t going to make the NFL, and if they do, they’ll be on a practice squad for a year and they’ll be out making very little money. How do we come up with something to help these kids monetize throughout college, whether they are a five-star or a two-star, doesn’t matter,” Leinart said.

Hall of GOATs plans to launch in 2024.