Last June, after a four-year NCAA investigation, then-USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett echoed a commonly held sentiment: The NCAA had it in for USC.
At a hotel ballroom in San Francisco, filled with 180 university boosters, Garrett responded to the Committee on Infractions’ 67-page report by accusing college athletics’ governing body of jealousy.
“As I read the decision by the NCAA,” he said. “I read between the lines and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans.”
Garrett, unsurprisingly, was less than contrite. He was frustrated and bitter, perplexed that USC could be so severely punished even with all the program’s accolades.
Garrett’s comments, no doubt, exuded arrogance — representative of an old culture at USC, where accountability was at times lacking, particularly in regards to meeting the NCAA’s standards.
Yet, that all seemed to change when Pat Haden replaced Garrett in August. In just eight months on the job, the Rhodes Scholar has been quick to acknowledge the problems the old administration created.
“We’re trying to build a better relationship with the NCAA,” Haden told CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd last week. “We have not been very good at that at USC. It’s our fault.”
Things have changed under Haden — that’s been more than clear — and it starts and stops with compliance.
Haden’s USC has been vastly different from Garrett’s USC in that it has become a paradigm for self-reporting. It’s everything the NCAA envisions college athletic departments to be: vigilant in monitoring its players and coaches.
When tailback Dillon Baxter accepted a golf cart ride from a student agent in November, an act deemed to be an extra benefit, he was immediately suspended and forced to pay $5 to a local charity by USC’s newly beefed-up compliance office.
When basketball coach Kevin O’Neill was involved in a verbal altercation with an Arizona booster, he was swiftly suspended for the remainder of the Pac-10 tournament.
And when Reggie Bush was retroactively deemed ineligible by the NCAA in June, Haden returned Bush’s Heisman Trophy before receiving an official ruling from the Heisman Trust.
Some have called it appeasement; Haden calls it winning the right way. Whatever the preferred terminology is, this is USC in 2011.
“We want to win the correct way, which we will,” Haden said when he took over as athletic director. “We’re going to play within the rules.”
But the new mantra begs the question: Can USC still win? Can a program that has won 11 national championships on the gridiron still compete with various Big Ten and SEC powerhouses that, at least according to a recent HBO report, continue to act as if they are above NCAA bylaws?
As detailed by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on Wednesday, four former Auburn players, Stanley McClover, Troy Reddick, Chaz Ramsey and Raven Gray, received thousands of dollars in cash while being recruited by, or playing for, the Tigers. It came in book bags, 4-inch by 9-inch envelopes and handshakes with boosters. And it came often.
On other recruiting trips to LSU, Michigan State and Ohio State, they received similar payments from respective boosters and others with ties to the programs. Again, the payments came often.
Such methods allowed schools to guarantee the biggest and best players signed letters of intent to come play football for them.
But if that’s the culture of college football in 2011, where cash payments equate to success, can USC still be afforded the opportunity to win “the right way?”
Are winning on Saturdays, boasting quality academic programs and remaining in good standing with the NCAA mutually exclusive? It seems that way sometimes.
Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame, which are all ranked in the top 20 of the US News & World Report’s National Universities category, have averaged just five wins per season over the past five years. They have compiled a combined mark of 131-178, winning just two bowl games en route to cementing their places as middle-tier college football programs. This raises the question as to whether USC is headed down a similar path under Haden, as the university’s academic standing continues to rise.
No doubt, pay-for-play provides a recruiting advantage to certain programs, raising at least some doubt as to whether schools can juggle all the balls. It’s unquestionably a disappointing trend, and a sad mark on the sport, but it has nonetheless become more than fair to ask if, under Haden, USC will be granted the luxury of winning without cheating.
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