On Thursday, however, the NCAA found a way to strike back. The Committee on Infractions used its much-anticipated decision on USC's sanctions as a chance to make an example of ex-Trojans stars Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo, both of whom reaped the benefits of gift-wielding outsiders. Essentially, the committee hammered USC's vaunted football program -- 13 vacated wins, including its 55-19 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma; a two-year bowl ban; and 30 docked scholarships -- to send a message to schools around the country with similar high-profile stars.
"This case is a window onto a landscape of elite college athletes and certain individuals close to them who, in the course of their relationships, disregard NCAA rules and regulations," reads the introduction to the committee's 67-page report.
The document -- most of which mirrors allegations first reported four years ago by Yahoo! Sports about housing, airline tickets and other benefits given Bush and his family by wanna-be sports agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels and marketing rep Mike Ornstein -- shows that USC largely disagreed as to the extent of its culpability in the infractions. On Thursday evening, the school went on the offensive, releasing a redacted version of its original response to the NCAA's allegations in which it questions the credibility of Bush's accusers and disputes the validity of the evidence used to support several of the charges.
Rarely have we seen an NCAA case in which the accused school was so unabashedly defiant toward the investigators. At one point, it accuses the enforcement staff of "pursuing a novel and flawed theory" in defining Ornstein's affiliation with USC. No wonder their February hearing before the Infractions Committee lasted 30 hours.
In response to the sanctions, USC President Steven B. Sample said the school will accept "some" of the penalties but "sharply disagree[s] with many of the conclusions reached by the [committee]." It will be filing an appeal in the coming months. Essentially, the school contends there was nothing more it could have done to stop the rogue agents and street runners at the heart of this case.
The NCAA's take: Oh yes, you could.
"The real issue here is, if you have high-profile players, your enforcement staff has to monitor those students at a higher level," committee chair Paul Dee said in a teleconference announcing the sanctions. "Its extraordinarily important to recognize that the [players] who are likely to be receiving these kind of interactions with people outside of the institution are the same people who are likely to receive some sort of [financial] reward down the road.
"High-profile players merit high-profile enforcement."
Consider: USC received almost the same exact penalties that Alabama did in 2002 (two-year bowl ban, 21 scholarships) for a case in which the school's own boosters made payments to recruits. The committee even said it "seriously considered the imposition of a television ban" against the Trojans, a penalty it hasn't doled out in more than 15 years.
In other words, in the committee's eyes, USC's failure to monitor a player's relationship with those seeking to cash in on his future earnings is every bit as serious as Alabama's failure to monitor supporters trying to help secure future wins for their favorite team.
If you're a compliance officer at Florida, Texas or any other school teeming with future first-round draft picks, Thursday's ruling should be sending shivers down your spine. If you happen to be the next great quarterback or point guard in the class of 2010 or '11, be prepared to have your every hand-shake, conversation or Facebook post with anyone outside of the school monitored.
Not that that's remotely plausible.
"Monitoring and regulating human behavior is complex at best, and even more so in a far-flung region like Los Angeles, home to a vast entertainment-sports enterprise," said Sample. But he's still going to try. The school is hiring a consulting group led by former FBI director Louis Freeh to "help us take a fresh look at how we can keep unscrupulous agents and sports marketers away from our student-athletes."
It's a good to see USC getting serious now, because there are numerous citations in the NCAA's report that show school officials were careless, if not downright negligent, in their handling of Bush and Mayo. Former coach Pete Carroll, now with the Seattle Seahawks, is never mentioned or cited with any wrongdoing. However, the committee contends running backs coach Todd McNair was quite clearly aware of Bush's relationship with Lake and Michaels yet failed to report it.
(McNair, who was retained by new head coach Lane Kiffin, was given a one-year show-cause penalty, which severely restricts his recruiting activities. USC, for its part, vehemently defends McNair, claiming investigators had flimsy evidence against him.)
In another passage, the committee notes that during the 2005 season, a "journalist" started making inquiries about Ornstein's presence on the sideline during games, which USC's sports information director then relayed to its former compliance director (who had signed off on Bush's previous summer internship with Ornstein), its then-compliance director and faculty athletic representative. The former compliance director pledged to follow up with Bush -- but never did.
But that's nothing compared with the astounding carelessness alleged against Athletic Director Mike Garrett in regards to USC's recruitment of Mayo, whose handler, Rodney Guillory, was a known runner whose involvement with former Trojans star Jeff Trepagnier led to his suspension. Sayeth the NCAA:
"On October 7, 2006, the director of athletics went to the men's basketball office after receiving an e-mail from a sports reporter looking for a response to a report that [Guillory] was a professional sports agent and involved with [Mayo]. When advised by [Floyd] that [Guillory] had on numerous occasions denied he was an agent or runner, the director of athletics responded, 'That's all I need to know,' and left the office. No further follow-up was done."
Are you serious?
In its defense, USC claims it "went to extraordinary lengths in its monitoring efforts both before and after [Mayo] enrolled." But then, the school self-imposed its own basketball penalties so it can't be all that indignant about the findings.
In a video response from Seattle on Thursday, a visibly angry Carroll said: "The agenda of the NCAA Infractions Committee took them beyond the facts. The facts don't merit the sanctions."
He may be right.
You'd be hard-pressed to find precedent for a school hit so hard over activities by parties with no association to the university. It's not unreasonable to think it will find sympathy from the Infractions Appeal Committee, which, in 2003, overturned the second year of Michigan basketball's postseason ban despite four former players taking $616,000 from rogue booster Ed Martin. But such reversals are rare.
If anything, it sure seems the committee is trying to set a new precedent. It's holding USC responsible for the sins of not just Bush and Mayo, Ornstein and Guillory, but all the star athletes and seedy brokers everywhere whose misdeeds go unreported. They spent four years building their case in order to use it as a global deterrent.
"It's time for the NCAA and the universities to come together and elevate the awareness and understand of the vulnerability of athletes and their families," said Carroll. "We need to be proactive in act in every way to protect the college experience for these kids."
It's an admirable goal -- but fortunately for him, it's also no longer his problem.
Kiffin, Matt Barkley, Seantrel Henderson and the rest of the 2010 and '11 Trojans are the ones who will pay the price for Bush's misdeeds, while administrators scratch some of Carroll's most memorable accomplishments from the record books.
If you believe the NCAA, this all could have been avoided had USC's athletic director, compliance department and running backs coach done their jobs better five years ago. If you believe USC's defense team, they couldn't have done anything more short of fitting Bush with an ankle monitoring bracelet.
One thing's for certain: After keeping fans waiting in the dark for four years, the NCAA delivered a powerful resolution. But it sure seems the end result was less about the organization punishing USC than it was about flexing its muscle to the rest of the country.