USC faces tough hurdle in its NCAA appeal Saturday

Arriving in Indiana on Friday, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden and university President Max Nikias were greeted by snow on the ground, icy roads and single-digit temperatures.

“It’s a beautiful day in Indianapolis,” Haden said.

Haden, Nikias and USC’s contingent hope for a warmer reception Saturday when USC sits before the NCAA’s Infractions Appeals Committee.

USC faces a difficult mission: persuade the five-member panel to reduce by half the severest penalties that were handed down in June by the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, which cited USC for a lack of institutional control.


USC has accepted four years of probation, the vacating of 14 football victories during the 2004 and 2005 seasons and the banishment of former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

But Haden and the school’s legal representatives will argue that a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years is excessive. The school is seeking to have the bowl ban reduced to one year, already served in 2010, and to have the scholarships reduction limited to five a year over three years.

USC has undergone a significant shift in personnel since the NCAA completed its four-year investigation of the school’s athletic program.

Former coach Pete Carroll was replaced by Lane Kiffin after Carroll left to become coach of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks last January. Todd McNair, a running backs coach who was cited by the NCAA for unethical conduct, is no longer part of the Trojans staff. (McNair is awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on his own appeal). In August, Nikias succeeded Steven Sample and installed Haden in place of Mike Garrett. USC also has beefed up its compliance effort, hiring David Roberts as a university vice president for athletic compliance and assembling a staff that is among the nation’s largest.

While the changes could mollify the NCAA, they are not part of the appeal.

“There can’t be any new information specific to the case entered into the process,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

In the last few weeks, Haden has repeatedly said he was not optimistic about USC’s chances of winning the appeal.

And for good reason.

For USC to gain its desired relief, it must convince the appeals committee that the penalties were so excessive as to constitute what the NCAA defines as an “abuse of discretion.”

Since January 2008, when the NCAA changed a bylaw that forces schools to prove abuse of discretion, only one in 11 appeals has been successful.

Florida-based attorney Michael Buckner, a USC graduate who is not part of USC’s legal team, represented Alabama State in the one successful appeal since the bylaw changed. He said the odds are stacked against his alma mater.

“Since the Alabama State case, the Committee on Infractions has been crafting their opinions to make sure they are kind of appellate-proof,” Buckner said. “It makes lawyers’ jobs a whole lot harder.”

USC is expected to argue that the penalties imposed against the Trojans were perhaps second only to the NCAA’s suspension of Southern Methodist’s football program in the mid-1980s.

USC also will probably point to a case involving Alabama, which was penalized in 2002 after the NCAA determined that boosters had paid players and a high school coach. Among the penalties: the loss of 21 scholarships over three seasons.

It is unclear if, or how, USC might reference more recent controversial decisions.

Last month, the NCAA restored Auburn quarterback Cam Newton’s eligibility despite determining that his father violated NCAA rules by participating in a pay-for-play scheme that was presented to Mississippi State when his son was being recruited from a junior college. Newton won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to the Bowl Championship Series title. Newton has since declared for the NFL draft.

Three weeks after the Auburn decision, the NCAA announced that five of six Ohio State football players who violated preferential-treatment bylaws would be suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. All, however, were allowed to participate in the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas.

But unlike the USC case, a major infractions investigation that resulted in Bush being ruled retroactively ineligible because he received cash and gifts from would-be sports marketers, the situations at Auburn and Ohio State were handled by the NCAA’s student-athlete reinstatement staff.

“Reinstatement decisions are independent of the NCAA enforcement process and typically are made once the facts of the student-athlete’s involvement are determined,” Osburn said. “The reinstatement process is likely to conclude prior to the close of any investigation.”

USC probably won’t learn its fate for at least a month because the appeals committee typically renders a decision four to six weeks after a hearing.

That could be problematic for Kiffin, who is putting together a recruiting class without knowing exactly how many scholarships he has to offer. With NCAA penalties stayed while on appeal, Kiffin appears to be moving toward signing 20 players. High school players can begin signing letters of intent Feb. 2.

“Whatever happens, happens,” Kiffin said of the appeal. “We’re making the best of whatever situation we’re dealt.”