How hard will USC be hit?

Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel

LOS ANGELES – The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions has 10 members and each of them is well aware of the reputation the organization’s de facto “jury” has earned through the years.

The NCAA goes light on big schools (who are known to cheat more often and with more intensity) and drops the hammer on small ones (who are more likely to have bumbled their way into trouble). Or, as Jerry Tarkanian famously surmised: “the NCAA was so mad at Kentucky, it gave Cleveland State two more years of probation.”

The current group has done little to reverse this perception.

It’s been years, if not decades, however, since the Infractions Committee ruled on a case as high-profile as the one involving the University of Southern California football and men’s basketball programs. ESPN reported that sanctions, if any, will be announced Friday. USC officials say they don’t expect a ruling before next week. If it wants to change its image, this is the case the committee has been waiting for.

Stretching over four years, the case that centers on Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo has gained such national focus and caused such entrenched positions among fans that it feels like a referendum on the NCAA itself.

If USC skates, will anyone ever get severely punished?

Photo Reggie Bush in 2004.
(AP Photo)

So here’s a new one to consider as a major program sits in the infractions committee crosshairs – the possibility of an overreaction.

Could USC actually deal with harsher penalties because of the publicized nature of the allegations and the fame of the team? Will the Infractions Committee, desperate to prove they aren’t toothless in the face of a big-time program, actually lay down the law in a way inconsistent with its recent precedent?

Could, for once, a Kentucky-esque school actually play the Cleveland State whipping dog role?

If not, if the committee sticks to its recent trend of punishments, there isn’t much to worry about for the future of USC. At least as long as Lane Kiffin can coach.

The committee’s report is done, all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. USC will have it soon. Its basic structure and conclusions were completed weeks ago. The final release was delayed, according to a source, by the sheer length of a report that’s expected to run well over a hundred pages. What normally takes the committee six-to-eight weeks to complete, took 14.

What to read into that is anyone’s guess.

Common sense says the NCAA didn’t investigate both the football and basketball for years and then took months to write a report only to declare there were no violations. If there was nothing there this would’ve been done a long time ago.

That there will be some sanctions is a forgone conclusion. It’s the severity of the penalties that the infractions committee in particular, and the NCAA as a whole, will be judged.

USC has already self-imposed penalties on the basketball program and there’s reason to believe much more will be done there. Not that many will care. This is a football case.

While there remain USC fans who believe in the program’s innocence, or at least deniability, the rest of the country long ago presumed the Trojans guilty. An endless series of investigative stories, a book, television interviews, multiple settled lawsuits and tepid denials from the folks involved will do that.

The USC case has taken on a life of its own, followed, debated, raged at and even mocked like few others.

There are the oversized allegations – Reggie Bush’s family received a house (a house!) or at least got to live in one rent free. There are the dueling marketing agencies that allegedly provided extra benefits in an effort to sign him. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars in not just alleged payouts, but in the settling of lawsuits that include gag orders.

Then there are the only-in-LA moments, such as Bush eventually dating Kim Kardashian, whose father was a defense attorney for O.J. Simpson, himself a Heisman Trophy-winning Trojan tailback.

Photo Pete Carroll has left USC for the NFL.
(AP Photo)

There’s the 2007 movie “Blades of Glory” where the character played by noted SC fan Will Ferrell is named “Chaz Michael Michaels,” an obvious shout out to Michael Michaels, one of the many colorful central figures in the Bush case.

Then there are the stakes: a Heisman Trophy, a BCS championship and the legend of some iconic teams that defined college football in the middle of the decade.

The Committee of Infractions, much like an actual jury, can only rule on the evidence presented, not potentially powerful, yet unproven, accusations. That often plays a part in weaker than expected sanctions.

There are two key elements to this case that will determine penalties.

First is whether Bush received extra benefits from the marketing agencies vying for his business. The scope of the evidence against Bush and his family is overwhelming – on-the-record testimony, hotel receipts and a brazen flaunting of the rule book.

When Reggie Bush posed on the cover of Dub Magazine with his tricked out car and his parents wrote their name in the driveway of the home they were allegedly living in rent free, they weren’t doing much to cover their tracks. Even devout Trojan fans have a hard time arguing Reggie didn’t get something.

With the NCAA you can’t be a little bit pregnant on eligibility issues. Fans nationally expect the Infractions Committee to deem Bush ineligible. Anything less is almost inconceivable and would create palpable outrage. There’s simply no way they’ll convince anyone of Bush’s innocence.

If Bush is ruled ineligible, then the committee could declare USC must vacate all of its victories from the 2004 and 2005 seasons (Bush’s sophomore and junior years, when the marketing agencies flocked).

That would cause the suits at the Bowl Championship Series to decide whether to vacate the Trojans 2004 title – USC would be technically winless. At the same time, the Heisman Trust could pull Bush’s 2005 trophy.

If the BCS title is vacated don’t expect anyone else (namely Auburn) to be named the champ. There simply won’t be a BCS winner that year. The Heisman may give the trophy to runner-up Vince Young, the Texas quarterback though. A lawsuit from Longhorn fans to force that action might not be out of the question.

Vacating victories is embarrassing (ask John Calipari) but it doesn’t have any effect on the program going forward. And it’s not like the games weren’t played or the memories of the championships aren’t still ingrained in the memories of Trojan fans.

In terms of sanctions that might impact USC’s future, the Infractions Committee would have to determine that coach Pete Carroll or the administration knew, or should’ve known, about Bush receiving extra benefits. Carroll ran a loose ship in LA, one of the marketing agencies employed Bush as an intern and the NCAA has taken great interest in what assistant Todd McNair may or may not have known.

Still, this part of the case isn’t as cut and dried. The Infractions Committee could clear USC and greatly reduce the penalties doled out.

What might really frustrate non-SC fans is that even if the NCAA rules USC culpable, it really doesn’t have many sanctions in its arsenal that can do much. Over the last half dozen years, the Infractions Committee has applied penalties that have proven ineffective at slowing down major programs.

Photo USC athletic director Mike Garrett.
(AP Photo)

Probation is meaningless – Alabama is on it right now and they just won the BCS title. Postseason bans have fallen out of favor in football and unless it stretches for multiple seasons (highly unlikely) it will have no bearing on recruiting.

Taking a team off of television just isn’t happening in this era of big money network contracts. Remember, seven of the 10 members of the committee still work in (or are recently retired from) college athletics. They aren’t killing the golden goose of TV.

Even scholarship and other recruiting restrictions aren’t going to matter much to a program such as USC. Say the NCAA took away 12 scholarships over a three-year period – a high number based on recent cases. So USC signs 21 great recruits instead of 25?

And since so many top high school players hail from within driving distance of its South Central campus, cutting back on paid official visits or coaches days on the road won’t do much either.

Just Wednesday the Trojans picked up a verbal commitment from touted quarterback recruit Cody Kessler. The Bakersfield native didn’t care to wait two days to hear what the NCAA had to say. He wasn’t bothered that USC already has four-star QB recruit Max Wittek in the fold.

He turned down a bunch of other Pac-10 offers anyway. That’s the power of USC right now.

So here’s the one fear for Troy.

The Infractions Committee knows that if it hits USC with what it traditionally considers a significant penalty, almost nothing is going to happen. The backlash from around the country will then be overwhelming. The cries about situational justice and Cleveland State and institutional corruption will be endless.

This is the Reggie Bush case, after all.

So eager to avoid the criticism, the Infractions Committee could proactively hit harder than normal, returning to the days when the NCAA was a powerful, vengeful, feared organization. What if 30 scholarships are gone over a three-year period? What if there is a multi-year bowl ban? What if the committee got medieval and decided, once and for all, to make an example of someone big and powerful?

Likely? Nope.

The infractions committee knows the national mood though. They know the lack of faith fans have in the system and their committee. They know this is the most publicized case in years.

It’s human nature to try to prove your point.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jun 3, 2010