A contrarian view on USC and the NCAA

Two lines of negative thinking hang over the USC football program at present, and it’s possible neither is true.

No. 1: The NCAA is about to hammer the football program for a lack of institutional control.

No. 2: Potential severe NCAA sanctions make becoming USC’s next head football coach far less appealing.

Both may be true.

But it’s not unreasonable to entertain the notion that both are not.

As to No. 1, it’s almost certain that the NCAA is going to sanction USC’s football program in some way at some point in the near-future. At a basic level, USC’s problem appears to be running a loose oversight ship. Just too much smoke for there to be no fire.

But USC’s case is often misunderstood by fans and some media.

At present, unless the NCAA has discovered other, unreported violations, none of the issues with Reggie Bush or Joe McKnight involves pay-for-play from USC boosters. In fact, it’s practically the opposite. It could be asserted the individuals — would-be agents and marketers — who allegedly provided extra benefits only cared about what the players did after they left USC.

Know that USC, when defending itself to the NCAA, noted to investigators these individuals could be construed as working against the interests of the football program.

For comparison’s sake, read this. It’s about Alabama’s NCAA case in 2000. The Crimson Tide was put on five years probation with a two-year bowl ban and scholarships were reduced by 21 over three years.

“They were absolutely staring down the barrel of a gun,” Thomas Yeager, chairman of the infractions committee at the time, told the AP. “These violations are some of the worst, most serious that have ever occurred.”

USC’s case doesn’t approach the severity of Alabama’s, which was almost entirely about boosters paying recruits, which is blatant cheating intended to gain a competitive advantage.

In the worst-case for USC — other than a long list of new violations being discovered — the NCAA could find that USC coaches and administrators knew about Bush’s dealings with potential agents and turned a blind eye to them, meaning they ignored the violations and allowed a player who should have been ineligible to continue to play with the team. At this point, there’s little evidence of that, but it’s a plausible scenario.

That’s a serious violation, one that likely would lead to a finding of “lack of institutional control.” But it’s hard to imagine sanctions would even approach Alabama’s penalties, at least in terms of damaging the short-term future (potentially forfeiting games, including a BCS national title, however, could put an axe-wound in the past).

Moreover, sanctions won’t kill the football program as long as it hires the right leader. Consider Alabama. The Tide won 10 games in 2002 and 2005, and its poor seasons could be attributed almost as much to lackluster and unstable leadership as to scholarship reductions. Once the program hired the right coach, this fella’ Nick Saban, it rejoined the super-elite, winning 12 games in 2008 and capturing this year’s national title.

So it’s a fair bet that even if the next coach inherits sanctions, the Trojans won’t be down for long if he’s a good coach.

Moreover, the sanctions actually could work in a new coach’s favor.

Consider: Which scenario would be more challenging.

  • Coach X replaces Pete Carroll after he won his third national title and finished 13-0. And 17 starters return in 2010!
  • Coach X replaces Pete Carroll after USC has its worst season since 2001 and is about to get hit with NCAA sanctions. And the returning personnel is questionable.

No one likes to be “the Man after The Man,” but Carroll is less “The Man” than at any time since 2003, when he won his first of two national titles.

The potential sanctions could operate as a muffler for the always stratospheric expectations of Trojans fans. They could give the new guy time to figure out the lay of the land, which might be necessary for a coach whose roots are almost entirely in the NFL. Sort of like what Carroll went through in 2001.

Oh, by the way, toss in a salary that figures to rank No. 1 in the Pac-10. Money always fancies things up.

It actually might be fair to say that if a coach ever wanted to take over at USC, this could be the best time in years.

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

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