Thursday June 10th, 2010

If I'm USC football coach Lane Kiffin, I'm on a mission. Or, more specifically, my players are. Kiffin's best option after the NCAA dropped the hammer on his program is to encourage his best young players to serve two-year religious missions, which pause the NCAA's eligibility clock. The players can choose whatever faith they wish, but after two years they can return to USC with their eligibility intact and attempt to lead the Trojans to a national title in 2012, the next season they'll be allowed to play in a postseason game. Of course, they'll probably have to beat Texas in the Pac-16 championship game, but why worry about the details? Start handing out the holy books.

I kid, of course. The NCAA probably wouldn't appreciate my little ruse and might simply extend the ban. Plus, the idea of proselytizing for football's sake might affect the Trojans' eligibility in the afterlife.

Even if USC's appeals fail and the entirely appropriate penalties (two-year postseason ban and a whopping 30 lost scholarships over three years) stand, this isn't going to plunge the Trojans back into the Paul Hackett era forever. First, vacating victories is an utterly meaningless penalty. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- a former Cal Bear -- joked on Twitter late Wednesday that he looked forward to receiving his 2004 Pac-10 championship ring. Unfortunately for Rodgers, USC only has to vacate its 2005 Orange Bowl win and 2005 season victory. This may give Auburn a claim on the 2004 national title, but I checked YouTube. No matter what the NCAA says, USC still smokes Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Oregon -- second place in the Pac-10 in 2005 with a 7-1 conference record -- can make Pac-10 rings and hang a banner if it wants, but YouTube confirms that the Trojans still crushed the Ducks in the second half for a 45-13 win. I also checked YouTube to see if Reggie Bush got tackled by Fresno State that year. Nope.

Bush may yet lose his Heisman, but no one is going to track down the Trojans and collect their rings. A few years ago, I interviewed former Florida receiver Ricky Nattiel. In 1984, the Gators won the school's first SEC title. That title was summarily stripped for a litany of violations by coach Charley Pell's staff. Nattiel said the folks at the SEC and NCAA were welcome to try taking his championship ring. "If they take those rings off our fingers, then they really stripped us," Nattiel said. "We did it where it counts -- on the field." Twenty-six years later, Nattiel still has his ring.

Make no mistake, the next few years will be difficult. Thirty lost scholarships is painful. Kiffin and his staff not only will have to convince players to come to USC with no hope of a bowl in 2011, but they also lose any room for error. If they overestimate a prospect's abilities, they'll damage the program further.

But, like the last two programs (Alabama and Miami) that returned to glory after getting smashed by the NCAA, the Trojans enjoy several advantages. USC still sits atop a gold mine of talent. No matter what the circumstances, proximity to home remains the No. 1 factor in the decisions of top prospects.

Also like Alabama and Miami, the Trojans have a successful track record of producing NFL players. These days, top recruits want the easiest path to the NFL, not to a title. A USC backup quarterback (Matt Cassel) starts in the NFL. That's a ringing endorsement.

Consider the last time the NCAA banned a program from postseason play for two years and took away more than 20 scholarships. That program was Alabama, which had allowed a booster to essentially purchase the services of Memphis, Tenn., defensive tackle Albert Means from Means' high school coach. The Crimson Tide got clobbered for that, just as USC is getting clobbered for Bush spending his sophomore and junior seasons on the payroll of a pair of wannabe agents.

Refresh my memory, who is the reigning national champion?

Alabama. The Crimson Tide went through three coaches (Dennis Franchione, Mike Price, Mike Shula) before they found the man (Nick Saban) who could lead them back to the promised land. Granted, Shula's recruiting laid a nice foundation, but Saban did most of the heavy lifting over a two-year period.

It also should be noted that in December 1995, the NCAA banned Miami from postseason play and docked the Hurricanes 24 scholarships over two years as punishment for the program's Pell Grant scandal. Coach Butch Davis endured a few rough years, but the Hurricanes were great again by 2000. In 2001, after Davis left to coach the Cleveland Browns, Miami won the national title with the baddest team in the universe.

Can USC bounce back that quickly even with the draconian scholarship limits? Yes. It won't be easy, but it can be done.

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