NCAA hearing may have greater impact on USC's past than future
USC is finally facing NCAA's Committee on Infractions over Bush allegations
Sanctions could forever tarnish Trojans' highly celebrated era of dominance
Highly unlikely Bush would lose his Heisman or USC its BCS championship
On Oct. 1, 2005, a 95-degree day in Tempe, Ariz., No. 1 USC found itself trailing Arizona State 21-3 at the half. The Trojans rallied, rolling off five second-half rushing touchdowns to win 38-28. Soon-to-be Heisman winner Reggie Bush secured his team's 26th straight victory on a 34-yard dash with 3:44 left. The game typified the aura of invincibility that hovered over Pete Carroll's Trojans during that time.
This week, however, a group of USC officials will return to Tempe under far less pleasant circumstances. Following a nearly four-year investigation, the school will finally appear before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions to address allegations that Bush and his family received hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra benefits from a group of aspiring sports marketers. The committee will also address allegations involving former basketball star O.J. Mayo's lucrative relationship with an agent-runner (for which the school has already self-imposed sanctions) and any other violations NCAA investigators may have unearthed about either program.
The hearing began Thursday morning, and a Los Angeles Times reporter at the scene confirmed that Carroll, current coach Lane Kiffin and running backs coach Todd McNair are in attendance, as well as university president Steven Sample, athletic director Mike Garrett and Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott. Any resulting punishment will be announced eight to 10 weeks after the hearing.
Should the committee decide to impose major sanctions on the football program, the Trojans' most celebrated era in recent history -- the 2003-05 teams that captured two national championships, won 34 straight games and produced a pair of Heisman winners -- may be forever tarnished.
The initial allegations of impropriety involving Bush date back to a Yahoo! Sports article published in April 2006, the spring following the Trojans' 41-38 Rose Bowl loss to Texas in Bush's last game. As months turned to years with no sign of recourse, embittered fans around the country complained of the scandal being "swept under the rug," and reported allegations were distorted into baseless innuendo. USC pays its players. Pete Carroll bought Reggie Bush a house.
To be clear, neither Carroll nor any other school official has ever been publicly accused of wrongdoing in the Bush matter, and no other football player has ever been implicated in the scandal. (The school held tailback Joe McKnight out of last December's Emerald Bowl due to concerns over an SUV he was seen driving.) It remains unknown which of the many Bush allegations NCAA investigators wound up corroborating, because USC, as a private school, is not required to disclose them.
But an institution can still be punished for violations committed by one of its athletes, particularly if those transgressions result in the athlete being declared retroactively ineligible, which seems highly probable in Bush's case.
Last May, Yahoo! reported that investigators had interviewed at least 17 known witnesses. They include Lloyd Lake, one of two jilted partners in a failed business venture who has sued Bush over nearly $300,000 in gifts he claims the running back never returned; Bob DeMartino, a memorabilia dealer who reportedly provided e-mails and eyewitness accounts of Bush's arrangements with eventual marketing representative Mike Ornstein, whom Yahoo! revealed to have given "loans" and other perks to Bush and his family; and, in a surprise twist, Bush himself, who, after declining for years to cooperate with investigators, reportedly met with the NCAA last summer.
Among the NCAA rules Bush may have broken is bylaw 126.96.36.199, which deems an athlete "ineligible if he or she accepts benefits from agents or marketing representatives"; bylaw 188.8.131.52, which says a player is deemed ineligible if he "enters into a verbal or written agreement with an agent for representation in future professional sports negotiations"; and bylaw 184.108.40.206.6, which prohibits "preferential treatment, benefits or services because of the individual's athletic reputation."
The standard recourse for a team that's found to have used an ineligible athlete is to vacate wins from the season in question. For USC, that would likely strike the 12 victories from Bush's 2005 Heisman season from the record books. Should investigators find that Bush began receiving benefits a year earlier, the school would stand to lose an additional 13 victories from its 2004 BCS championship season.
The NCAA does not hold jurisdiction over the BCS, which means the conference commissioners and university presidents who oversee the championship game would have to decide whether to strip the Trojans of their title. That seems highly unlikely. In a statement e-mailed earlier this week, BCS executive director Bill Hancock wrote: "The BCS is not an investigative body, nor is it designed to be a governance body ... Once the [NCAA] process is complete, if there are findings of violations, if there are any penalties, then the BCS group would determine if any action is appropriate."
Another obvious question is whether Bush is in danger of losing his Heisman. The award's official Web site specifically notes that, "recipients must be in compliance with the bylaws defining an NCAA student athlete." However, never in the award's 75-year history have its organizers had cause to address the issue, and again, it's hard to envision them taking such a drastic step.
"Our board [the Heisman Trophy Trust] is not commenting at this point," said director Rob Whalen. "When a decision is made, if there's a need for a comment, they'll comment at that time."
Ultimately, the most damaging effects of the Bush scandal may not be as tangible as they are stigmatizing.
There have been numerous cases over the past few years involving schools that had to vacate records over various NCAA infractions. Most notably, now-retired Florida State coach Bobby Bowden had 12 victories from the 2006-07 seasons removed from his career total due to an academic fraud scandal involving football players. Alabama has appealed a 2009 ruling from the committee that would vacate 21 wins from its 2005-07 seasons over a case involving players' abuse of free textbooks. Oklahoma successfully appealed a ruling that initially invalidated eight wins from its 2005 season over infractions involving ex-quarterback Rhett Bomar's phony employment at a local car dealership.
But rarely has such a historic team -- possibly even a national championship team -- had its triumphs stricken from the record books.
The most similar recent examples come from men's basketball. Last year, the NCAA invalidated Memphis' 38 wins and Final Four appearance from the 2007-08 season after determining then-freshman star Derrick Rose should have been academically ineligible due to an invalid SAT score. One of coach John Calipari's previous teams, UMass, had to vacate its 1996 Final Four appearance due to investigators' disclosure that star Marcus Camby had accepted $28,000 from agents -- much like the allegations currently facing Bush.
Should the Bush scandal merit similar sanctions, it would taint more than just a single great season. One might argue it would leave a blemish on the entire Carroll era.
That may sound harsh, but think about the stigma left behind by Michigan's "Fab Five." The famous freshman class featuring Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson took the nation by storm when it reached the 1992 and '93 national championship games. Fans were captivated by their baggy shorts, black socks and breakaway dunks.
Mention the "Fab Five" today, however, and most people first associate the group with scandal. A federal grand jury found that Webber and three later Wolverines took hundreds of thousands of dollars from booster Ed Martin. Michigan was forced to remove its Final Four banners from Crisler Arena, vacate its appearances and repay its tourney money.
Webber was the only one of the Fab Five players implicated in the scandal, yet a cloud forever hangs over his teammates' achievements. The same might be prove true if the NCAA invalidates USC's accomplishments with Bush.
As for potential implications that may face new coach Lane Kiffin's program going forward, much will depend on whether the committee finds fault with coaches or school officials for failing to prevent violations. There has been no firm evidence to date showing USC coaches or administrators knew of Bush's alleged benefits. However, Yahoo! reported that Lake and his business partner Michael Michaels twice visited the Trojans' locker room after games, and that running backs coach Todd McNair knew of their relationship with Bush. Perhaps most damaging, school officials cleared Bush to intern for Ornstein, a dubious figure convicted in 1995 in a scheme to defraud the NFL.
Taken alone, those allegations hardly paint USC as a rogue operation. But remember, the committee will be reviewing findings regarding all aspects of the football and basketball programs.
It seems pretty clear-cut that school officials were negligent in regards to Mayo and his known relationship with Rodney Guillory, a figure who'd run into NCAA trouble before (hence, the self-imposed sanctions). And while the Bush matter has garnered the lion's share of attention on the football side, it's possible the committee will also review other, more minor improprieties under Carroll, such as the allegations last year that he employed a consultant, former NFL assistant coach Pete Rodriguez, as a de facto special teams coach; or that a former player crossed the line in urging recruits to attend the school during school-sponsored recruiting functions hosted at the Greek restaurant he owns.
Taken together, the committee will determine whether school officials exhibited a "lack of institutional control," or the less serious "failure to monitor," in its oversight of the programs. It seems somewhat inevitable at this point that the Trojans will be put on probation, and possible Kiffin's program will be docked a few scholarships. But a postseason ban like the one imposed on the basketball team would require more concrete evidence of direct wrongdoing by USC employees than has been alleged thus far.
Top-rated offensive line prospect Seantrel Henderson has put off signing his letter of intent with the school until he learns what sanctions the program is facing. Henderson's father, Sean, told the New York Times that Kiffin assured them "there shouldn't be anything going wrong because there was no knowledge of anything going on by the staff." That sentiment seems either extremely na´ve or extremely wishful -- if anything, the Committee might conclude Carroll's staff should have had more knowledge of Bush's indiscretions.
In the end, however, probation and a few docked scholarships will have little real effect on Kiffin's program. The committee's deliberations in Tempe may have far greater ramifications for USC's past than its future.
How will we ultimately look back at the Matt Leinart/LenDale White/Bush-era Trojans should the NCAA invalidate its records? The images of Leinart's dramatic sneak at Notre Dame or Bush's one-man show against Fresno State won't vanish from our memories, but they may become forever associated with an unsavory asterisk.
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