“These Guys Were Stars”: The fall and rise of USC football

When you think about it, the University of Southern California’s downfall under NCAA sanctions makes some sense. After all, from its extensive coverage in national media to its players’ cardinal and gold uniforms, the program was flashy. What got them noticed most, though, was that they won, often spectacularly, and they didn’t apologize.

At times during the Pete Carroll years, USC football seemed to be as untouchable as Bill Belichick’s Patriots. They were a well-oiled machine that seemed to run on an endless supply of West Coast swagger, hubris and extremely talented players. As with many successful machines, though, someone eventually threw in a wrench.

Carroll was feted as a successful coach with a strikingly different style. Southern Cal produced well-known NFL players with a regularity few other schools could boast: alumni include Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets, and Carson Palmer, late of Cincinnati. It’s only natural that such a program attracted the best recruits, especially in a town where USC football was the best on-field product. Even the likes of Notre Dame and the University of Texas struggled to compete with the powerhouse teams of Carroll’s tenure for media coverage and prominence.

This was not a case like Southern Methodist University’s; USC’s transgressions, and they were indeed transgressions, were in what the University did not do (namely maintain institutional control over the football program, particularly in the case of payments to Heisman winner Reggie Bush). There was no massive conspiracy to pay players. USC deserved sanctions, most fans acknowledge, but the NCAA was perhaps more inclined to punish one of its high-flyers because of the very popularity it enjoyed.

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“USC always rubbed the NCAA the wrong way,” said Scott Enyeart, a reporter covering Trojans football for the USC Annenberg School of Journalism’s Neon Tommy website.

“There’s no pro team in LA. I think that’s contrary to the NCAA’s mission and that bothered them.”

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Enyeart, who has coached football at the Division I level at UNLV, said that the NCAA’s competing desires for revenue generation and upstanding athletes naturally come into conflict with one another, perhaps more at USC than anywhere else.

“They want you to be a water polo player from a humble background playing for the purity of the game,” Enyeart said. “College football has become a pro sport and they’re a heck of a lot more amateur at the University of Buffalo than they are at SC. These guys were stars.”

Enyeart admitted that any defense of USC is often met with skepticism at best. “The first response you usually get is ‘homer!'” he said. “But [no fans are] saying that nobody did anything wrong. What Reggie Bush did was wrong. The fallout is the issue.”

The fallout, with a majority of the Carroll era staff gone, was left for the fans. The NCAA’s sanctions included a two-year postseason ban, 30 lost scholarships over three years, a four-year probation period and vacated wins, including the 2005 national championship. Despite those heavy penalties, though, USC fans are not an easily deterred bunch.

Kate Rooney, senior editor at Neon Tommy, said the sanctions aren’t even all that noticeable any more.

“If I didn’t know it was going on, I couldn’t tell that [USC was under NCAA sanctions],” she said.”Everyone here has just accepted that the sanctions are a fact of life. The mood here is resigned to accepting what we’ve been dealt and hoping that other teams would face what we did for similar actions.”

It would seem that USC fans do not have long to wait to see if the NCAA will hold other programs to the same standard. The scandal brewing at Ohio State has already claimed Jim Tressel’s job and fundamentally altered the power dynamic in the Big Ten.

The University of Miami’s nascent scandal would also seem to offer the NCAA yet another opportunity to punish a prominent program, as would North Carolina’s ongoing controversy and its implications of academic fraud. As Enyeart said, the question is if the NCAA will come down on the Buckeyes, Hurricanes and Tar Heels the way they did on the Trojans.

“At Ohio State you’ve got Tressel committing violations to keep players there,” he said. “At Miami it’s essentially pay-for-play. At UNC, it’s an academic cheating scandal. At USC, the NCAA based the entire case on a convicted felon and a two-minute phone call. Comparing what happened at SC to what apparently happened at Miami, it’s like comparing stealing a pack of bubble gum to murder.”

USC fans, though, can take solace in the fact that the worst appears to be over. In head coach Lane Kiffin, the program has a USC man through and through guiding the program through its second year of bowl ineligibility – and, given Kiffin’s reputation, a convenient scapegoat for any failures.

Enyeart believes that Kiffin represents an ideal coach for USC.

“What he and his staff bring to the table is the ability to recruit and the familiarity with the program,” Enyeart said. “After the sanctions were handed down, I don’t know if there’s a better hire. In hindsight, it looks a lot better than it did at the time.”

Kiffin’s ability to recruit is legendary, though, it would seem, he will not need to do much convincing close to home. The Los Angeles football pipeline is awash with players who dream of one day donning the USC uniform. Rooney’s recent interviews with high school players in the LA area revealed that the prospect of being the big men on campus and in the city at large remains attractive to players.

“Matt Leinert gave a talk here last month and said that [attention] was the biggest change, going to the NFL,” she said. “You sort of get used to the attention here. It’s what kept him at USC.”

USC’s prospects to rise from the ashes of scandal have never seemed brighter. With success comes attention. With attention comes revenue. With revenue comes the pressure for success. With pressure to succeed, it is entirely possible that, a decade or so down the road, USC will see an even greater scandal take its football program to a new low. This is a cynical view, but it speaks to a larger problem.

It is at best disingenuous to suggest that USC, Ohio State, Miami and UNC are the only schools with compliance problems. There is immense pressure on D-I BCS schools to put out a nearly professional quality product. As long as that pressure to succeed, to generate revenue, exists it seems that there will always be manufactured outrage whenever a program decides it must succeed no matter the cost.

One simply wonders when the cycle of scandals will finally stop.

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