Reggie Bush and the painful memories

The glory days of traveling all over the country and dismantling opponents will be tough to forget. Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire

A few years ago, when the storm of NCAA sanctions was still swirling way offshore, people who thought they were in the know about USC liked to dismiss some of the penalties that were coming.

Scholarship limits would sting, they said. Bowl bans would hurt.

Who cares about voiding victories, repossessing Heisman Trophies or wiping out records? What's in the past is in the past. It won't wipe away those cheerful memories of crushing victories far from home, triumphs in the Coliseum and dominion over everything west of the Rockies.

In a way, a couple of months after the NCAA laid down some very Old Testament punishment, it's become the opposite. After watching this team run around for the past week or so, I've got a pretty good sense that -- if they can avoid a disastrous string of injuries -- they're going to win some games. Are they going to win 13 games? Probably not. Is it possible? Yeah.

And if they do -- or even if they lose one or two -- they'll still gather a lot of national accolades for playing well under the weight of adversity.

They'll suffer for a couple of seasons after 2010 and 2011, but the sanctions aren't going to suddenly turn USC football into an ugly duckling. It's still a proud swan, with a tradition envied nationally and treasured locally. Recruits are still going to want to play there. Do the research: Even when USC was awful in the 1990s, it still sent tons of players to the NFL. The players don't care as much about the bowl games as you might think.

"At this point, the bowl game's a pretty menial deal," quarterback Mitch Mustain told me a few days ago. "It would be nice, but it's just a small part of what we're doing."

One member of the coaching staff told me that the issue of sanctions hasn't come up once in a coaches meeting.

The goal of the NCAA was to punish USC in the present and future, but if I were a USC fan, the thing I'd be mourning is the past. If you can no longer admire the exploits of Reggie Bush, who might have been the greatest college football player of all time (big emphasis on "might have been"), how can you treasure those memories from five years ago quite as dearly?

Now, we have word from new USC athletic director Pat Haden that Bush has apologized to him for making a series of mistakes that harmed the program. Too little, too late? Obviously. Meaningless? Probably. Genuine? Undoubtedly.

If you don't think that this thing is eating at Bush, you haven't taken the time to put yourself in his shoes. I can't imagine he doesn't care. This is a guy who was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2006 and has never lived up to his college career. He had career lows in every major category last season, sporadically registering as a factor in the New Orleans Saints' run through the Super Bowl.

You have to wonder how comfortable it is for Bush in the Saints' locker room these days. He's all over the airwaves, is paid a ton of money and does hardly anything most Sundays. Ah, but remember those glorious punt returns at the Coliseum, those soaring leaps into the end zone, the Bush Push?

Who cares if they take away the trophy? They've already taken away his ability to share fond memories with millions of USC fans out there. They'll remember him all right, but not for what he'd like them to.

Mark Saxon covers USC for ESPNLosAngeles.com