Tony Orlando may have had the best line on impending prison release: “I’m coming home, I’ve done my time.”
USC returns home Tuesday, and it’s a new dawn. Tie a yellow ribbon around the old Felix Chevrolet sign.
USC won’t forget what the NCAA so heavily handed down four years ago in June. In hindsight, the sentence did not fit the crime.
But while the scars won’t ever fade, it’s time to move the chains.
Yes, an NCAA tribunal set out to make an example of USC and even said so at sentencing: “High profile players demand high profile compliance.”
Yes, the NCAA opined that even if USC did not about know about violations involving Reggie Bush, it should have known.
The NCAA, it can be said now, made a mockery of the mess. Justice was not blind in the USC case — it had eagle-eye vision.
The infractions committee recklessly conflated USC football’s defiance, arrogance and lack of contrition into punishment points.
USC was saddled with a four-year probation that included a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships.
The NCAA claimed it was raising the bar in its sanctions standards but then immediately lowered it for Ohio State, Oregon and Miami. Those schools subsequently committed similarly serious violations, yet received a combined 20 scholarship losses.
The NCAA overreached in thinking it would never see anything worse than USC — boy was it wrong.
USC deserved to be sanctioned and punished for its mistakes. USC needed to be cleansed from systemic administration failure. It needed to tighten a leash that had become loose under Pete Carroll. It needed to rid its sidelines of rap stars, freeloaders, interlopers and street agents.
Football paid a significant price, but almost everything else got better, from the president’s office to the compliance office.
Even the damage to football wasn’t fatal. The Trojans endured two seasons without playing in a bowl game while scholarship losses depleted the roster and likely contributed to injuries.
But how bad, really, was it? USC went 35-17 in its four years on probation, winning 10 games in 2011 and 2013. If Indiana football did that they’d erect a statue of the coach.
USC’s Lane Kiffin was widely ridiculed and ultimately fired, yet he was actually a competent bridge coach for a program that wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. Kiffin hit on enough star recruits to keep the program competitive and viable. He brought back assistant coach Ed Orgeron to restore some of the Trojans’ rah-rah luster.
Kiffin was not a great game manager, pulled petulant stunts with reporters, and was never a long-term answer. But he left enough in the cupboard for USC to win 10 games and the Las Vegas Bowl last year.
I wrote in 2010, the day USC was sentenced, that USC football fans needed to be patient. Probation would take its toll but the Trojans could be a national power again by 2015.
There’s no reason to think that’s not possible.
Great programs bounce back because they have it in their booster-club DNA.
Miami lost 31 scholarships as part of NCAA sanctions in 1995 and won the national title in 2001. Alabama, in 2002, received a two-year bowl ban and was docked 21 scholarships, but won it all in 2009 — the first of three titles in four years.
This year, Alabama seeks its fourth crown in six years with the help of an offensive coordinator who got fired last fall at an airport: Lane Kiffin.
The future is rarely as good, or bleak, as you imagine.
USC football took a square hit four Junes ago, but what does not kill you really can make you stronger.
The Trojans aren’t entirely healed. They head into 2014 with a new coach, Steve Sarkisian, and still a dozen scholarships short of the 85 limit.
You can finally see the light at the end of the Coliseum tunnel, though.
Penalties also had the ancillary benefit of allowing UCLA, under Coach Jim Mora, to seize power in Los Angeles.
UCLA, not USC, enters the summer as a likely preseason top-10 team. In recent Las Vegas odds, the Bruins were listed among the favorites, at 12-5, to make the final four in the first College Football Playoff. The Trojans are 6-1 long shots.
USC and UCLA fans delight in the agony of each other’s sporting calamities. However, it is in the best interests of this town and college football for both programs to be simultaneously stimulating.
That prospect is suddenly real. So should we thank the NCAA for sending USC up the river?
Um, no, that was just an unintended byproduct to a sad chapter in Trojans history.
USC would be best served now to put away the past and make a fresh start as it integrates back into pigskin society.
“Get busy living,” a prisoner once famously said in a movie. “Or get busy dying.”