After NCAA violations, times have changed for USC football

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 12:16 AM

LOS ANGELES - It wasn't long ago that the Southern California football program stood as a model of inclusive, carefree opulence. During the era when Pete Carroll served as the Trojans' head coach, everyone shared in at least a part of the spoils stemming from the team's immense success. Fans could show up to watch daily practices. Sidelines and postgame locker rooms were inhabited by movie stars, agents and many others with only loose connections to the players and staff.

The team was a perennial national title contender and a near lock to play annually in a Bowl Championship Series game. Life was good in and around the athletic department's headquarters at Heritage Hall.

Those days - for the time being, at least - are gone. In the aftermath of NCAA sanctions handed down in June that leveled USC with a two-year bowl ban, four years of probation, loss of scholarships and forfeiture of games spanning two seasons, "vigilance" became the Trojans' word of the day. Every day.

Fans are no longer allowed to watch team practices. Anyone who requests a sideline pass now must sign an agreement stating that he or she is not an agent (or a representative thereof) and will not attempt to provide services or gifts to any student-athletes. And the team is stuck pretending that serving out its postseason ban isn't that big a deal.

"We have a brand new [university] president, a brand new athletic director and a brand new compliance director, all of whom are saying this is a new beginning, this is a new era," said Pat Haden, who replaced Mike Garrett as USC's athletic director Aug. 3. "We went back and visited the NCAA and told them: 'Hey, this is a new day. We're going to treat you with the respect that you deserve. We want to play within the rules. We've done it in the past, and we're going to do it in the future.' "

It's that murky patch in between the past and future that Haden referred to that forced all this change upon the USC program. Following a four-year investigation, the NCAA penalized the Trojans for lack of institutional control, citing numerous improper benefits given to former USC football player Reggie Bush and former Trojans basketball player O.J. Mayo.

In regards to Bush, some of the only references to him that remain are the asterisks in the football team's media guide that explain why 14 wins, two Pacific-10 titles and one BCS national championship had to be vacated. The Heisman Trophy he won in 2005 that once sat in a glass case in Heritage Hall next to the six others won by former Trojans was removed long before the running back forfeited the award Tuesday. His No. 5 uniform no longer is displayed at the L.A. Coliseum along with other honored jerseys.

Bush's legacy still lingers here, just not in the way that he or anyone else associated with the athletic department ever intended.

"Coming into USC, I had a couple things that I wanted to accomplish," sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley said in July at the Pac-10 football media day. "Obviously, a national championship was up there, so it kind of stinks that we're not going to be able to do that the next couple years. But still . . ."

At that point, first-year USC Coach Lane Kiffin cut off Barkley and asked whether that meant Barkley was declaring his intention to stay with the Trojans through his senior season, by which time the team would again be eligible for the postseason.

Kiffin took a different tune in an interview last week.

"That's not what they're here for," Kiffin said in regards to his players competing in postseason games. "They don't come here just to play in a bowl game, you know? These players are extremely motivated by the NFL, and that's just the reality of it. Most of these kids are highly recruited four- and five-star players that have dreams of playing in the NFL and have the potential to do that. So none of that has changed."

What has changed is the diligence with which the program monitors the actions of its players and coaches. Haden said the athletic program's compliance department staff has been tripled, the head compliance officer now reports to the office of the university president and compliance is the first topic discussed at each athletic department meeting - per a promise Haden made to new USC President C. L. Max Nikias.

Haden said Kiffin - who was an offensive assistant at USC during the seasons in which the improprieties regarding Bush took place and whose 14-month term as head coach at Tennessee is under NCAA review for potential recruiting violations - is being afforded a "new beginning," as well.

"I think Lane really gets it," Haden said. "He understands. We can win here, and he will win here, without breaking the rules, breaching the rules. You want your coaches to recruit hard and coach hard, but at some point there are these boundaries and you have to stay within those boundaries.

"Some coaches like to get real, real close to those boundaries. Our advice to Lane is to get close to the boundaries, but give yourself some leeway. Give yourself a good five yards away from the sideline, if you will."

Late Saturday, recruiting stipulations appeared to be far from Kiffin's mind. His team - which entered the night ranked No. 16 in the country and was a 191/2-point favorite - had survived for a 17-14 win over Virginia. In his postgame news conference, Kiffin said he'd just exited "the most miserable 2-0 locker room ever" and spoke of the need to "improve before we lose another game like this one."

"This is the most disappointed I've been in a win," Kiffin said. "I'm most disappointed for the SC family. The crowd was great, and we disappointed them. It wasn't like the old days at all."

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