Sunday, May 30, 2010

USC's Day of Reckoning finally approaches

Remember when you were a kid and you did something really stupid that you knew was gonna get you in trouble? I'm talking about a no-questions-asked, you're-grounded-for-a-week kind of screw-up. You just sit there sulking over your eventual ass-whooping as the clock ticks and your heart moves up into your throat a little more and a little more and a little more, and eventually the wait becomes almost as unbearable as the punishment itself -- until you get punished, of course, and then you just wish the whole thing had never happened.

I'm guessing that's kinda how USC fans/players/coaches are feeling right now, because Dad is on his way up the stairs with belt in hand:
The NCAA committee on infractions will release its findings regarding the USC football and basketball programs on Friday, a source with knowledge of the situation told's Dana O'Neil on Sunday.
It's about freakin' time. It was way back in mid-February when the Committee on Infractions met for three days and pored over about 7 billion pages (approximately) of information turned up in the four-years-long investigation, and there's now just one question left unanswered: How bad will it be for USC?

First things first: USC isn't getting the death penalty (or anything close to it). If you've ever looked at the requirements for the NCAA to even consider handing down the death penalty, you'll see that USC doesn't come close. A school basically has to be on probation for an extended period of time and then commit multiple infractions while on probation. And, obviously, those violations have to be deemed so severe and intentional that the program deserves to be eliminated. It's only happened three times under the NCAA's current bylaws, which were adopted in 1985 (SMU football has been the only Division I program penalized), and none of those situations compare to this one. Two of the three involved actual payments being made to players by the school, while the other involved a soccer program -- one that the athletic department didn't even realize existed (!!!) -- using former professionals.

USC is a different but more complex case. The main allegations:

1. Reggie Bush received monetary benefits of over $100,000 and free use of a house paid for by agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels during 2004 (USC's national championship season) and 2005 (Bush's Heisman Trophy season).
2. Running backs coach Todd McNair became aware of Bush's financial and housing arrangements at some point before the 2006 national title game against Texas.
3. Agents and representatives were allowed in the locker room, on the sidelines and in various other locations that would give them pretty much unlimited access to USC players.
4. Joe McKnight was regularly seen driving a Land Rover registered to a local businessman and wannabe marketer named Scott Schenter in the fall of 2009. USC ruled him ineligible for the Emerald Bowl after an internal investigation.

These are purely the problems relating to the football program, by the way. The basketball program had its own issues (specifically Tim Floyd making cash payments to O.J. Mayo), and that investigation was eventually clumped together with the football one, but it's not clear whether that will have any effect on the football-specific punishments.

The other factor that makes it kinda hard to figure out exactly how badly USC has screwed up is that nobody's quite sure how much anybody at USC knew or whether anyone at the school was actually involved with the arrangement of improper benefits. Was Pete Carroll setting up sweet vehicle deals for his players? Doubtful. But it's pretty clear that he (and everyone else) was intentionally turning a blind eye toward a lot of pretty obviously questionable activity. When your star running backs are regularly driving around high-end cars that are WAY above their means of living, that seems like something you should notice and maybe investigate. And if Todd McNair really did know about Bush's perks and didn't tell anybody, that'll obviously be a consideration (although maybe not much of one since he's no longer at USC).

It seems that USC's real problem (and only problem that we know of) was a SUPER-MEGA-EXTREME "failure to monitor." The coaches and administrators didn't really do anything inappropriate, but they ignored -- probably intentionally -- everything going on around them. This is a serious problem in the eyes of the NCAA.

What does that mean in terms of penalties? Well ... for the most comparable case I could think of, I went back to the Michigan basketball scandal. Refresher: Recruits and players (mostly the Fab Five and a few guys before and after) were accepting cars and a lot of money from a booster named Ed Martin. Martin wasn't really directly affiliated with the university, but he had made enough of the right donations that he landed some nice tickets and became involved with various UM basketball functions. Then he started getting buddy-buddy with recruits. He bought one kid a birthday cake, bought another some airplane tickets, etc., before it just turned into straight-up cash payments and vehicles. And Steve Fisher knew about it (most of it, anyway). Fisher was fired when everything came out.

That stuff sounds pretty familiar, right? Just replace "Ed Martin" with "Lloyd Lake," "Michael Michaels" or "Scott Schenter" and then replace "Steve Fisher" with "Pete Carroll." Carroll is already gone, of course, but a lot of people think it was no coincidence that he jumped ship when he did. Anyway, the penalties were severe: Four years of probation, two years of ineligibility for postseason play, one lost scholarship for a four-year period, the vacating of all wins and records that involved ineligible players and the return of all funds from conference/NCAA tournament appearances during that time.

I think USC's penalties will look similar, because even though there might not have been as many athletes involved as in the Michigan basketball case, there were more agents/leeches involved and it required an extended period of ignorant bliss on the part of USC. Here are my predictions:
  • Vacating of all wins from 2004 and 2005
  • Four years of probation
  • Two scholarships lost for a two-year period
  • Ineligible for postseason play for two years
Yes, that's right. I think the NCAA will drop the postseason hammer. Look at the other possible penalties and tell me how USC would suffer. Forcing them to vacate wins and go on probation does nothing other than scribble over history that's already been written. Docking a few scholarships is a real penalty, but is that alone enough to deter some other school from "looking the other way" and letting money/recruits/championships roll in? No way. There has to be some sort of serious punishment coming down -- I don't see how else to interpret the NCAA combining the football and basketball investigations and then refusing to allow USC football to penalize itself.

Some people are still expecting a slap on the wrist (I feel bad even linking to this) ...
Postseason ban? It ain't happening. Crippling scholarship cuts? No way. ... I'm not claiming to know how USC has wriggled free. I'm just telling you it has happened. That was part of Kiffin considering the job.
... but this column includes no logic whatsoever. Lane Kiffin accepted the USC job back in mid-January, about a month before USC had even met with the NCAA. He jumped at it because it was an elite job -- his "dream job" -- with a salary of about $4 million. How would he have known what the penalties would be? The school doesn't even know yet! But somehow, because of his incredible brilliance, Kiffin was able to determine that the punishment would be modest enough that it wouldn't significantly impact his career. Right.

There's also the classic argument about big schools not getting punished because it will hurt the NCAA's bottom line. First of all, the NCAA makes no money from football. That's right. All money from football goes to the schools (ticket sales), the conferences (TV rights/bowl deals) and the bowl games. The NCAA makes over 96% of its total revenue from the licensing and television rights to the NCAA basketball tournaments, so if there's any incentive to let people off easy, it'd be in basketball only. "But maybe the NCAA wants to preserve its major brands," you might say. The Bylaw Blog refutes that with, like, evidence:

There are 342 schools in Division I right now. Of those, 73 are in Power Six conferences for basketball. As a percentage, 21% of the schools are in these conferences.

There have been 114 major infractions cases since 2000. Interestingly, that’s almost half of the 235 total cases processed since 1953, validating this decade as a decade of drastically increased enforcement. Of the 114 cases, 42 involved Power Six conference schools. So while the big boys only make up less than one quarter of the Division I population, they account for over a third (37%) of the major infractions cases.

If you screw up badly (and publicly) enough, you will be punished. It doesn't really matter how big or how good you are. USC isn't "too big to fail" like the mortgage companies were.

Like I said earlier, the NCAA's refusal to allow USC to self-impose penalties on its football program is the most important indicator we have. The committee basically said, "Don't bother wasting our time with low-ball offers." Based on that and what we know about the investigation -- specifically Bush's ineligibility, McNair's knowledge of it and the frequency of agent-related problems -- USC has to be punished somewhat severely and docked scholarships, postseason eligibility or both (sorry, Class of 2014).

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