Now operating at a safe remove with the Seattle Seahawks, former Southern California coach Pete Carroll isn't really obligated to comment on or even take responsibility for the consequences of the heavy-handed smackdown the NCAA unleashed on the Trojans for violations on his watch Thursday. Carroll barely appears in a 67-page report detailing former Heisman winner Reggie Bush's astonishingly lucrative career at USC from 2003-05. And, he isn't accused of any violations or knowledge of violations. But he would like Trojan fans to know he still cares, and he is shocked at the NCAA's findings:
As Carroll suggests, USC will be launching an appeal to soften the worst consequences of the broadside — a two-year bowl ban, 30 scholarship losses over three years, vacation of all wins in 2005, including the 2005 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma to seal the '04 BCS championship — in the same vein as Carroll's lament in the video: How can we be punished when we didn't know what was going on?
To some extent that's part of the NCAA's argument: With tens of thousands of dollars in cash and perks changing hands between a genuine superstar and a pair of opportunists (one of them an ex-con) openly angling to become the player's agents when he turns pro, how can you not know what's going on? And if you honestly don't, isn't that just as big a problem? The NCAA's report paints the program under Carroll as anything but "vigilant," indirectly implicating him for his role helping create a loose, celebrity-laden environment in which players felt "entitled to special treatment," and "which almost certainly contributed to the difficulties of compliance staff in achieving a rules-compliant program."
While decrying the influence of "external elements" above, Carroll was directly implicated in the report in lobbying marketers to hire players for part-time jobs and internships that were open to "USC student-athletes and only USC student-athletes." One of those arrangements was for Bush's internship with marketer Michael Ornstein. Ornstein, once convicted for attempting to defraud the NFL, is cited in the NCAA report as providing improper airfare for Bush's family. Ornstein later represented Bush after he turned pro, until he was fired midway through Bush's rookie season.
Certainly that fits under an "atmosphere of noncompliance." But it pales in comparison to the report's smoking gun of institutional knowledge and negligence, a single paragraph on page 23 describing a phone call between running backs coach Todd McNair and would-be agent Lloyd Lake. Lake is one half of New Era Sports & Entertainment, the fledgling agency founded by Lake and Michael Michaels at the behest of Bush's stepfather. New Era was responsible for the vast majority of funds and perks funneled to Bush in 2004-05. According to the report, McNair had become aware of at least part of the arrangement while attending a party in San Diego with a USC tutor in the spring of 2005. (The timeline suggests this was a birthday party for Marshall Faulk, also attended by Bush, whose hotel stay was gratis.) USC itself conceded it was "substantially correct" that McNair, Bush and a recruit on an official visit were together with both New Era partners in a club on Oct. 29, 2005, after multiple phone calls from McNair to Lake. McNair also appeared in a photo that night with Lake and a mutual friend, actor/comedian Faizon Love, who later reportedly hooked Lake up with notorious L.A. gangster Suge Knight to help "negotiate" after the agency's relationship with Bush had broken down. [UPDATE, June 11, 5:56 a.m. ET] Readers are encouraged to read USC's response to the NCAA's allegations, filed last year, in which it argues McNair had no significant relationship with Lake and accuses the NCAA of basing its allegations against McNair almost solely on Lake's uncorroborated testimony. The NCAA, obviously, concluded Lake was telling the truth.
When Bush began to drift away from New Era as his declaration for the 2006 draft approached, it was to McNair ("the assistant football coach") that Lake ("agency partner A") turned to to get his client back in the fold (emphasis added):
At least by January 8, 2006, the assistant football coach had knowledge that student-athlete 1 and agency partners A and B likely were engaged in NCAA violations. At 1:34 a.m. he had a telephone conversation for two minutes and 23 seconds with agency partner A during which agency partner A attempted to get the assistant football coach to convince student- athlete 1 either to adhere to the agency agreement or reimburse agency partners A and B for money provided to student-athlete 1 and his family. Further, during his September 19, 2006, and February 15, 2008, interviews with the enforcement staff, the assistant football coach violated NCAA ethical conduct legislation by providing false and misleading information regarding his knowledge of this telephone call and the NCAA violations associated with it. The assistant football coach failed to alert the institution's compliance staff of this information and later attested falsely, through his signature on a certifying statement, that he had no knowledge of NCAA violations.
If the NCAA's account is accurate, that is an assistant coach — i.e., "the university," by extension — with not only direct knowledge of major violations involving his best player, but with direct participation in keeping the scheme under wraps. And who, on top of that, was caught in a lie by an organization that punishes lying as severely as any infraction that crosses its path.
The punchline: McNair remained on as running backs coach throughout Carroll's tenure and was retained by the new staff when Lane Kiffin took over in January; he is the only person with any significant role in the report still associated with USC. From that perspective, when Carroll says "the university didn't know, we didn't know," maybe he really means it. But I fail to see — and apparently the NCAA shares this perspective — how ignorance can possibly justify letting the program off the hook in a case that appears to have been an open secret to anyone not actively trying to avert their eyes.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.