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Column: USC should welcome home Reggie Bush, but will he show remorse?

USC running back Reggie Bush walks off the field with the game ball following a win over Fresno State in 2005.
After 10 years, it looks as if USC is planning to welcome back former running back Reggie Bush.
(Kevork Djansezian / Associated Press)

The big chill is over. The shunning should stop. The Bush Push is back.

Ten years after the NCAA lowered the boom on USC football because Reggie Bush broke the rules, arguably the most exciting player in school history can rejoin the Trojans’ program this week, and one can already hear the chants of “Reg-gie, Reg-gie.”

The NCAA’s decade-long ban of Bush from the USC landscape is at last over, and it should result in a reunion for the ages. The Trojans should embrace him, retire his number and return his giant jersey to the peristyle end of the Coliseum like their other Heisman winners.

They will hopefully ask Bush to lead the team onto the field before a game, honor him during a halftime, reinsert his name in the record books, hang his pictures back on the walls, shower him with long-lost love.

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If the Trojans happily and justifiably do all these things for him, here’s hoping he realizes he can do one thing for them.

Reggie Bush can, for the first time, publicly acknowledge and accept responsibility for plunging the Trojans into a decade of decay.

The NCAA ban on Reggie Bush’s association with USC has been lifted. The university plans to welcome him back after 10 years away.

He can recognize his leading role in an NCAA probation and scholarship strip that led to depleted rosters, lost recruits, odd coaching changes and only one major bowl victory in 10 years.

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He can show remorse for the wound, and thus finally close it.

Granted, the penalties against the program were absurdly unfair and so excessive that the NCAA has all but admitted it will never repeat them. And, for sure, some of the rules he broke by accepting improper benefits were flatly misguided and are finally being modified.

Bush reportedly accepted nearly $300,000 from two sports marketers, but his commercial appeal in Los Angeles during his three seasons from 2003-2005 was worth 10 times that much. And his monetary value to USC was much, much more, so he was deserving of every penny. Viewed through today’s understanding of the unfairness of unsalaried college athletes propping up billion-dollar enterprises, those “improper benefits” were actually reasonable payment for services rendered. As coach’s salaries skyrocket and athletic coffers bulge, it’s hard to look back and blame Bush for seeking to capitalize on his playing ability by putting his parents in a decent house, buying a nice suit, driving a cool car.

But, then as now, rules are the rules. Every Trojan knew them. Everyone knew the NCAA was hyper-focused on making sure USC’s swashbuckling program followed them. Everyone knew the penalties would be harsh for breaking them.

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USC running back Reggie Bush eludes Oregon's Matt Toeaina during a game in September 2005.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Yet Bush ignored those rules at the expense of his teammates and their legacy. He took the money knowing he was placing them at risk. And in the end, when he went down, he dragged them down with him.

Bush was personally punished far more than those teammates — he was stripped of the Heisman Trophy, remember — but they were forced to vacate 14 victories, including the 2005 BCS National Championship over Oklahoma.

A decade of future Trojans, some of whom grew up wearing Bush’s No. 5 jerseys, was also affected by sanctions that kneecapped the program.

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The probation hobbled them. The two-year bowl ban demoralized them. The 30 lost scholarships absolutely gutted them.

Lane Kiffin, the coach when the sanctions hit, was a nutty dude who was criticized often in this space. But let’s be honest, he never stood a chance. In hindsight, that he went 28-15 with a severely depleted roster and two seasons of no bowls and all these probation distractions was pretty amazing. From the moment Kiffin was fired in the middle of the night at an airport, USC has struggled through a string of impulsive football-related decisions in a desperate attempt to recapture its the swagger.

While Bush enjoyed an 11-year NFL career that netted him about $63 million in salaries, the Trojans were recording two top-15 finishes in 10 years. While Bush has since parlayed his career into a college football studio analyst job, the Trojans are on their fourth athletic director and fourth coach in the last decade, with a 13-12 record the last two years.

A serious foot injury has cost linebacker Solomon Tuliaupupu the first two seasons of his USC career. He’s hoping he can stay healthy in 2020.

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Bush has to see that the USC he rejoins is a much bleaker place than the USC he departed. Public recognition and personal accountability for his part in those hardships would surely be appreciated. In either case, closure would be swift and the next chapter could begin.

The Times offered Bush a chance to tell his story in his voice. He politely declined. Maybe he’ll express regret in a USC news release announcing his return. The university’s new athletic leadership is so focused on doing things the right way, maybe they’d even ask him for such a statement.

Observers like this one admire Bush for quite possibly being the best college football player they’ve ever seen. Trojan insiders love him for being the hardest working player every time he stepped on to the field, especially in practice. And today’s players absolutely adore him. When his studio show brought him to the Coliseum end zone for USC’s game against Utah in September, Trojans pointed at him and cheered him. Markese Stepp, a running back, even absorbed an excessive celebration penalty by shaking his hand after scoring a touchdown.

It’s perfectly understandable why USC folks would soon want to carry their returning hero through the McKay Center on their shoulders

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But, when they put him down, it would be nice if Reggie Bush finally owned up.


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