USC, as of Tuesday, is officially free.
Its NCAA probation period, the final vestige of penalties that were among the most severe in college sports history, will be complete.
“It’s been a long four years,” Athletic Director Pat Haden said.
It also could be a while before the Trojans’ marquee sports programs entirely return to normal.
Scholarship reductions combined with injuries, transfers and attrition left USC’s football team with 44 available scholarship players for last season’s Las Vegas Bowl. That’s 41 fewer than the NCAA maximum, so it will take at least two years of signing maximum-size recruiting classes of 25 before the Trojans are back to full roster strength.
The men’s basketball team, still reeling from the blow of self-imposed sanctions and the loss of a stellar recruiting class that might have propelled the Trojans into the upper echelon of West Coast teams, will be trying to climb out of the Pac-12 Conference cellar.
The long four years started June 10, 2010, but USC was teetering well before that.
The NCAA began investigating the Trojans in April 2006. When its case was complete, the Committee on Infractions determined that two of USC’s biggest sports stars had violated rules by accepting extra benefits.
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush and his family had received cash and perks from sports marketers while Bush was starring for the Trojans in 2004 and 2005, the NCAA found. And O.J. Mayo had received unauthorized benefits from an agent’s representative during his recruitment and one season with the Trojans basketball team in 2007-08. The NCAA also cited USC for “lack of institutional control.”
The NCAA accepted self-imposed penalties for basketball: a one-year postseason ban; the loss of two scholarships; recruiting restrictions on coaches; vacating 21 victories from the season Mayo played for USC; and the return of $206,000, the money it received from its participation in the NCAA tournament that year. But the school fought the allegations against its football program and was ultimately crippled by an avalanche of sanctions that included a two-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
During probation — which meant operating under greater scrutiny, with a further violation potentially prompting even more damaging penalties — USC hired a new university president and an athletic director, and doubled the size of its athletics compliance office. It also fired and hired football and men’s basketball coaches.
Haden, a former Trojans quarterback and USC board of trustees member, replaced Mike Garrett as athletic director in August 2010 at the behest of new university President Max Nikias. David Roberts was brought in as a school vice president to beef up compliance.
Nikias said he considered Haden and Roberts “superstars in their own areas of expertise. They worked together as a team and they changed the culture in the athletic department.”
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott lauded the university’s efforts. “Actions speak louder than words,” he said. “The actions . . . the administration has taken to bolster the compliance department and resources says it all.”
And yet, even with that commitment, Haden provided a chilling answer when he was recently asked if something like the Bush situation could happen again.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “There’s nothing you can do to prevent poor decisions. So the simple answer is yes. That’s what keeps you up at night.”
Haden also repeated an opinion he had expressed before about the penalties imposed on USC.
“I will go to my grave thinking they were unfair,” he said, adding, “I’d be surprised if that kind of penalty will ever be imposed again.”
USC fought the NCAA over allegations against Bush because school officials, including football coach Pete Carroll, said there was no way they could have known the running back and his family were benefiting from free rent and other perks in suburban San Diego, so far from the university’s downtown Los Angeles campus. But the NCAA was convinced that USC — specifically running backs coach Todd McNair — knew or should have known about the rules violations.
The Trojans’ football team had appeared in Bowl Championship Series bowl games seven times in eight seasons before the NCAA penalties. While under probation, USC was ineligible for bowl games the first two seasons, then lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl before defeating Fresno State in the low-level Las Vegas Bowl last season. The Trojans also have lost their last two games against crosstown rival UCLA, after winning 12 of 13.
Quantifying what the penalties cost USC in dollars is impossible, sports business experts said, but it surely ran into the tens of millions because of lost bowl appearances, attendance issues, attorney fees and other direct and ancillary costs.
There was also a human toll.
Devon Kennard, a defensive end and linebacker for the Trojans from 2009 to 2013, said “the most frustrating” year was 2011, when USC finished 10-2 under then-coach Lane Kiffin but was ineligible to participate in the Pac-12 title game and, possibly, a BCS game.
“Looking back, the NCAA took an opportunity from me that I’ll never be able to get back,” Kennard said. “An opportunity to play in a game, a lost opportunity for something I had nothing to do with.
“That’s hard to accept.”
The NCAA declined a request to interview President Mark Emmert or its top compliance official to discuss USC’s case for this and other articles in this collection.
Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said the NCAA’s reputation suffered because other football programs found guilty of major violations were far less severely punished.
Ohio State players received free tattoos in exchange for jerseys and other items, and it was determined that then-coach Jim Tressel lied to NCAA investigators. The operator of a scouting service was paid $25,000 purportedly to steer players toward Oregon. And a Miami booster lavished Hurricanes athletes with cash and other perks.
The results of those cases: Ohio State lost nine football scholarships, Oregon two, and Miami — after the NCAA enforcement staff and administration botched parts of that investigation — lost nine.
“Anyone looking at this thing objectively saw a lot of inconsistency in the way the cases were handled,” Scott said.
USC will be able to sign a full complement of football recruits in February for the first time in four years. “It’s time to move forward and focus on what we do have,” new Coach Steve Sarkisian said, “not what we don’t have.”
Steve Lopes, chief executive of the USC athletic department, said the school ran a balanced budget and accomplished significant growth while under penalty.
USC added women’s lacrosse and sand volleyball teams, built the $70-million John McKay Center football hub, remodeled its aquatics facility and Heritage Hall athletic offices and added a sand volleyball stadium in the last four years. The Trojans also recently became the third major college sports program to reach triple digits in national championships, joining UCLA and Stanford.
Athletics revenues increased from $75.7 million in 2009-10 to $97.8 million 2012-13, the last year figures were available, and Lopes said donations to support groups remained strong.
“Like anyone else, if we had any sort of challenge over the last four years it was perhaps as much about the economy as much as anything,” he said.
Industry experts expect that USC won’t miss a beat in returning to full strength from a business standpoint.
Rodney Fort, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, said history indicates programs such as USC do not suffer a long-term financial impact from probation.
“Athletic departments bide their time and when the penalties are up they step back pretty much into the same result as before,” Fort said. “It hurts. It pinches and you’d rather not be in that position, but pretty quickly things spring back to normal.”
Said Craig Depken, a professor of economics at North Carolina Charlotte who has studied and written about college sports: “If it was a quality team when it went on probation, it will be a quality team when it comes back.”
Haden hopes those predictions are accurate.
“But it’s not an end,” he said. “It’s really kind of a continuation of a state of vigilance. And I think for all of us in college athletics, in particular those universities that have had major infractions, it never ends.
“You always need to be vigilant.”