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NCAA infractions reports traditionally make for dry reading. Every sentence is cautiously crafted by the members of the Committee on Infractions (COI), many of whom are lawyers, and none of whom is John Grisham. It was rare, then—startling, really—to find on page 53 of the 67-page report released last week on rules violations at the University of Southern California a break from the lawyerly verbiage, a passage in which the COI painted a vivid scene, no doubt aware how perfectly it illustrated USC's negligence. "The director of athletics [Mike Garrett] went to the men's basketball office ... looking for a response to a report that [Rodney Guillory] was a professional sports agent and involved with [player O.J. Mayo]. When advised by [coach Tim Floyd] that [Guillory] had on numerous occasions denied he was an agent or runner, [Garrett] responded, 'That's all I need to know,' and left the office. No further follow-up was done."
It was a thorough indictment of Garrett, who in 1965 was the Trojans' first Heisman Trophy winner and who has headed the school's athletic department since 1993. Garrett had claimed that school officials couldn't have known that two of USC's most celebrated and scrutinized athletes, Mayo and Reggie Bush (the 2005 Heisman winner), and their families received money and other improper benefits from sports agents. The NCAA responded with page after page detailing how some USC officials did, in fact, know about NCAA violations, or at least should have known, and that Garrett, for one, did little to get at the truth.
Accordingly, last Friday the NCAA handed the Trojans the harshest penalties imposed on a school in nearly a decade, including a two-year postseason ban for the football team, a loss of 10 scholarships in each of the next three years and the vacating of 14 victories from the 2004 and '05 seasons. (The COI also upheld USC's self-imposed sanctions on its basketball program, which include vacating the wins from Mayo's lone season and being ineligible for this past postseason.)
When assigning blame for USC's mess, there is no shortage of culprits. There is Pete Carroll, the coach who according to the report built a program "in which student-athletes could feel entitled to special treatment." With the guillotine poised to fall, Carroll split for the Seahawks. There is Todd McNair, Carroll's running backs coach, who learned early on that Bush was on the take but did nothing. There is Floyd, who welcomed a known agent into his program, and there are Bush and Mayo, who between them and their relatives took thousands of dollars, a car, a television and much, much more. Finally, there are the agents, the barnacles of college sports.
But trace the origins of almost every major NCAA scandal, and the line eventually extends to the top. Infractions reports often refer to the "atmosphere" of an athletic department, as in: Is there an atmosphere of cheating, or an atmosphere of compliance? The atmosphere at USC was one of hubris, of entitlement; of don't ask, don't tell. It was, in a nutshell, the personification of Mike Garrett.
Amid the CEO-types hired by universities today, Garrett is like the athletic directors of old, the ex-jocks kept around mostly to schmooze and raise funds (at which Garrett excels). His department had run afoul of the NCAA before; in 2001 USC was sanctioned for academic fraud. Garrett is credited with hiring Carroll 10 years ago. It's a decision now in need of reevaluation, but in terms of wins and losses, it's a choice that handsomely canceled out misses in football (Paul Hackett) and in basketball (Charlie Parker, Henry Bibby, Floyd).
Yet Garrett's greatest failing was his indifference toward finding out what was really going on in his beloved football program and then denying until the end that there were major problems. Even after it was widely known that Bush and his family had taken money, the school imposed no penalties, and Garrett continued to insist that USC was untainted.
The positive spin after any NCAA scandal is that the offending school will emerge more diligent, wiser, cleaner. USC might, but progress will be slowed as long as Garrett is around. On the day of the COI's ruling, he met with a group of boosters in San Francisco and said, "As I read the decision by the NCAA, I read between the lines, and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they all were Trojans." To understand the root problem at USC, that's all you need to know.