Vacating USC's 2004 title right; awarding it elsewhere plain wrong
Thankfully, this last little bit of business shouldn't take too long. Sometime in the near future, the BCS' presidential oversight committee will convene by teleconference. The agenda will be simple, and the action will be, too. Just like that, USC's 2004 national championship will be vacated. (Sure, it will have taken almost a year since the NCAA first issued its harsh sanctions, but by the standards of the investigation -- which spanned more than five years, start to finish -- that's hyper-speed.)
Not long after that, Pat Haden will pack the crystal football into its crate and ship it off to, well, who knows? But it won't be displayed in Heritage Hall. Or anywhere else.
It's not completely certain that the BCS will strip the Trojans of their title -- which is only to say, no one wants to say it out loud until it's happened. The committee's other option is to do nothing, and that won't happen. Here's what we do know: "They will not name another champion," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said Wednesday evening.
Sorry, Auburn. Don't get your hopes up, Utah. Oklahoma fans, who are you kidding? History cannot be scrubbed away. No one is going to forget 55-19, or just how good USC was on a January night in the Orange Bowl. As one Oklahoma fan tweeted to me Wednesday: "Only OU game this alumni has shut off at half and gone to bed early during." The Trojans turned a highly anticipated showdown into a stunning display of dominance. At times it seemed Norm Chow was working the Xbox controls like a master gamer. The Sooners were playing Pong.
Auburn's win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl was nice. But did you see the Trojans? Meanwhile, a young up-and-comer named Urban Meyer led the Utes -- the original BCS-busters -- to a perfect season that culminated with a whipping of Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. But did you see the Trojans?
Of course, now we see those Trojans. We understand Reggie Bush shouldn't have been eligible, and recognize they shouldn't have been in the Orange Bowl. And ever since the start, eons ago, of the NCAA's investigation into the relationship of Bush and his parents with wannabe agents, there have been cries that Auburn should be retroactively rewarded.
"It doesn't make sense not to give [the 2004 title] to somebody," former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville told CBSSports.com last summer -- and even though he's now at Texas Tech, there's no doubt which team he'd choose.
The debate has lost a little steam, maybe, with Auburn's run to the BCS title last season. And it's more than a little ironic, considering the swirling smoke around Cam Newton. But there remains a significant sentiment, mostly from down South, that the 2004 Tigers were wronged. And that even now, the correct move is to fix that wrong.
Which is plain wrong.
We went through this last summer, when the NCAA initially handed down the sanctions against USC. The AP decided not to change its 2004 final ranking; no vacancy and certainly no revote. "The poll stands," AP sports editor Terry Taylor told the
The Football Writers Association of America chose to revoke the Grantland Rice Trophy. As a former president of the FWAA, I was a part of the latter decision, which came only after a very spirited discussion among committee members. In the end, we decided to vacate the title, but not to award the FWAA's version of the national championship to another team.
It was the right move for several reasons. We all know who played, and who won. It's like someone asked me Wednesday: "Does this mean Reggie Bush did not score that touchdown with one shoe on?" -- referring to the 2005 highlight-reel run when he juked an Oregon defensive back out of his jock while wearing a sock. No one who saw that play will ever forget it. Nor the time Bush came to a dead stop midway through a run against Fresno State, watched a defender fly by, then cut across the field for a touchdown (one small part of a magnificent performance, go YouTube it). We won't forget any of the other fantastic things he did on the field, either. And we'll all remember how good that 2004 USC team was, perhaps the peak of the Pete Carroll era (though USC's dominance of college football extended another full year, until Texas and Vince Young snapped the Trojans' winning streak at 34 straight).
That's part of the argument for those, like the AP, who choose not to make a retroactive change. But while history cannot be rewritten, vacating the title makes a powerful statement. Although it's not administered by the NCAA, it's an important part of the punishment. If we're on board that Bush was ineligible, and USC exhibited a "lack of institutional control," and the Trojans should not have been playing in that Orange Bowl (or a year later, in another BCS Championship against Texas), then vacating the title is an important step.
But that's the only step that remains to be taken, the only one that should be made. Otherwise, why Auburn? We could argue forever that an undefeated SEC champion should have played for the championship -- results these last five seasons certainly support the argument -- but at the time, the voters and the computers didn't agree. And if we're going back in time to award a new champion, why not unbeaten Utah? And Oklahoma, despite what we saw in the Orange Bowl, was dominant throughout the regular season; who knows how the Sooners might have fared that night against an opponent other than USC?
But all of that is simply good fodder for sports radio. This is about crime and punishment, nothing more. When the presidents and conference commissioners strip the title away, here's what a partial list of BCS national champions will forever look like in the record books:
2002: Ohio State
History cannot be scrubbed away. But that conspicuous void, like the one that's about to occur in the display case at Heritage Hall, is a correct revision. The message sent is crystal-clear.