Citing a history of misdeeds by an out-of-control athletic department, the governing body for college sports hit USC with a string of penalties Thursday that will keep the powerhouse Trojans football team out of bowl games for the next two seasons and could cost the university millions of dollars.
The sanctions culminated a four-year investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. prompted by separate reports that two star athletes — Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball guard O.J. Mayo — had accepted improper gifts from outside sports marketers and agents.
The NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which also penalized the men's basketball and women's tennis teams, cited USC for a lack of institutional control, extra benefits and unethical conduct by an assistant football coach, among other issues.
"The general campus environment surrounding the violations troubled the committee," the NCAA's public report said.
Mike Garrett, himself a former Heisman-winning tailback who now oversees the university's athletic department, walked past reporters outside his office saying he had no comment. Later, USC senior vice president Todd Dickey announced that the school would file an appeal with the NCAA.
"We acknowledge that violations occurred and we take full responsibility for them," Dickey said. But, he added, "we feel the penalties imposed are too severe." University President Steven B. Sample also called the punishment "excessive" in a letter addressed to "Members of the Trojan family" that was posted on the school's athletic website.
In addition to the postseason ban, the football program will lose 10 scholarships a season for three seasons. The Trojans additionally must vacate their final two victories from the 2004 season — which could jeopardize its national championship — and all 12 of their wins from the 2005 campaign.
Also in peril is the football team's highly regarded new wave of recruits. Incoming freshmen would have to ask to be released from their scholarship by the school in order to transfer without penalty. The program also already has nonbinding verbal commitments from top players who will be high school seniors next fall, and those recruits, experts predicted, would probably wait to see how the appeal progresses.
First-year football Coach Lane Kiffin said he expected players would still flock to USC and promised that the Trojans would "continue to play championship football" and "recruit the best players in America to come here."
USC had already imposed its own sanctions on the basketball team, agreeing to a one-year postseason ban as well as scholarship and recruiting restrictions. The school will return $206,200 from its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008.
Equally significant, the athletic program was placed on four years' probation, which could lead to harsher penalties if the NCAA discovers subsequent rule-breaking by any USC teams.
Mike Glazier, a Kansas attorney who represents schools accused of NCAA violations, said an appeal could be tricky: "I think it would be a pretty big uphill battle for them to be successful."
Bush and Mayo have repeatedly stated they did nothing wrong.
Bush, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, issued a statement Thursday saying he had "great love" for USC and felt "much regret" about "the turn this matter has taken." He added that he would "continue to cooperate with the NCAA and USC," though investigators indicated that he had not fully cooperated in the past.
Any penalties against the football program could affect other sports at the school, if only because football is the athletic department's cash cow, generating more than $76 million in 2007-08, the most recent season for which figures were available.
Some of the luster that USC has acquired over recent years could be lost, too.
That 2004 season championship could be revoked by way of a provision the Bowl Championship Series quietly enacted several years ago. BCS officials said they would meet shortly to discuss the matter.
Bush's status as the 2005 Heisman winner also could be in jeopardy if the Heisman Trophy Trust, which declined to comment, decides to take action.
Thursday's ruling certainly damages the reputation of the Pacific 10 Conference, which is in the midst of an ambitious expansion. Colorado agreed to join the Pac-10 on Thursday, and other high-profile schools, including Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, could follow.
Though UCLA fans quickly filled Internet chat rooms to discuss the penalties — most, no surprise, were in favor — the official response from USC's cross-town rival was muted.
"It is certainly newsworthy," football Coach Rick Neuheisel said of the sanctions, declining further comment.
Another celebrated football program, Alabama, received similar penalties in 2002, when Crimson Tide boosters were found to be paying players. The program received five years' probation, a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 21 scholarships over three seasons.
In USC's case, the committee said it also seriously considered imposing a television ban, which would have cost the university millions of dollars more.
The football violations occurred during former Coach Pete Carroll's tenure and centered on Bush, a star for the Trojans from 2003 to 2005.
The former tailback was ruled retroactively ineligible from December 2004 on for taking cash and gifts from a pair of would-be sports marketers who hoped to represent him after he turned professional. Bush's family also lived in a home owned by one of the marketers without paying rent.
The NCAA said that in January 2006, the marketers contacted a USC assistant to complain that Bush was not living up to the deal they had made with him. Investigators said the assistant — known to be running backs coach Todd McNair — failed to alert USC compliance officials of the situation and later provided "false and misleading information" to the NCAA.
Carroll, now the coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, noted Thursday in a video statement that he had taken part in depositions and also attended the NCAA hearing, yet he "never thought there were any facts that supported significant sanctions."
"The university didn't know," Carroll said, referring to Bush's family situation. "We didn't know." He added that "the facts don't match the decision."
The football program was also cited for breaking rules by having a hired consultant act as an assistant coach.
The violations in basketball occurred before and during Mayo's one season with the Trojans, in 2007-08, when Tim Floyd coached the team.
The NCAA said that from August 2006 through May 2008, Mayo and people close to him took cash, lodging, transportation, a cellphone, a television, watches, shoes and clothing from a representative of a Northern California agent.
As part of the sanctions, the NCAA ordered USC to disassociate itself with Bush, Mayo and Rodney Guillory — the agent's representative — who were described but not named in the report.
Investigators also found that women's tennis player Gabriela Niculescu used an athletic department long-distance access code to make 123 unauthorized international calls to family members, for a total cost of $7,000.
Niculescu and other major figures in this scandal have long since left Southern California.
Mayo plays for the Memphis Grizzlies of the NBA. Carroll departed in January to become the Seahawks' coach, and Floyd resigned in June 2009, later citing a lack of support from Garrett. He worked as an assistant for the NBA's New Orleans Hornets before the University of Texas-El Paso hired him as head coach in March.
Last year, officials combined the Bush and Mayo investigations. Next came a February meeting of the infractions committee, attended by a USC contingent that included Garrett, Carroll, Sample and McNair.
The closed-door hearing in a hotel ballroom lasted three days, the longest such NCAA proceeding in at least a decade.
"This case was very complicated, with multiple, multiple allegations," said Paul Dee, the infractions committee chairman. "It was not a case that lent itself to being resolved in a short amount of time."
This is the sixth time the NCAA has sanctioned USC dating back to 1957. Only 10 major college programs have been penalized more often since the organization started keeping track in 1953.
The sanctions announced Thursday did not address other recent incidents.
In June 2006, the NCAA suspended football receiver Dwayne Jarrett because he had paid substantially less than half the rent on an apartment he shared with quarterback Matt Leinart. Jarrett was reinstated after agreeing to pay $5,352 to a charity of his choice.
Last December, after an inquiry by The Times, USC opened an investigation into tailback Joe McKnight's use of a 2006 Land Rover owned by a Santa Monica businessman. McKnight was held out of USC's Emerald Bowl victory over Boston College and later made himself available for the NFL draft.
Even without these incidents, the NCAA levied penalties that left football players with no hope for a much-coveted bowl game in the near future.
"We're still going to have our whole entire season," middle linebacker Chris Galippo said. "It's a bummer, that's all it is."
Times staff writers Chris Foster and Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.