Virtually every discussion about USC sports in the past few months has been a negative one. After a tumultuous off-season of sanctions, lawsuits, transfers and new faces, it’s easy to wonder how USC, once the bastion of college football dominance, came to this very precarious position.
So, how exactly did we get here?
The thunderstorm began in June when the NCAA ruled that USC showed a “lack of institutional control” over its athletic programs and “failed to heed warning signs” regarding improper benefits given to former stars Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo.
The football team was hit hardest. Its punishment includes a two-year postseason ban, a loss of 30 scholarships over three seasons and four years of probation. USC also had to vacate 14 wins spanning the 2004-2005 seasons in which Bush participated, which includes the 2004 national championship victory over Oklahoma.
Former USC coach Pete Carroll, who accepted the head coaching position for the Seattle Seahawks in January, said he was surprised by the findings.
“I’m absolutely shocked and disappointed in the findings of the NCAA,” Carroll said in a video statement. “I never thought it would come to this.”
Carroll’s exit turned out to be the first of many moves that would turn the athletic department upside down. A few days after Carroll jumped north to Seattle, Lane Kiffin abandoned his post as head coach of Tennessee after just one year to become the new coach of the Trojans.
More recently, new president C.L. Max Nikias announced the replacement of former athletic director Mike Garrett with former USC quarterback Pat Haden, though it was not clear why Garrett left the position. Haden, a former member of the USC Board of Trustees, has made it apparent that running a clean program will be his top priority.
“We want to compete ferociously and win in every sport, but we want to do it ethically and within the rules,” Haden said after accepting the job. “We’re going to have a culture of compliance around here. Every meeting is going to start with the No. 1 item as compliance.”
For Haden, compliance applies to the entire athletic department. USC’s basketball team imposed its own sanctions before the NCAA ruling, denying itself postseason eligibility last season. It also vacated all 21 wins from the 2007-2008 season, Mayo’s only year at USC. The NCAA imposed no further sanctions, acknowledging that the self-imposed punishment was fitting for the team’s violations.
The women’s tennis team was also included in the NCAA probe, and was cited for improper phone calls made between November 2006 and May 2009. The team sanctioned itself by vacating wins during that stretch, and the NCAA also did not take any further action.
Yet, everything centers around football, and most notably Bush. The NCAA said Bush had dealings with two up-and-coming sports marketers, who hoped to sign the star running back by giving him lavish gifts, including hotel stays, limousines and rent-free accomodations for Bush’s family. Despite the accusations, Bush still denies any wrongdoing.
The supposed smoking gun for the case was the involvement of former USC running backs coach Todd McNair. McNair was not identified by name in the NCAA report, but is widely believed to be the voice on a recorded phone conversation where a USC coach is discussing Bush’s setup with the two prospective agents.
McNair was the first staff member released following the announcement of the sanctions.
Carroll, who can’t seem to get away from USC-related questions even in Seattle, was not named in the NCAA report and claims to have had no knowledge of any illicit actions regarding Bush.
USC has done all it can to distance itself from the Heisman winner. Nikias ordered in July that the replica of Bush’s Heisman Trophy be removed from Heritage Hall and all murals of Bush and Mayo be removed from university grounds.
“The Trojan Family honors and respects the USC sporting careers of those persons whose actions did not compromise their athletic program or the opportunities of future USC student-athletes,” Nikias said in a letter.
Additionally, the USC media guide will be riddled with asterisks beside every win or record that either Bush or Mayo was a part of marked as such.
Moving from the past to the present, the NCAA sanctions have expectedly led to vacancies on the field, because of a clause included in the punishment that allows junior and senior players to transfer without losing the usual year of eligibility. A slew of players decided to jump ship, including defensive end Malik Jackson, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Jordan Campbell, receiver Travon Patterson and fullback D.J. Shoemate. Recruits Seantrel Henderson and Glen Stanley also asked out of their letters of intent and were granted their release by the university.
The departures create a major problem in depth for the Trojans. The team currently has 70 scholarship players, 15 below the NCAA limit.
As if enough controversy hadn’t already saddled the program, the Tennessee Titans filed a lawsuit against Kiffin and the university for allegedly making contact with offensive coordinator Kennedy Pola illegally. Kiffin supposedly contacted Pola without the Titans’ written permission, which is a breach of Pola’s contract. Pola is now the offensive coordinator at USC.
Needless to say, with the beginning of fall camp in early August, the Trojans are just happy to get back to football and return to some state of normalcy. Senior center Kristofer O’Dowd said the team had moved on long ago.
“It’s been over with,” O’Dowd said. “We know what we need to do as a unit, as a team. We have our own goals to accomplish. We’re the players. Players play, coaches coach.”
Still, things just weren’t quite the same on Howard Jones Field at the beginning of fall camp, mainly because practices are now closed to the general public, another fallout of the sanctions. The beginning of training camp typically brings fans numbering in the hundreds out to watch, but that won’t be possible for another four years.
“It’s definitely different,” sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley said.
Kiffin, who was used to packed practices when he was an assistant at USC, said he didn’t notice it for very long.
“The first 10 minutes maybe you noticed, but after that it didn’t make a difference,” he said.
As turbulent as this offseason has seemed, the storm has not yet passed for the Trojans, as playing through the sanctions is going to be a major challenge. But the Trojans seem ready for the obstacle, as players like redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo have jumped to fill much-needed leadership roles to keep the team on track.
“You just kind of got to talk to the younger guys and just regulate and keep everyone level-headed,” Galippo said.
On top of steadying the ship, Galippo was able to put the season into a larger perspective.
“The important thing about college football is we’re all trying to make a career out of this for ourselves,” he said. “Regardless of what goes on outside here or these practice gates, we’ve got to play ball.”
While the team is playing ball, the university will appeal the NCAA ruling in hopes of lessening the magnitude of the punishment.
“We felt the penalties imposed are too severe,” USC senior vice president Todd Dickey said.
USC is certainly not the first school to be dealt such punishment, and the violations themselves do not seem to be the central topic of debate. Rather, the argument has been raised that the penalties do not align with previous decisions handed down to other schools.
One case in point are the penalties imposed on Alabama in 2002. The Crimson Tide was also cited for a lack of institutional control by the NCAA, as boosters were found to be paying high school prospects; and like USC, Alabama was a repeat offender. But despite violations that involved more players and people linked to the football team than in USC’s case, Alabama only received a reduction of 21 scholarships over three years in addition to a two-year bowl ban — nine less than the 30 scholarships that the Trojans will lose.
USC can present its appeal to the NCAA Division I Infractions Appeals Committee on Sept. 25, the board’s soonest upcoming hearing date. It is unclear whether the university’s appeal will be heard on that date, however.
Judging by the low success rate of recent appeals from other athletic programs dealing with similar situations, the university’s chance at a successful appeal looks bleak — the NCAA has upheld its ruling in 10 of the 11 cases it has heard in the last two years. If USC loses its appeal, the BCS will likely strip the Trojans of its 2004 championship. The Associated Press, however, said the Trojans would keep the AP title.
It’s little consolation to a past problem that is affecting the present.