The harsh realities of collegiate football


I’ve been coming to USC football games for as long as I can remember.

I’ve been to games as a giddy kid, a drunken student and a dispassionate journalist. I don’t have to tell you which setting was the most fun.

As I look back on the three years I covered the team and the 17 years I was a fan, it’s always the glory years that resonate most strongly. I remember when the program started to turn around in former coach Pete Carroll’s second year, when former quarterback Carson Palmer made his Heisman run, which paved the way for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush to form a few of the greatest teams to ever don the cardinal and gold.

Those years come to mind because the state of the program today is so far from what it was then.

The Trojans won’t be in contention for the national title next season, regardless of the fact that NCAA sanctions probably won’t allow them to play for it, anyway. Based on the display put on at the Coliseum last week, USC is facing an uphill battle to simply stay relevant in the Pac-12. The program has been so hampered by NCAA penalties and coaching changes that it’s like a wounded animal, a sad shell of its former self.

But the reason I look back fondly on the glory days of Trojan football is not just because of the double-digit victories and strings of conference titles and national championships. Whatever Carroll titles his books, no team can win forever or even stay competitive forever. Ups and downs are part of sports.

What made those years special was the purity I perceived in it all. I was a kid who reveled in Saturdays at the Coliseum. I wore the No. 11 and No. 5 USC jerseys with pride in high school. I didn’t care about not having an NFL team. The way I saw it, college football at USC was superior anyway, because it was about honor, tradition and soul, while the NFL was all business.

Pretty naïve right?

While he was at USC, Bush was the most electrifying athlete I’ve ever seen in person. He regularly did things on the football field I’ve never seen anyone else do. His explosiveness, his vision, his leaping ability were exhilirating to watch. There was nothing like the anticipation that would build in the Coliseum on a fourth down when the opposing team was punting to Bush and the whole crowd was chanting, “REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE!”

I first heard Bush had possibly done something wrong when I was a junior in high school. It’s absolutely insane to think that five years later, USC is not only still paying for his transgressions, but is still unsure about the full extent of the penalties. If the results of the appeal are not announced in the next two weeks, I will have completed four years of college before the coffin was finally closed on USC’s skeleton.

What Bush did didn’t make me like him less or respect his talents less. But it was the first time I started to doubt the purity of college football.

Turns out this sport is just as much about business as the NFL.

Looking at the scandals that have littered the college football landscape in the past year is enough to demonstrate the harsh realities of college sports. Not even 16-year-old me could have sat through the mercenary sale of Auburn quarterback Cam Newton or the shady lies of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel without recognizing the hypocrisy of it all.

As I moved through college and grew more jaded, I understood these issues from different perspectives. Players took money because they were getting screwed by schools and the NCAA, who were making millions off their image. Top juniors went to the NFL because the timing was right and they wanted to start cashing in on their earning power as soon as possible. Coaches left for greener pastures because they were promised fatter contracts and more control.

Although it was sometimes ugly, it was logical. Everyone is always looking for an edge. It was a hard lesson, not just about football. In life, this is the way things work. That’s why when I think about USC football, I like to go back to a time before I was cynical and when I was convinced I was watching something uncontaminated.

That famous touchdown run Bush had against Fresno State always sticks in my mind, the play where he exploded to the left sideline, stopped on a dime and cut back for a score. He basically won the Heisman on the play, the Heisman he would later give back before it was stripped from him. It led to a touchdown that didn’t count actually, in a win that was later vacated, during a season that is now tainted.

But if I don’t think about all the fallout that came later, I can appreciate it for what it was.

What a great run.

 

“Middle Ground” ran Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Josh at jjovanel@usc.edu.