USC fans, blame USC

Fight arrogantly. Fight recklessly. Fight wrong.

As suspected, the only thing that could truly stop Los Angeles’ most powerful football program was its own heady belief in that power. It was no surprise, then, that the USC football dynasty has been whittled to dust by the only opponent equally big and just as bold.

They were whacked by their ego. They were steamrolled by their self-importance. They were sanctioned by themselves.

The NCAA didn’t barge through the Heritage Hall doors Thursday, it was invited inside by a Trojans football program that cultivated a daringly headstrong culture permeating everything from the Coliseum field to the coaches’ offices.

The two-year bowl suspension, the 30 lost scholarships, the 14 vacated wins, the possibly forfeited national championship and Heisman Trophy, this giant of defeats was created by the same Trojans attitude that once caused them to lose in little places like Corvallis and Eugene.

We don’t care if you know what we’re doing. You still can’t stop us.

Pete Carroll thought nobody could stop him, and it will cost him a legacy. Mike Garrett was certain nobody could stop them, and it will cost him a graceful retirement. Many of the school’s powerful alumni lived vicariously through this attitude — you should have seen my e-mail every time I questioned Carroll’s swagger — and it will cost them several years of meaningful Saturdays.

For most of the last decade, this mind-set worked on the field, certainly, creating some of the greatest football memories in this city’s history, the Trojans collecting two national titles, three Heisman Trophy winners, seven consecutive Pac-10 championships and seven consecutive BCS bowl appearances.

But today Trojans fans must ask themselves whether nine years of greatness will be worth the upcoming four or five years of struggle. Today Trojans fans must take account not only of the 97 wins and 19 losses, but the state of their program’s soul.

A player was paid and nobody stopped it. An illegal coach was hired and nobody cared. Reports of all this surfaced, time and again, website investigations and newspaper headlines, for months and months, and yet nobody at USC did anything to fix it.

Well, now, the NCAA has fixed it, but good, and the prevailing thought is, this did not have to happen. The Trojans could have stopped this at every stealthy step. They could have rid themselves of Reggie Bush the moment running backs coach Todd McNair learned of his financial involvement with agents. They could have fired special teams advisor Pete Rodriguez the moment it was discovered Carroll had foolishly broken the rules by hiring him.

They could have won games without Bush. His backfield mate LenDale White was an eventual second-round draft pick. They certainly could have won games without Rodriguez. Carroll was willing to risk his integrity with a guy who coaches the kicking?

But, no, simply competing was never enough for these Trojans. They had to follow Carroll’s motto by always competing, everywhere, in everything, even if that meant cheating.

Even when Trojans realized they had been caught, their conceit didn’t allow them to back down. There is a feeling the football team could have avoided such harsh punishment if only the athletic department had punished it first, as it did with the basketball team, that program serving a self-imposed, one-year postseason suspension last winter.

When basketball’s probation was also announced Thursday, everyone shrugged, because the violations had already been aired and the suspension already served. But Garrett chose to fight for the football team to the bitter, burning end. So today it is the football program that is in ashes, and it is its leaders on the embers.

Carroll takes the biggest hit. In the blink of Bush’s eye black, he goes from Bear Bryant to John Calipari. He goes from a coach who presided over the greatest days in USC football history to one who was in charge of its biggest embarrassment. He goes from saint to scallywag.

Carroll says he didn’t know about the Bush violations. That now seems impossible, given that apparently everyone from here to San Diego knew, including Carroll’s loyal running backs coach McNair.

I will forever believe he went to Seattle because of the money and opportunity, because Carroll never thought the NCAA could nail the Trojans. Nonetheless, he made $33 million from violations that will cost his old school its reputation, and folks here will never look at him the same.

Garrett takes the other big hit. Throughout the 67-page NCAA report, there are examples where USC either looked the other way or just didn’t care. Garrett’s football arrogance fostered this culture of indifference, and it is impossible to imagine the environment changing while the boss is still in place. With his protector Steve Sample gone, can Garrett be far behind?

The other notable people hurt here are the current Trojans, and folks will be asking, is it fair to punish them for the sins of others? Of course not. But how about the other teams who suffered from USC’s cheating? All those amateur knees that buckled when trying to tackle a well-compensated Bush, was that fair to them?

The only thing certain here is, Fight On has become Fight Interrupted, and only time, and the willingness of USC to learn from its mistakes, will tell whether it is Fight Done.