USC -- also known as the University of Semipro Collegians -- stands at a crossroads today, and the traffic lights are out in all directions.
The school's athletic department is ripe to be run over by onrushing traffic -- NCAA investigators coming from one direction, vengeful Pacific-10 rivals from another. USC should prepare for tire tracks across its reputation and a head-on collision with humility.
In the face of his first hint of adversity at USC, football coach Pete Carroll is fleeing for the National Football League. Once there, he will attempt to do what Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier, Mike Riley, Dennis Erickson, Rich Brooks, Bobby Petrino and, hey, Pete Carroll could not do previously -- win and be happy. Carroll's departure happens to come when his most recent star tailback, Joe McKnight, is facing scrutiny for driving an expensive car that's not his, and when an age-old investigation into a former star tailback, Reggie Bush, could be gaining new momentum.
And there is a smoking crater where the USC men's basketball program is supposed to be. The Trojans are overachieving under first-year coach Kevin O'Neill, but that will be moot come March. The school has banned itself from postseason play this year, trimmed scholarships, curtailed recruiting, forfeited victories and returned NCAA tournament revenue for shenanigans involving rent-a-star O.J. Mayo during the 2007-08 season.
Those are the headline stories involving USC athletics in the first two weeks of 2010. Happy new year, Trojans.
A coaching legend must be replaced in football at the precise time when the program is under NCAA investigation, is coming off its worst season since 2001 and has at least two standout juniors (one of them McKnight) headed to the NFL. A basketball program must be rebuilt while potentially facing additional sanctions from the NCAA, and while being headed by a coaching nomad who last had a winning conference record in 1994.
At a time like this, an athletic department needs strong, galvanic leadership. All USC has is Mike Garrett.
The athletic director won the 1965 Heisman Trophy as a running back. His elusiveness has carried over into athletic administration, where he has smoothly avoided accountability for the mounting messes on his watch.
When times are tough in TrojanLand, Garrett has a terrific little Wizard of Oz answer: He records messages that are broadcast on the school's athletic Web site. That's what he did on Jan. 3, when the school announced its self-imposed basketball sanctions.
That has one advantage, if you're Garrett. You don't have to answer any questions.
And there are plenty of questions to be answered. Namely: What are you going to do now?
Let's start with the purely pragmatic: If Garrett is allowed to keep his job and hire the next USC football coach, Trojans fans should hold their breath.
Before landing Carroll, his previous football hires were John Robinson Part II (like most sequels, not nearly as good as the original) and Paul Hackett (outright bust). Carroll has been a grand slam, but he was not Garrett's first choice.
Undoubtedly, the program is in such strong shape that it will attract high-end applicants. But don't underestimate Garrett's ability to bring in the wrong coach.
The larger question is whether Garrett is the right guy to restore faith in the school's athletic integrity. I've written this before, but it bears repeating: USC's acceptance of Mayo, given the timing and circumstances, was indefensible. In the long and sketchy history of college basketball, it ranks among the all-time examples of compliance negligence.
The Bush scandal was in full boil after allegations that the family of the 2005 Heisman winner had been accepting housing and other kickbacks from prospective agents. Mayo was super-talented but radioactive: Everyone with a clue knew he had compromised his amateur status long before reaching college. And the fact that the guy fronting for Mayo was Rodney Guillory -- a scammer who helped render former Trojan Jeff Trepagnier ineligible for a good chunk of the 2000-01 basketball season -- should have sent the school sprinting in the opposite direction.
USC overlooked all of that. It might as well have flown an airplane banner over campus that said, "Trouble, Come Find Us!"
Trouble came and set up shop in Los Angeles. It cost Tim Floyd -- one of five USC hoops coaches in the past nine years -- his job. It has undercut the current season. And it has all but guaranteed that the Trojans will remain well outside national contender status for the foreseeable future.
What did USC get for its Faustian bargain with Mayo? One NCAA tournament game. A loss to Kansas State.
The Trojans got a lot more out of Bush, largely because they kept him on campus for three years instead of one. Same with McKnight. They were part of a glorious but potentially tainted run at USC. And the ongoing scrutiny associated with those two players must be considered a factor in Carroll's decision to jump from one of the best jobs in all of coaching.
Now they've all gone pro: Bush, Mayo, McKnight and Carroll. Accountability is left to Mike Garrett -- and he doesn't do accountability terribly well.
His athletic department is at a crossroads, with traffic bearing down from all sides. Somebody call a wrecker.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.