Trojan trouble

Tuesday afternoon, Lloyd Lake, ex-con, former aspiring sports marketer and worst nightmare for the University of Southern California football program, dropped a lawsuit in a San Diego County courthouse and a bomb on the Trojans.

While few of the allegations are new, the lawsuit, and Lake's scheduled meeting with NCAA investigators next week, changes the entire dynamic of the Reggie Bush case. It is the single worst development that could have happened to USC.

About the only thing, if anything, that can save the Trojans is Bush settling the nearly $300,000 suit between now and Lake's meeting with the NCAA.

NCAA investigators had cited a lack of cooperation with key witnesses in determining whether Bush received extra benefits during his final two seasons at USC and whether the Trojans should have known about it.

That includes Bush, his current marketing agent Mike Ornstein and the two partners in a would-be marketing company called New Era Sports & Entertainment, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, who tried to sign Bush.

In the lawsuit Lake claims and promises corroborating evidence that he and Michaels provided Bush and his family a rent-free home, money for a tricked-out car, luxury hotel rooms and tens of thousands in cash payments under the promise that Bush would form a marketing company with them. The grand total, according to the five-page lawsuit, is just over $291,600.

Ornstein is accused by third parties of cash payouts and trips for Bush parents. He has denied breaking NCAA rules to Yahoo! Sports.

Bush and Ornstein are saying nothing to the NCAA. Neither is Michaels after Bush settled out of court with him earlier this year for what sources say was between $200,000 and $300,000. Part of that deal, sources said, is a clause that prohibits Michaels speaking with the NCAA.

While the NCAA has other evidence and witnesses, the most dangerous party for USC was Lake. He was the last major witness who could blow this thing up.

Tuesday, he did.

Due to the NCAAs lack of subpoena power, historically its biggest cases have come from civil or criminal lawsuits where its investigators can use evidence gathered from depositions and other parts of the judicial process. It was that way in the Fab Five case at Michigan and the Myron Piggie summer basketball scandal that affected four programs, among others.

With the suit filed and Lake cooperating, the amount of physical evidence and first-person testimony on the case – the lawsuit alleges correspondence from Bush to New Era that "reaffirmed his commitment to repay (Lake)" – should end all reasonable doubt concerning much of what went down. If Bush ever sits for a deposition, then it could get even worse.

While the courts can determine which agent is an aggrieved party – few people really care who's right and who's wrong and Bush could still settle this with one quick personal check – the issues for USC are more significant and lasting.

If Bush is determined ineligible dating back to November of 2004 – when Lake alleges in the lawsuit payouts began – then the Trojans 2004 BCS Championship and 2005 runnerup season are in jeopardy. Moreover, if the NCAA determines that USC was lacking institutional control as agents and marketing reps hovered around, the program faces significant sanctions going forward.

The case against USC, like all similar cases involving players and agents, will revolve around two basic lines of questioning, according to three athletic directors and one former NCAA investigator with whom Yahoo! Sports discussed the generalities.

1. Did Bush receive extra benefits that would make him ineligible for competition? And if so, when did they begin?

2. Did or should have USC officials and coaches known about the extra benefits.

We'll start with the first one, where a mountain of evidence, both in direct accounts, paper documents and even admissions from Bush make it seemingly implausible that this is all a lie.

Where previously all the NCAA had were third-party accounts and the direct testimony of memorabilia dealer Bob DeMartino claiming Ornstein asked him for cash to make a payment to Bush's relatives (another vein of this investigation), this lawsuit opens up many problems for USC.

Once Lake meets with investigators, his testimony coupled with the paper trail involved, makes it almost unfathomable for the NCAA not to determine Bush received extra benefits starting in his sophomore year.

2. It is not so much a matter of if USC knew, but if it should have?

The NCAAs key phrase is "institutional control" which demands schools do everything possible to protect and monitor the actions of its student-athletes. Carroll used to run a loose ship in Los Angeles, a place where agents regularly attended open practices and had been spotted inside the football facility.

In the case of New Era, while they operated out of San Diego, their ties to USC are possibly significant.

Yahoo! Sports previously reported Lake and Michaels didn't just attend USC games, but after two games even went into the Trojan locker room. That's a place most schools severely limit access to and would investigate the background of any non-relative who gains such access.

"Two guys don't just walk into your postgame locker room," said one athletic director. "You confront them immediately and find out. That's basic stuff."

Yahoo! Sports also previously reported that sources claim USC assistant Todd McNair knew of Bush's relationship with both Michaels and Lake. Moreover he spent a night out in San Diego with Bush, Michaels and Lake and knew Bush was staying the night in a $500-a-night suite at the city's Manchester Hyatt.

Yahoo! Sports obtained a receipt for the stay that was paid for by Michaels' credit card. USC refused to allow Yahoo! Sports to interview McNair.

Those bits alone, especially if Lake provides details, could prove to be damning blows for the Trojan program.

The potential for greater trouble looms in what USC hasn't released publicly.

That includes phone records, emails and internal correspondence of all USC athletic department staffers from athletic director Mike Garrett on down. It would also include all compliance department files on Bush plus the Trojans complimentary ticket lists, gate passes and locker room/sideline access lists. USC refused to turn over those items to Yahoo! Sports on a Freedom of Information Act request citing its status of a private school.

But as a member of the NCAA, USC must (and may already have) provided all of that information and anything else the NCAA thinks up. Again, it isn't just what USC was suspicious of, but what the NCAA believes it should have been suspicious of.

"The NCAA defines due diligence," said one AD.

Where it goes from here, how deep it winds up, remains to be seen.

But for USC, Tuesday's lawsuit was a terrible development, the kind that can blow open the doors on Heritage Hall, imperil both the past and future and send Carroll scurrying back to the NFL.

Days and counting until Lake meets with the NCAA. Only another last-second bit of Reggie Bush heroics – this time in the form of a big check to Lloyd Lake – can probably help his Trojans now.