June 10, 2010
Usually, the NCAA is the kind of organization that would spend four years compiling the definitive version of one of the most controversial stories in the history of the sport, and then bring it to the most tepid, anticlimactic conclusion it could possibly muster. You can be forgiven if you half expected it to deliver the "Star Wars: Episode I" of college football scandal. But its staggering report Thursday on dozens of rules violations during Reggie Bush's career at Southern Cal is the exact opposite of that.
The 67-page report is far too sprawling to effectively summarize in one place without, you know, writing 67 pages, but very much worth reading in full. As the epic college football scandal of the last decade, it does not disappoint, and won't be forgotten by anyone – least of all college compliance departments – anytime soon. USC is body-slammed harder than any program of the last 30 years, and as far as the NCAA record book is concerned, Reggie Bush no longer exists. Given the scale of the accusations and punishment, we may soon say the same about the Trojans' 2004 BCS championship and Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy.
In the meantime, here is your need-to-know:
Truth. The Infractions Committee report essentially corroborates in full Yahoo! Sports' initial report in 2006, the details of which are well-documented. Investigators found Bush agreed in 2004 to eventually become the anchor client of a fledgling sports agency run by two acquaintances, Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, at the behest of Bush's stepfather, LaMar Griffin. The agency agreed to work only in cash and leave Bush's name off of documents to avoid a paper trail.
Direct cash payments and gifts to Bush and his parents ran into the tens of thousands, including loans, airline tickets, hotel rooms, a "substantial payment" toward a black 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS (purchase price: $19,000, plus thousands of dollars worth of accessories) and months of rent-free living in a Spring Valley, Calif, home owned by Michaels. Michaels' sister admitted to supplying $30,000 in cash, sometimes directly into Bush's bank account.
Needless to say, "the general campus environment surrounding the violations troubled the committee." USC was found culpable for fostering an environment that allowed shady characters access to players and either hindered the job of an undermanned compliance staff or encouraged them to keep their distance from potential problems. In bureau-speak:
At least at the time of the football violations, there was relatively little effective monitoring of, among others, football locker rooms and sidelines, and there existed a general post-game locker room environment that made compliance efforts difficult.
These activities and others referred to during the hearing fostered an atmosphere in which student- athletes could feel entitled to special treatment and which almost certainly contributed to the difficulties of compliance staff in achieving a rules-compliant program.
Most damningly, running backs coach Todd McNair is specifically cited for not only having knowledge of likely NCAA violations, but for failing to report contact with the agency after speaking to Lake about the arrangement during an early morning phone call in January 2006 (in which Lake, incredibly, reportedly attempted to get McNair to persuade Bush to play ball with the agency or start paying back money). Later, the university is criticized for being slow to launch an investigation even after reporters began to shed light on the scheme. In keeping with the generally uncooperative nature from USC's end, McNair dug himself deeper by lying (in the committe's estimation) about having any knowledge of his star player's arrangement.
In other words, when compounded by the equally sleazy recruitment and quasi-employment of one-and-done basketball star O.J. Mayo in 2007-08, the dreaded conclusion of "lack of institutional control" seems like a fairly easy charge to prove.
Consequences. The hammer is clearly the heaviest the NCAA has levied since putting the kibosh on SMU's entire program in the mid-'80s. Most notably, that includes:
• Two-year postseason ban. No BCS championships, no Rose Bowls, no bowl games of any kind in 2010 or 2011.
• Vacation of all 2004-05 football wins. Fourteen wins wiped from the books beginning in December 2004, including 2004 BCS championship, the 55-19 win over Oklahoma to secure the title in the 2005 Orange Bowl and all 12 regular-season wins in 2005. (Note: "Vacated" is not "forfeited." USC can't count the victories, but they are not registered as victories for other teams. Sorry, Oklahoma.)
• Vacation of statistics and disassociation of Reggie Bush. Bush's stats for games in which he was ineligible (i.e. the entire 2004-05 seasons) will be wiped from the record. The school is forbidden from honoring or having any official contact with him. Officially, the former Heisman winner is a ghost.
• Scholarships reduced by 30 over three years. Ten fewer scholarships per year through the 2014 recruiting class.
• No outsiders allowed. The locker room shall be closed: "Prohibition of all non-university personnel, including boosters, from traveling on football and men's basketball charters; attending football and men's basketball team practices; attending or participating in any way with university football and men's basketball camps, including donation of funds; and having access to the sidelines and locker rooms for football and men's basketball games." This is targeted at agents, but likely also means no more practicing with Snoop Dogg, no more Will Ferrell skits at practice.
• Four years' probation. You're on eggshells, misters.
Fallout. In the first case, the NCAA is a pussycat no more. Throughout the '80s and 90s, bowl and television bans were standard, usually applying to multiple teams at any given time – off the top of my head, perennial powers Alabama, Auburn, Miami, Texas A&M and Washington were all kept home from bowl games from 1992-96 alone, potentially costing Auburn and A&M shots at national championships after undefeated regular seasons. The last time the NCAA dished out a bowl ban alongside significant scholarship reductions, though, was its "staring down the barrel of a gun" decision against Alabama in 2002, when the Tide were barred from the postseason for two years and docked 15 scholarships over three years as result of boosters run amok in the recruitment of Albert Means.
Since then, cases of improper payouts to players at Oklahoma, "widespread academic fraud" at Florida State and a widespread textbook scandal at Alabama have yielded symbolic wrist slaps in the form of vacated wins in games involving ineligible players – and, in Oklahoma's case, the wins were later restored on appeal.
All the while, the Bush case loomed as perhaps the most perfect storm of sleaze and entitlement in the history of amateur sports – if you had tried to sit down and write it, a narrative featuring a high-profile superstar on a championship team accepting unprecedented largesse over an extended period of time from agents would seem far too over-the-top to ever work as fiction, and that's not even considering the more blatant graft in the basketball offices.
Converting 25 consecutive wins in 2004-05 to losses in the official record certainly wounds the Trojans' pride by striking a pair of Pac-10 championships (and possibly the 2004 BCS championship; see below) from the record. But at the end of the day, asterisks do not erase reality: Everyone remembers what the score was. If the NCAA couldn't see fit to enact serious, tangible consequences in this case, it would basically cede its prerogative to do so in almost any case short of another SMU is an effective deterrent.
Obviously, the conclusion is less cut and dry if you cast it in terms of individuals rather than in terms of the entire program. The players actually affected by the bowl and championship bans were in middle school (or younger) when the scandal actually went down. There's a high probability the juniors and seniors will be granted waivers to transfer to another school without sitting out a year, as they'd usually have to. Younger players may decide to transfer, anyway, or decide to play through it until their postseason and championship privileges are restored as upperclassmen.
In the meantime, we know these things for certain about USC football in the immediate future: No national championships. No Pac-10 championships. No Rose Bowls. Almost certainly no more top-ranked recruiting classes in the foreseeable future. On top of a new, unproven coach taking over a team off its worst season in almost a decade, this is the textbook example of what a dynasty looks like as it crumbles. If that's somehow not the case, and Lane Kiffin keeps the team on elite footing throughout the probation period – or simply manages to survive the storm and return it there shortly after – he will deserve an enormous amount of credit. Otherwise, he will be the West Coast version of Mike Shula.
Now: Bring on the appeals.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.