Trojans are playing with fire

Once again, amid the kindling that has become the USC football program, “Fight On” is being drowned out by two other sounds.

Cough, cough.

More smoke here, strange smoke, scary smoke, stupid smoke, adding to a cloud that ensures the NCAA will keep looking for that illegal burn.

Just some kid driving his girlfriend’s car.

Just another silly ember that could have been doused with a little more prudence and a little less arrogance.

Is it really that hard to monitor some kid driving his girlfriend’s car?

Is there really an athletic department over there, or just Pete Carroll coaching football and a bunch of people looking the other way?

Here’s the story, so typical, so avoidable.

Joe McKnight, the Trojans’ star running back, is seen driving a black 2006 Land Rover owned by some sports-nut businessman.

The guy, Scott Schenter, says he bought it for McKnight’s girlfriend, who he says is an employee and longtime family friend.

Schenter has a history doing business on the periphery of sports, and even once registered the website name, but he has no documented association with McKnight or the university.

An innocent relationship, perhaps, but then the story gets weird.

First red flag: When asked about the car, McKnight lies and claims he didn’t drive it, even though he has been seen driving it regularly.

Why would you lie about driving a car if you didn’t think you were breaking NCAA rules?

Second red flag: When asked about the car, Schenter refuses to respond to a flurry of e-mailed questions, then issues a statement only after The Times’ initial story appears Saturday.

Schenter writes that his answers were delayed because he’s in South Africa and the Internet is “expensive” there.

You spend $27,000 for a Land Rover for some employee, yet you can’t afford the hookup at the Fairfield Inn Johannesburg?

It’s all knucklehead stuff, embarrassing stuff, but it does make one thing official.

The USC football program now leads the nation in recklessness.

The sophisticated, NFL-like Trojans are experts on what they do, but appear clueless on who they are.

Heisman Trophy winner’s family home? No idea. Star receiver’s rent? What? Star running back’s car? Who?

C’mon now. It’s one thing to evade those gumshoes at the NCAA, it’s another thing to insult them.

At some point, despite USC’s money and power and prestige, the collegiate police are going to cuff them out of spite.

I mean, whom do the Trojans think they are kidding?

Did they really think that one of their most celebrated players could drive a car owned by a potential agent or manager and nobody would notice?

The most damning part of The Times story is the Land Rover parked outside the Trojans’ practice field with the emergency lights flashing while McKnight socialized with his teammates and coaches before jumping in the car and driving away.

Is there nobody at USC who would see this and wonder why this kid with no job from an economically disadvantaged background would be driving such a nice vehicle?

Oh, wait, that’s right, in keeping with regulations, McKnight apparently registered the car with the university before the season. McKnight lied about it in a Times interview, saying it wasn’t registered, but officials later said it was.

Fine. Didn’t any of those officials read the name of the car’s owner and wonder about the connection?

Even if the connection is completely innocent, one would think that somebody over there would understand that looks are everything in a town built on perception.

Joe, we understand it’s your girlfriend’s car. But nobody else will. So stop driving it.

For the USC program to be brought down because of a kid illegally driving a car is as tired and cliché as a bank being robbed because of a sleeping guard.

The issue is not with the car, but the caretakers, and so on Saturday I called Pete Carroll.

“You know I’m not supposed to say anything,” he said.

The sound of his voice told it all. He’s weary and frustrated with this stuff, but, as I’ve written here, there’s an easy way to fix it.

Pay more attention to it. Go overboard in monitoring it. Understand that your legacy here will be affected by it.

And don’t dare use the excuse that it’s 80 young men and it’s Los Angeles and it’s impossible to know everything. This excuse once got Bob Toledo fired from UCLA. Coaches are paid big money to know all their players, especially their best ones.

Players who, in many cases, do not care about anything but themselves and their NFL future.

Reggie Bush embarrassed the university, then ran off to collect millions

McKnight, Bush’s anointed successor, has now also embarrassed the university, which means he undoubtedly will run off this summer to collect his own riches.

USC is once again left with all this smoke, and the real fear that one day soon, the smallest of flames will be discovered and the entire foundation will eventually crumble.

Even if it’s just some kid driving his girlfriend’s car.