Citing a history of misdeeds by an out-of-control athletic department, the governing body for college sports hit USC with a string of penalties Thursday that will keep the powerhouse Trojans football team out of bowl games for the next two seasons and could cost the university millions of dollars.
The sanctions culminated a four-year investigation by the NCAA prompted by separate reports that two star athletes — Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball guard O.J. Mayo — had accepted improper gifts from outside sports marketers and agents.
The NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which also penalized the men's basketball and women's tennis teams, cited USC for a lack of institutional control, extra benefits and unethical conduct by an assistant football coach, among other issues.
"The general campus environment surrounding the violations troubled the committee," the NCAA's public report said.
Mike Garrett, himself a former Heisman-winning tailback who now oversees the school's athletic department, walked past reporters outside his office saying he had no comment. Later, USC senior vice president Todd Dickey announced that the school would file an appeal with the NCAA.
"We acknowledge that violations occurred and we take full responsibility for them," Dickey said. But, he added, "we feel the penalties imposed are too severe."
University President Steven B. Sample also called the punishment "excessive" in a letter addressed to "Members of the Trojan family" that was posted on the school's athletic website.
In addition to the postseason ban, the football program will lose 10 scholarships a season for three seasons. The Trojans additionally must vacate victories from the latter part of the 2004 season — which could jeopardize their national title — and all 12 of their wins from the 2005 campaign.
Also in peril is the football team's highly regarded new wave of recruits. Incoming freshmen would have to ask to be released from their scholarship by the school in order to transfer without penalty. The program also already has nonbinding oral commitments from top players who will be high school seniors next fall, and those recruits, experts predicted, would probably wait to see how the appeal progresses.
First-year football coach Lane Kiffin said he expected players would still flock to USC and promised that the Trojans would "continue to play championship football" and "recruit the best players in America to come here."
USC had already imposed its own sanctions on the basketball team, agreeing to a one-year postseason ban as well as scholarship and recruiting restrictions. The school will return $206,200 from its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008.
Equally significant, the athletic program was placed on four years' probation, which could lead to harsher penalties if the NCAA discovers subsequent rule-breaking by any USC teams.
"I'm pleased only because it tells everybody that you have to play by the rules," Cal coach Jeff Tedford told the Bay Area News Group. "It validates the model that if you don't play by the rules, there are going to be consequences. It sends a message to everyone in college football that you have to do it right."
Bush and Mayo have repeatedly stated they did nothing wrong. Bush, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, issued a statement Thursday saying he had "great love" for USC and felt "much regret" about "the turn this matter has taken." He added that he would "continue to cooperate with the NCAA and USC," though investigators indicated that he had not fully cooperated in the past.
The 2004 national title could be revoked by way of a provision the Bowl Championship Series quietly enacted several years ago. BCS officials said they would meet shortly to discuss the matter. Bush's status as the 2005 Heisman winner also could be in jeopardy if the Heisman Trophy Trust, which declined to comment, decides to take action.
"If the NCAA and the committee on infractions intended to send a message on abiding by the rules of our association, they did it," Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour told the Bay Area News Group.
Barbour also said the Pac-10 would just vacate the conference titles and no new champions would be named.
The football violations occurred during former coach Pete Carroll's tenure and centered on Bush, a star for the Trojans from 2003-05. The former tailback was ruled retroactively ineligible from December 2004 on for taking cash and gifts from two would-be sports marketers who hoped to represent him after he turned pro. Bush's family also lived in a home owned by one of the marketers without paying rent.
"The university didn't know," Carroll said, referring to Bush's family situation. "We didn't know." He added that "the facts don't match the decision."
Bay Area News Group staff writers Jonathan Okanes and Jeff Faraudo contributed to this story.
-- Pete Carroll, former USC coach in a video released by the Seattle Seahawks
"We acknowledge that violations occurred and we take full responsibility for them ... (but) we feel the penalties imposed are too severe."
-- Todd Dickey, USC senior vice president"
"I have a great love for the University of Southern California, and I very much regret the turn that this matter has taken, not only for USC, but for the fans and players.
-- Reggie Bush, former USC running back in a statement
"We've talked to a lot of people, from our team to our signees to recruits, and we do not feel the impact at all, because USC is still USC."
-- Lane Kiffin,
USC football coach