Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Walking between the raindrops

There's a verrrrry fine line between being out of the loop and turning a blind eye, and which side of that line you think USC falls on pretty much depends on your allegiances. If you're a USC fan, players are just getting away with what they can; everything internally is on the up-and-up. If you're not a USC fan, it's become more and more clear that Pete Carroll and the rest of the administration are ignoring the extra benefits being bestowed upon almost every star player.

From Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett to Reggie Bush to Joe McKnight (who has been seen on several occasions driving a Land Rover registered to an area businessman), USC has been walking between the raindrops when it comes to NCAA investigations. One guy donates money to a charity to cover the damage, the next guy won't talk, the next guy changes his story as soon as the facts comes out, etc.

A year ago, I probably would have said that all the talk about USC was overblown; each individual case could be brushed aside as a minor issue. The Leinart-Jarrett thing (sharing a high-end apartment in L.A.) didn't amount to much, and even if Bush was involved with an agent or marketing firm, it was hard to know whether or not the school was involved or had any knowledge of it. But when Yahoo started digging and found out that agents were regularly inside the USC practice facility and locker room and that running backs coach Todd McNair was aware of Bush's connections prior to the 2005 national title game, that raised the ante. And when basketball coach Tim Floyd resigned after allegedly making a cash payment to O.J. Mayo's handlers, that did nothing to ease concerns about the culture at USC.

I very rarely call out a coach for off-the-field problems among players -- it's completely unrealistic to expect one guy to monitor 85 teenagers at all times -- but when we're talking about a pattern of several similar incidents with players living well above their means, it makes it a lot harder to believe that those incidents are just a string of random events that evaded detection. Did Pete Carroll know? Your guess is as good as mine. But it seems increasingly likely that he just ignored everything going on around him because he didn't WANT to know.

When you've got agents circling your practices like vultures, something bad eventually will happen. When a star running back is seen milling around in front of the practice facility while the four-ways are flashing on the Land Rover he couldn't possibly afford, that's not something you just overlook. Carroll's not an idiot; he understands extra benefits.

Bill Plaschke at the Los Angeles Times had an excellent column the other day, with a headline that pretty much says it all: "Trojans are playing with fire." He basically says exactly what I've been trying to say, except he does it with better metaphors:
More smoke here, strange smoke, scary smoke, stupid smoke, adding to a cloud that ensures the NCAA will keep looking for that illegal burn. ...

It's all knucklehead stuff, embarrassing stuff, but it does make one thing official. The USC football program now leads the nation in recklessness.

Heisman Trophy winner's family home? No idea. Star receiver's rent? What? Star running back's car? Who?

C'mon now. It's one thing to evade those gumshoes at the NCAA, it's another thing to insult them.
Yes, it's possible that the businessman who owns the aforementioned Land Rover, Scott Schenter, is telling the truth about letting a "longtime family friend" get a loan in his name, but it seems just a tad suspicious for someone who claims to be an entrepreneur to indirectly associate himself with Joe McKnight by buying a vehicle for his girlfriend -- and I'm not even mentioning the remarkable coincidence that he owns domain names www.4joemcknight.com and www.uscmarketing.com (which we're supposed to believe stands for "U.S.-China marketing" despite the fact that almost all the other domain names he owns are related to Los Angeles-area sports). Whether there's anything inappropriate going on or not, any intelligent person would raise an eyebrow at that series of events.

The unfortunate thing is that just like every other investigation, this one will assuredly end with nothing being done. McKnight will turn pro immediately after the Emerald Bowl, USC will deny knowledge of any wrongdoing and the NCAA will be powerless to do much of anything. Oklahoma and Alabama have received fairly severe punishment in the past few years for self-reporting academic and work-related violations, but USC has realized that as long as everyone denies everything, the NCAA's options are limited. We're not talking about the FBI.

The only problem with that philosophy is that if someone ever does come out and talk -- which is what happened in the O.J. Mayo case -- and the NCAA discovers that USC was knowingly covering up (or at least ignoring) a variety of violations, the punishment will be extreme. No school will ever again receive the death penalty after what happened at SMU, but just about everything else would be in play. Forfeitures? Oh yeah. Loss of a national title (or two)? If Reggie Bush was ineligible, absolutely.

And the most damaging punishment: Pete Carroll would be gone immediately. A boatload of wins and national titles are all well and good, but not at the expense of destroying a program (see Steve Fisher, Ed Martin, the Fab Five and Michigan basketball). Coaches who oversee dirty programs don't make it through the cleaning process, regardless of how involved they were. And while I don't have anywhere near the hatred for Carroll that some people do, he's either overwhelmingly naive or he's skirting the rules, and neither one of those is good enough when you're in charge of a controversial program like USC.

As long as questionable perks like cars, condos and houses keep turning up in association with Trojan athletes, the NCAA won't be going away. And as long as their investigators are snooping around, all it takes is one disgruntled person with some evidence -- like Lloyd Lake, for example -- to destroy everything.

Will that happen? Probably not. I'm sure I'll look back on this post in a year or so and think, "I guess nothing ever came of that Joe McKnight investigation," which is pretty much the same thing that comes to mind when I look at all the allegations in the Reggie Bush case. I suppose it's also possible that I'll look back at all this as the beginning of the end of the USC dynasty. But it seems that at USC, everything conveniently fades away ... or at least fades into some NCAA compliance folder, never to be seen again.

I don't know much about Pete Carroll, but I know that his legacy as USC's coach rests in that folder -- and it's getting bigger every season.

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