USC football Coach Pete Carroll employed a former NFL tactician last season to help with the team's punting and kicking game, an arrangement that may have violated NCAA rules that prohibit consultants from coaching, The Times has learned.
Carroll's action could widen a continuing investigation by the NCAA, the governing body of major college sports, which has been looking at USC football for more than three years and the school's basketball program for the last year. The probe has been examining specific allegations of improper payments to two players as well as the broader question of whether USC has lost "institutional control" of its athletics department.
The new issue involves the employment of Pete Rodriguez, who has coached for several professional franchises. In an interview with The Times, he acknowledged that he attended USC practices, monitored games and offered Carroll behind-the-scenes advice on matters ranging from the needs of individual players to avoiding penalties during punt returns.
"I would watch practice and tell Pete, 'Hey, this guy needs this and this,' " Rodriguez said. He said he believed that his work complied with National Collegiate Athletic Assn. regulations that cap the number of coaches a team can have and that restrict consultants.
But experts contacted by The Times said the type of assistance that Rodriguez described could constitute a serious violation.
"That's coaching," said J. Brent Clark, a onetime NCAA investigator who practices law in Oklahoma, when told of Rodriguez's statements.
"The rules are designed to level the playing field for all institutions regardless of the size of their budgets. It would make no sense for the rich and powerful to be able to compensate coaches with NFL backgrounds outside the coaching-limitation rules."
James Grant, USC's media relations director, issued a brief statement Wednesday in response to questions from The Times.
"We are aware of this issue and are looking into the matter. We will have no further comment at this time," the statement said.
A spokesman for Carroll and USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett said both were on vacation and unavailable.
There has been no indication to date that the NCAA's investigation has touched on the use of consultants. But Rodriguez's employment could change that, said Clark and others familiar with NCAA procedures, several of whom spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of damaging their relations with USC or Carroll.
An NCAA spokeswoman declined to answer questions about USC.
If USC is found to have lost institutional control of athletics, the NCAA could levy severe penalties on the school, including a ban on post-season play and television appearances that generate millions of dollars in revenue.
Any probe involving Carroll takes on particular importance because his sustained success has made him enormously popular and influential at USC and one of the most recognizable figures in sports. The Trojans won national championships in 2003 and 2004.
Now in his ninth year as coach, Carroll has sought to remain above the NCAA probe, which is centered on allegations of illicit payments involving former football star Reggie Bush as well as ex-basketball standout O.J. Mayo and his former coach, Tim Floyd.
Carroll had tapped at least one NFL-pedigree coach before Rodriguez. Early in his tenure, Carroll brought in NFL journeyman coach Alex Gibbs to help the Trojan staff.
During the off-season, Gibbs met with coaches and analyzed game videos, according to a source familiar with Trojan football operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was concerned about alienating USC.
Gibbs, now an assistant head coach for the Houston Texans, did not respond to interview requests.
NCAA bylaws bar consultants from participating "in any on- or off-field or on- or off-court coaching activities," unless they are counted against a team's coaching limits. The rules specifically forbid consultants from "attending practices and meetings involving coaching activities, formulating game plans [and] analyzing video involving the institution's or opponent's team."
The bylaws say teams may retain temporary consultants "to provide in-service training for the coaching staff, but no interaction with student-athletes is permitted."
The rules limit teams in USC's division to nine assistant coaches and two graduate assistants. Last season, Carroll decided not to assign an assistant coach full time to special-teams duty, overseeing the punting and kicking squads.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who specializes in sports economics, said he was "not surprised" that Carroll turned to Rodriguez, given the pressure on big-time football programs to get a leg up on the competition.
"Whenever you impose a rule that says you can't do what you want to do, that the marketplace can't do its magic, somebody finds a way to twist it or get around it," he said. "I'm sure that the infractions committee at the NCAA will look at it."
In the telephone interview, Rodriguez said, "I didn't coach the players at all. . . . The players knew who I was because I'd show up for practice now and then. They'd say, 'Hi.' "
Rodriguez said he did not analyze videotapes of contests, but "basically watched all the games."
He said Carroll "knew what I could do and what I couldn't do. He said, 'We have to be very careful.' I was allowed to be able to talk to Pete. I gave him my thoughts.
"I gave them some thoughts on how to avoid penalties. Just simple, basic football."
Clark said Rodriguez's mere presence at practices could have given USC another potentially unfair advantage -- boosting the school's reputation as a gateway to the NFL, a key selling point in recruiting and retaining top talent.
"It said, 'Hey, look what you get when you come to USC -- you get access to the NFL,' " he said.
Rodriguez recently signed on as special teams coach for the New York franchise of the start-up United Football League. His NFL employers have included the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins.
The biography posted on the UFL's website does not mention Rodriguez's USC stint. Rodriguez described his work for Carroll as something that did not require many hours.
But another source familiar with the situation said that Rodriguez, who lives in San Diego County, turned down a job with the University of San Diego because of his arrangement with USC.
In the interview, Rodriguez initially denied that he had any contact with the University of San Diego, but later said he remembered an overture but had never formally been offered a job.
University of San Diego Coach Ron Caragher declined to comment about Rodriguez's statement, saying it was his policy not to discuss interviews with coaching candidates.
For the upcoming season, USC has hired a full-time special teams coach, Brian Schneider, who held that position with the Oakland Raiders.
"We've worked for years to create the opportunity to have a special teams coordinator," Carroll said in a January statement on Schneider's arrival.
Rodriguez said he had not been interested in joining USC full time and had offered no input in Schneider's selection.