USC appeal denied; '04 title in jeopardy?
LOS ANGELES -- The NCAA infractions appeals committee has upheld all penalties and findings against USC, the university announced Thursday.
USC will lose 30 scholarships over the next three years and won't be eligible to play in this year's Pac-12 title game or a bowl game.
Meanwhile, Bowl Championship Series officials will consider whether to strip the Trojans of their 2004 title.
BCS executive director Bill Hancock says there is no timetable for that decision, but he expected it to happen "sooner, rather than later."
The championship would be left vacant and not awarded to another team. Auburn and Utah also finished the '04 season unbeaten. The AP will not vacate the championship it awarded USC for 2004.
"We respectfully, but vehemently, disagree with the findings of the NCAA's Infractions Appeals Committee," the university said in a statement. "Our position was that the Committee on Infractions abused its discretion and imposed penalties last June that were excessive and inconsistent with established case precedent."
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USC was appealing to the NCAA to reduce its two-year bowl ban to one year and limit football scholarship reductions to five in each of the next three years instead of the scheduled 10. The university pointed in its appeal to precedent as a reason why its penalties were excessive but the appeals committee stated that those cases were not directly applicable.
USC athletic director Pat Haden said he was "gravely disappointed" in the NCAA's ruling.
"Clearly, I'm very disappointed, but I'm not surprised," Haden said. "I think the appeals committee is a group of fair-minded folks. We just vehemently disagree with the result, with how they saw our argument, and how past precedent didn't play a role in their decision."
Haden and USC president Max Nikias, along with the university's legal representatives, attended an appeals hearing in Indianapolis on Jan. 22 and made the case for the school. A decision was initially expected in four to eight weeks but ended up taking four months, finally closing the book on a case that began five years ago.
"I can assure our student-athletes, coaches and fans that we made every possible argument -- forcefully and vigorously -- for modifying unjust penalties," Haden said.
Football coach Lane Kiffin also expressed disappointment.
"I respect the NCAA's decision to uphold the sanctions against USC," Kiffin said. "That being said, I am disappointed for our players, our fans and our staff that another bowl game and now a possible Pac-12 championship game has been taken away from them."
The appeal's rejection also means USC's seniors will be able to transfer without sitting out a year as was the case last year when the penalties were initially announced, a sanction that Kiffin has criticized as "free agency."
"We have been operating with these sanctions for a year now and have felt their effects on multiple fronts," Kiffin said. "We will continue to execute the plan we have in place to make the most of the hand with which we have been dealt. I am proud of how our players have performed on the field and represented us off the field under very difficult and trying circumstances. I look forward to them continuing to do so as we move on to make the best of our situation."
After a brief team meeting in which Kiffin cautioned his players not to spout off about the decision on social media, the Trojans took the expected news in stride. Haden had predicted bad news for the players, who were mostly in junior high when Bush apparently accepted lavish illegal benefits from two aspiring sports marketers.
"Just like Pat and the rest of the university, we don't agree, but we'll deal with what we're dealt," quarterback Matt Barkley said.
Reacting to the NCAA's decision, Barkley tweeted, "Our team will embrace the challenge as one and be stronger for it. Times of adversity are special opportunities to Fight On!"
In June, USC was penalized for a lack of institutional control by the NCAA following its four-year investigation into numerous improper benefits received by Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo. USC was put on four years' probation, hit with a two-year bowl ban, lost 30 football scholarships over three years and vacated 14 victories in which Bush played from December 2004 through the 2005 season. The NCAA took no further action against the men's basketball team, which had already banned itself from postseason play last season and vacated its wins from Mayo's season.
Bush gave back his Heisman Trophy two months after USC removed its replica of the trophy and Bush's jersey from places of honor in Heritage Hall.
While USC felt it had a good case in arguing the NCAA's penalties as excessively harsh, a change to the NCAA bylaws in January 2008 has made appeals by institutions especially difficult to win. The new bylaw states that the appeal will be granted only if the institution can show the penalty is excessive "such that it constitutes an abuse of discretion" by the NCAA Committee on Infractions. Since the new bylaw was put in three years ago, only one in 11 appeals has been successful.
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"We are extremely disappointed in this result," Nikias said. "We are very concerned that the historical value of case precedent and the right to fair process in the NCAA adjudicative process, both in terms of the ability of an institution to defend itself or prove an abuse of discretion on appeal, have been substantially eroded.
"Further, the decisions of the COI and IAC have set a standard that leaves little, if any, room to discipline more egregious violations that will be addressed by the NCAA in the future without irreparably damaging athletic programs across the country."
USC's seniors are still allowed to transfer to another school without sitting out a season, a sanction that Kiffin has criticized as "free agency." A few players left the Trojans after the sanctions were handed down last year, but most were backups unhappy with playing time.
"I haven't heard anything" about seniors planning to transfer, said Barkley, a junior and a two-year starter.
"That doesn't mean guys aren't thinking about it, but given the vibe of the team, it doesn't seem like guys are going to do that," Barkley said. "It looks like guys want to be here, want to face the challenge and deal with it."
Haden previously had said he wouldn't sue the NCAA if the appeal fails, which means the formidable recruiting skills of Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron will be tested by scholarship limitations for the near future. Kiffin replaced Pete Carroll five months before the NCAA imposed its extensive penalties last June, and Haden replaced Mike Garrett in July.
The Trojans also expressed relief their half-decade of NCAA drama finally was over. Haden confirmed USC won't sue the NCAA to further contest its penalties.
"We could have and should have done things better," Haden said. "We had a player who knew he had done things wrong. We're not innocents here, and we deserved some penalties. It's just the severity of the penalties that we think is unfair."
The NCAA refused to comment beyond its public report.
USC also made wholesale changes in its athletic department during Haden's tenure, dramatically beefing up its compliance staff.
Kiffin and Orgeron stocked up on players earlier this year while the sanctions were under appeal, signing 22 recruits to letters of intent or scholarship agreements shortly after eight additional players enrolled in January.
Kiffin said he has been "impressed with the reception we have received from recruits. They understand the value of a USC degree and the opportunities afforded them by playing football here."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.