By the middle of January, Pat Ruel had reached a boiling point. The offensive line coach -- normally an affable guy -- stepped out of the USC football offices and, scanning the lobby below, counted more than a dozen unfamiliar faces.
“I know what cockroaches look like,” he said. “And I know what agents look like.”
Some of the biggest names in the sports agent business had been hanging around Heritage Hall. Leigh Steinberg leaning against a counter near the trophy cases. Associates of David Dunn huddling beside a row of retired jerseys. Others milling about, whispering into cellphones.
Though the Trojans had lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl, they ranked head and shoulders above any other college program in terms of players who might be part of the NFL draft and garner big contracts. The 15 or more prospects included two Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush. Steinberg called it a “perfect storm.”
“It really was the most stunning aggregate of offensive talent for one team, one draft ... possibly ever,” he said. “Agents were flocking to the USC campus by planes, trains and automobiles.”
The feeding frenzy was complicated by the fact that several players -- Bush and fellow tailback LenDale White, a few linemen, safety Darnell Bing -- were non-seniors eligible to leave school early for the NFL draft. The coaching staff worried they might be swayed by agents approaching them on campus, calling and sending e-mails.
Coach Pete Carroll grumbled about his younger guys falling prey to unrealistic talk of high draft positions and multimillion-dollar signing bonuses.
Finally, Ruel could tolerate no more. Hustling downstairs, he held open a door.
“All agents get the hell out of Heritage Hall,” he said. “Get out of here.”
When agents return for the start of USC training camp a week from today -- perhaps drawn by preseason All-Americans Dwayne Jarrett and Sam Baker -- there might be leftover hostility. They probably will run into a team assistant at the gate trying to limit the crowd to family and fans.
This strategy did not always work last season. A number of agents, including Chuck Price, who eventually signed Leinart, walked in at least once; marketing agent Mike Ornstein, who now represents Bush, attended several times.
“If you’ve ever been to an SC practice, it’s nuts,” Ornstein said. “Four or five hundred people there.”
Still, no players recalled being contacted on the field. Instead, they were approached on the walk back to the locker room or on campus, strangers handing them business cards. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson could not believe it when messages appeared on his personal web page at Facebook.com.
“People say, ‘Hey, I’m such-and-such and I work for such-and-such and they want to give you a call,’ ” said Jackson, a redshirt junior who stayed in school. “That’s the biggest thing going on.”
Players received unsolicited calls and text messages on their cellphones and agents got hold of fullback Brandon Hancock’s e-mail address.
“You have to be careful because some of these guys try to offer you stuff,” Hancock said.
Dinner and drinks. Tickets to shows.
“You’ve just got to be very attuned to it and aware of it,” he said. “Coach has done a good job of educating us on the rules.”
First contact is often made by ground-level minions known as “runners.” Several agents spoke anonymously with The Times about this subject, prefacing their comments with something such as, “I’ve never used runners myself, but this is how they work....”
Sometimes, an agent will hand a young associate a company credit card with orders to hang around campus, try to cozy up to players. Other times, agents hire someone already acquainted with the athlete, a friend or relative. Team managers -- students who shuttle equipment and help at practice -- are favorite candidates, though none of the more than two dozen players, parents, coaches and agents interviewed for this story said that occurred at USC.
The dynamic is common enough that agents get calls from people who know high-profile athletes and want to sell their personal connection. Runners accept a flat fee or, more often, ask for a percentage of the agent’s cut.
“It could be ... a kid who fits into the student body,” an agent said. “When you see a runner with a kid, he could be a kid’s cousin. If you get an agent walking around, it’s a whole different deal.”
The situation at USC was an amplification of what occurs at any big-time program. As John Mackovic, a former coach at Texas and Arizona, explained: “The better the players, the more unscrupulous the agents.” And if they cannot get at the athletes, he added, “they go straight to the parents.”
Bush’s family has come under investigation by Pacific 10 Conference and NCAA officials who want to know if they received improper benefits from a fledgling marketing company while their son was playing for USC. Bush has repeatedly said his family did nothing wrong.
Whatever happened -- investigators are still untangling the facts -- no one disputes that several agents were scrambling to sign Bush, a player many figured to be the top pick in the draft.
It was the first Sunday in April, and though football season had ended months earlier, the scene at USC was hectic.
More than 100 NFL coaches, scouts and executives prowled the Cromwell Field track, more than 1,000 spectators filled the stands, and firemen stood atop a pumper outside the fence, straining to see. All wanted a closer look at Bush, Leinart and the other draft-eligible Trojans.
Most college prospects display their skills -- running, jumping, lifting weights -- at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis each February. USC is among the bigger college programs that hold “pro days,” inviting scouts to evaluate players on campus.
Along with NFL types and fans, it was no surprise that agents showed up to encourage their clients and peruse any unsigned talent.
“It was a three-ring circus,” Ornstein recalled.
The commotion was partly Carroll’s doing. He not only scheduled the event on a weekend, opening it to the public, but also invited top high school players and their families. The idea was to give potential recruits a taste of where they might be in a few years.
“Show them what it’s like,” Carroll said. “This is part of our program.”
Before the workouts, word spread that Carroll wanted agents to gather in an auditorium inside Heritage Hall. There, he gave a speech that, according to various accounts, fell somewhere between a stern warning and a tongue-lashing.
“There was a really sensitive rule they needed to be aware of, that they couldn’t make contact with the high school kids,” Carroll said. “That was the point of the meeting, that we could get in big trouble, and I just made it really clear.”
Steinberg suggests the coach was “attempting to make a dramatic statement.” Ornstein, also in attendance, said: “There are a lot of unscrupulous agents and half of them were in that room. I think he was trying to get a point across and I think he did that.”
Other agents took offense.
“There were a lot of expletives along the way,” Price said. “Basically, it was ‘If you do something to hurt me, I will hurt you. So let this be clear. If you want a friendship with USC and me, you will follow these rules.’ ”
While the coach insists he gets along with most agents, he vehemently opposes NCAA rules that allow agents to speak with athletes still playing in college.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to talk to them until [the players] have finished their eligibility,” Carroll said. “Until they’re no longer a part of the university.”
Some question this vehemence. Agents mention that several seasons ago Carroll’s good friend, Pat Kirwan, an NFL.com columnist, reportedly earned a large payment for steering former Trojans quarterback Carson Palmer to agent Dunn.
Both Carroll and Palmer’s father, Bill, say the player sought Kirwan’s advice. Kirwan declined to comment beyond saying: “I’m not doing that anymore.”
Yet critics further suggest Carroll tempts trouble by holding open practices. And they wonder why he invited high school athletes to pro day when he knew agents would be there.
Carroll said he prefers to deal openly with the situation and have everyone act accordingly. He does not believe closed practices would help.
“The meetings [with agents] don’t happen on the practice field,” he said. “They’re happening off-campus, happening on cellphones. These guys are cunning.”
As for mixing agents and potential recruits at pro day, he said: “Once everyone understood the ground rules, it worked beautifully.”
The competition for Bush had begun well before pro day, even before the 2005 season. Last summer, Bush landed an internship in the San Fernando Valley but he wasn’t looking forward to the commute. A couple of teammates -- receiver Chris McFoy and punter Tom Malone -- suggested an alternative.
McFoy and Malone worked at Ornstein’s office in Santa Monica as part of an internship program that included UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis.
The NCAA allows athletes to work, even for agents, so long as the salary is commensurate with the going rate. After Ornstein filed the required papers with USC’s compliance office, players said they worked 20 hours a week at $8 an hour.
Bush liked the idea of learning from a man well-known in football circles, a former executive for the Raiders and NFL who counted Trojans alumni including Marcus Allen and Ronnie Lott as friends. One of Bush’s first assignments was to help Allen with a scheduled trip.
Allen “kind of cracked up about it, that I was calling him to do that,” Bush said. “We kind of laughed.”
But Ornstein has another side to his background. He can be alternately personable and combative, once punching a fellow Raiders executive at training camp. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for his role in a scheme to defraud the NFL. A federal judge sentenced him to five years of probation, four months of home confinement and ordered him to pay $160,000 in restitution plus fines.
Nevertheless, Ornstein quickly became the front-runner to handle Bush’s marketing affairs. Picking an agent would be trickier.
“It was clear to me during the season that the kid was under siege and no one at USC was looking after him,” Ornstein said. “The parents called and asked, ‘Can you help?’ ”
Bush, his stepfather and cousin Jayice Pearson, a former NFL cornerback, interviewed seven agents at Ornstein’s office during December and narrowed the candidates to a short list that included Steinberg and Joel Segal.
According to several agents involved, Bush then accepted Carroll’s offer to help any player considering the draft. A new round of interviews was scheduled with a revised list. At least one agent, Ben Dogra, said he was invited by Carroll.
Carroll said he contacted only those agents Bush wanted to meet. “I don’t tell them what to do,” the coach said of his players.
However, when the new finalists arrived at Heritage Hall, Carroll did suggest they reveal any trouble in their background.
In the 1990s, the NFL Players Assn. suspended Segal for a year because he used an assumed name to pass money to a Florida State player. Dunn, another candidate, had been through a messy lawsuit with Steinberg that left him facing an NFLPA suspension. Neither Segal nor Dunn commented for this story.
In mid-January, Bush chose the agents who had been considered favorites from early on, Ornstein and Segal. A few months later, that choice was questioned after he famously slipped to No. 2 in the draft. North Carolina State defensive lineman Mario Williams, represented by Dogra, went first.
Pat Ruel makes no effort to conceal his resentment. He recalls an incident after practice last season when he came upon senior lineman Taitusi “Deuce” Lutui in a conversation with a visitor.
“Deuce, do you mind if I interrupt for a second?” Ruel asked.
The other man interjected: “I’m a good friend of Deuce’s.”
“OK, good friend,” Ruel said. “What do you do?”
“I’m a lawyer.”
“No, you’re an agent. Get out of here.”
After the man left, Lutui turned to Ruel and said: “Coach, I can’t believe he said he was a good friend. I just met him a minute ago.”
Everyone expected Bush to leave school, but the USC staff remains upset about losing some of the other juniors. White and offensive tackle Winston Justice were taken in the second round, safety Bing in the fourth, and offensive guard Fred Matua in the seventh. The coaches believe all could have benefited from another season and gone higher in next year’s draft. They blame agents for giving bad advice.
“The kids are dreaming of playing in the NFL,” Carroll said. “The agents tell them, ‘I will help you.’ ”
Steinberg acknowledged the situation last fall put “incredible pressure” on the USC team. But he rejects the suggestion that all agents woo young players by overstating their draft prospects.
“My personal preference is that they stay in school and come into the draft at their highest-possible position,” he said.
A frustrated Carroll recently contacted the NFLPA, which certifies agents, and spoke to Executive Director Gene Upshaw about a rule change that would prohibit contact with college-eligible athletes.
“Start it after the season ends,” Carroll said. “Make it an all-even competition.”
At the very least, the coach can expect a break this fall. The Trojans do not have as much glitzy talent and, though agents will be watching Jarrett and others, no one foresees a repeat of last season.
“They may be extremely competitive on the field,” Steinberg said. “But as for the draft, the perfect storm has passed.”
Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.