Commentary

USC's punishment sends shock waves

Originally Published: June 10, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The NCAA shocked the world Thursday.

It shocked the cynics who didn't believe it still had the sternness to drop the hammer on arguably the most glamorous program in college football.

It shocked the USC Trojans, whose institutional behavior screamed defiance and indifference to allegations of potentially serious rules violations.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Reed SaxonLane Kiffin and the Trojans are facing stiff NCAA penalties.

It shocked Lane Kiffin, who left a great job in the best conference in America for the captain's chair of the Titanic.

And it shocked a passel of blue-chip recruits who cavalierly signed to be Trojans beneath gathering storm clouds, and now must watch everyone else go bowling without them for the next two years.

That was the message on a thunderous Thursday from the NCAA to all of college sports: It may take forever -- four years, in this case -- but we can still deliver shock-and-awe punishment to a high-profile scofflaw. And we've got a smoking crater in Los Angeles to prove it.

USC was dealt with harshly for having enabled, marketed and profited from the semiprofessional careers of football star Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J. Mayo. It was slammed with a two-year postseason football ban -- one of just six multi-year bans in NCAA history -- to go along with a self-imposed one-year ban in basketball. It was deprived of 10 football scholarships for each of the next three years, to go along with a self-imposed scholarship reduction in basketball. Its record book was shredded, with vacated victories by the dozen. And the legacies of two USC heroes -- Bush and Pete "Cut and Run" Carroll -- were significantly tainted as well.

Judging by their actions, a whole lot of people didn't see that coming. A whole lot of people seemed to think USC was bulletproof -- right up until the bullet-riddled body of Tommy Trojan was revealed today.

Which is why this is a good day in college sports. Not because USC took the biggest hit for a major program since Alabama football got slammed eight years ago. Because you, the fan, can trust the NCAA enforcement and infractions arms to go after the big guys with the same vigor as they go after the little guys.

(With, granted, a ton of help from the media reports, which exposed the vast majority of activities detailed in the report, and the NCAA posse rode in thereafter.)

Southern Cal richly deserved to get hammered. As the Committee on Infractions' 67-page public report illustrates, USC operated a corrupt athletic institution for years.

Athletic director Mike Garrett presided over major violations in football and men's basketball without displaying much in the way of vigilance, concern, accountability or leadership. He is the common thread throughout a litany of violations stretching from 2004-08. He is the personification of a lack of institutional control, one of the charges the Trojans were nailed with.

[+] EnlargeMike Garrett
Kirby Lee/US PresswireUSC's violations occured during athletic director Mike Garrett's watch.

And the fact that he's kept his job throughout it all is a condemnation of the school's administration.

But Garrett is hardly the only man in cardinal and gold to blame.

Save some calumny for Carroll. One of his catch phrases is "Win Forever." Today the operative phrase for two of his greatest teams is "Vacated Forever."

Not that Coach Cut and Run was around to feel the sting of it. He followed the example set by Dennis Franchione and other college coaches who skip town when the NCAA is making life difficult. Carroll turned down pro jobs year after year -- until he couldn't pass up the mediocre Seattle Seahawks.

And don't think Carroll didn't foster the atmosphere that created the Bush fiasco. His best USC players got Hollywood star treatment, with celebrities circulating freely within the program. The practice field, the locker room, the sidelines during games -- they were open to stars and opportunists alike. And when the opportunists got hold of Bush, he was happy to take what they were offering, allegedly with the tacit knowledge of his position coach, Todd McNair.

The circumstances were similar with Mayo in the basketball program. It actually was more egregious there, for three reasons:

1. Not a soul in basketball believed Mayo was an amateur coming out of high school.

2. Mayo's "recruitment" consisted of a third party with an NCAA rap sheet showing up and basically offering the kid's services to the school.

3. USC already should have been on red alert after the Bush allegations.

(The only area in which the NCAA went soft in its verdict was on the hoops program and former coach Tim Floyd. How Floyd avoided a show-cause penalty is beyond me, and I would have given basketball an additional year without postseason play.)

Yet the school seemed quite surprised to find out that Mayo was paying for precious little during his one year as a Trojan. And acting surprised wasn't going to be an adequate defense, with either Bush or Mayo.

"The real issue here is if you have high-profile players, then your enforcement staff has to monitor those students at a higher level," said NCAA Committee on Infractions chair Paul Dee during a teleconference Thursday. "It's extraordinarily important that you realize the people likely to receive these interactions from outside the institution are also those same people who are going to provide a reward down the road. High-profile players demand high-profile compliance."

At least USC managed to punish itself for the basketball transgressions. It dug in its heels on football, and you wonder whether that exacerbated the penalty.

Pete Carroll
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswirePete Carroll won't be around when USC has to deal with the NCAA sanctions.

Hiring Lane Kiffin was not exactly a iron-willed commitment to clean living. Kiffin was on staff as an offensive assistant when Bush was being showered with agent tribute. And when Kiffin bolted Tennessee after one season, he left behind a string of secondary violations and an ongoing inquiry into some way-off-campus recruiting efforts by Orange Pride hostesses.

"You'd never get anyone [on the Committee on Infractions] to admit it, but it certainly wouldn't help them [hiring Kiffin]," said an expert on NCAA infractions cases. "He has such a reputation, it couldn't have helped."

Despite a late start in recruiting, questions about his own threadbare coaching résumé and the ongoing NCAA investigation, Kiffin went out and signed a great recruiting class. ESPN ranked it No. 7 nationally.

Today, every player who signed with the Trojans has to wonder whether they were sold a bill of goods -- and why they believed it.

According to media reports, Kiffin misled at least one recruit -- superstar offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson. The New York Times reported that Kiffin told Hendersons and his family not to worry about potential NCAA sanctions.

"As far as he's been informed -- he was very, very choosy with his words -- there shouldn't be anything going wrong because there was no knowledge of anything going on by the staff," Henderson's father, Sean, told The Times.

The story continued: "The Hendersons asked Kiffin to be clear about what impact the NCAA might have on the Trojans' football program, Sean Henderson said. Just before Seantrel chose USC on Wednesday, Kiffin reiterated not to listen to others who said the Trojans might face sanctions."

The fact is, Kiffin and everyone else at USC had no way of knowing whether the school was in the clear at that point. To present any different message to recruits was dishonest.

But a whole lot of star players seemed willing to believe that USC was untouchable. They signed their letters, figuring USC would Win Forever.

The recruits and a lot of other people in college sports got shocking news Thursday. USC wasn't bulletproof after all.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.