During the past four years, it's been a shady little parlor game to wonder what could finally knock the catch-us-if-you-can smugness out of USC athletic director Mike Garrett and university president Steven B. Sample. Scandals kept popping up around them even as USC geared up for three long-scheduled days of hearings in front of the NCAA infractions committee last week in Tempe, Ariz.
Then on Friday -- smack in the middle of Day 2 of the marathon sessions into allegations that Trojans basketball star O.J. Mayo and running backs Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight all took illegal benefits before jumping to the pros -- a possible answer floated up: Would the words "subpoena power" slap any arrogance out of USC?
NCAA investigators have always been hamstrung by their inability to force people to talk to them like real law enforcement can. And until now, USC officials -- especially Garrett -- have behaved as if they had nothing much to fear from the NCAA. Garrett has scoffed at suggestions that he should lose his job, and he has combatively challenged the idea that the athletic program would sink because of the controversies, or even a trifle like losing two-time national title winner Pete Carroll to the NFL last month. "We're too good," Garrett has said.
The NCAA was already investigating 2006 published reports that Bush and his parents took hundreds of thousands of dollars during his last two years at USC from two wannabe sports marketers, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels. Yet Garrett allowed USC basketball coach Tim Floyd to bring in Mayo for a one-and-done freshman season in 2007-08. Garrett should have known better. Mayo's arrival was openly brokered through a Los Angeles events promoter named Rodney Guillory who had landed a USC basketball player in trouble in 2001. The decision to take Mayo predictably blew up in Garrett's face.
Mayo, now with the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, stands accused of taking money and gifts, which he has denied. Floyd quit in June and recently claimed that Garrett sacrificed him and the basketball program to save his own career and the almighty Trojans football team with which Garrett once won a Heisman Trophy. After the NCAA announced it was looking into both programs, USC self-imposed sanctions on its hoops team last month but decided to vigorously fight the charges against the football program, all at about the same time the Trojans' best running back last season, Bush's replacement McKnight, came under suspicion for driving a 2006 Land Rover registered to a Santa Monica businessman named Scott Schenter.
Schenter told the Los Angeles Times that he helped McKnight's girlfriend get a loan for the car.
Right about here, most schools in USC's position wouldn't dare raise any more red flags with the NCAA. Their administrators would at least fake looking contrite. Not Garrett. As his next football coach he hired Lane Kiffin, the pot-stirring 34-year-old who served on Carroll's coaching staff during the Bush scandal, then moved on to a rancorous 1¼-season stint as the Oakland Raiders' head coach that ended with owner Al Davis calling him a "flat-out liar."
Kiffin quickly landed as head coach at the University of Tennessee, where he falsely accused Florida archrival Urban Meyer of cheating, then committed enough secondary rules violations of his own during his volatile one-year stay to prompt the NCAA to look into his recruiting practices.
When asked just before bolting Tennessee to name the most difficult part of the job, Kiffin cracked, "Following all the rules."
He needed a police escort to safely get off campus the day he quit.
But subpoena power can be a beautiful thing in sports. Being forced to give sworn grand jury testimony is what finally prodded baseball stars such as Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds to sing a different song about their steroid use than the fictions they'd been selling publicly. Testimony from convicted steroids dealer Kirk Radomski transformed baseball's Mitchell report from a mere billable-hours boondoggle for former Sen. George Mitchell's tony law firm into a steroids-era account that actually had a little heft.
If USC really has done nothing wrong, then it has nothing to fear from Friday's news that Michaels -- one of Bush's jilted wannabe marketers -- may soon be speaking out under oath, too. Seems the confidentiality clause that Michaels agreed to in exchange for a reported $300,000 settlement that Bush paid him in 2007 has a hitch: While it prevents Michaels from talking to the likes of the NCAA, it doesn't prevent Michaels from testifying in legal proceedings if he's subpoenaed.
And now Michaels has been.
On Friday -- just as USC running backs coach Todd McNair was among those enduring a second straight day of grilling by the NCAA -- an attorney for Lake, Michaels' former business partner, told Yahoo.com that Michaels is scheduled to give a sworn deposition March 5 for Lake's civil case against Bush in San Diego. A judge recently denied a request by Bush's attorneys to force Lake to submit to confidential arbitration.
Lake's case remains on track to be heard in open court instead. Which could create another potential worry for USC: Will Lake's subpoenas stop at Michaels? Would Lake's attorneys drag in USC's McNair, Carroll, Kiffin and others, too?
The testimony would be must-read copy for the NCAA before it issues its verdict on USC in six to 10 weeks.
USC could face harsh penalties if found guilty of, say, a lack of institutional control.
Garrett, who has already survived at least one alumni coup, might finally be fired.
Of course, Bush could do himself and his alma mater a huge favor and cut another fat check; this one big enough to make Lake drop his civil suit before any damaging testimony begins. If that happens, USC could be right back where it's been the past few years: daring the NCAA to catch it if it can.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.