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For USC, It Was a Contact Sport

Trojans' wealth of football talent last season led to a feeding frenzy of agents that had Carroll seeking a change in the rules

July 27, 2006|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

By the middle of January, Pat Ruel had reached a boiling point. The offensive line coach -- normally an affable guy -- stepped out of the USC football offices and, scanning the lobby below, counted more than a dozen unfamiliar faces.

"I know what cockroaches look like," he said. "And I know what agents look like."

Some of the biggest names in the sports agent business had been hanging around Heritage Hall. Leigh Steinberg leaning against a counter near the trophy cases. Associates of David Dunn huddling beside a row of retired jerseys. Others milling about, whispering into cellphones.

Though the Trojans had lost to Texas in the Rose Bowl, they ranked head and shoulders above any other college program in terms of players who might be part of the NFL draft and garner big contracts. The 15 or more prospects included two Heisman Trophy winners, quarterback Matt Leinart and tailback Reggie Bush. Steinberg called it a "perfect storm."

"It really was the most stunning aggregate of offensive talent for one team, one draft ... possibly ever," he said. "Agents were flocking to the USC campus by planes, trains and automobiles."

The feeding frenzy was complicated by the fact that several players -- Bush and fellow tailback LenDale White, a few linemen, safety Darnell Bing -- were non-seniors eligible to leave school early for the NFL draft. The coaching staff worried they might be swayed by agents approaching them on campus, calling and sending e-mails.

Coach Pete Carroll grumbled about his younger guys falling prey to unrealistic talk of high draft positions and multimillion-dollar signing bonuses.

Finally, Ruel could tolerate no more. Hustling downstairs, he held open a door.

"All agents get the hell out of Heritage Hall," he said. "Get out of here."

*

When agents return for the start of USC training camp a week from today -- perhaps drawn by preseason All-Americans Dwayne Jarrett and Sam Baker -- there might be leftover hostility. They probably will run into a team assistant at the gate trying to limit the crowd to family and fans.

This strategy did not always work last season. A number of agents, including Chuck Price, who eventually signed Leinart, walked in at least once; marketing agent Mike Ornstein, who now represents Bush, attended several times.

"If you've ever been to an SC practice, it's nuts," Ornstein said. "Four or five hundred people there."

Still, no players recalled being contacted on the field. Instead, they were approached on the walk back to the locker room or on campus, strangers handing them business cards. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson could not believe it when messages appeared on his personal web page at Facebook.com.

"People say, 'Hey, I'm such-and-such and I work for such-and-such and they want to give you a call,' " said Jackson, a redshirt junior who stayed in school. "That's the biggest thing going on."

Players received unsolicited calls and text messages on their cellphones and agents got hold of fullback Brandon Hancock's e-mail address.

"You have to be careful because some of these guys try to offer you stuff," Hancock said.

Dinner and drinks. Tickets to shows.

"You've just got to be very attuned to it and aware of it," he said. "Coach has done a good job of educating us on the rules."

First contact is often made by ground-level minions known as "runners." Several agents spoke anonymously with The Times about this subject, prefacing their comments with something such as, "I've never used runners myself, but this is how they work...."

Sometimes, an agent will hand a young associate a company credit card with orders to hang around campus, try to cozy up to players. Other times, agents hire someone already acquainted with the athlete, a friend or relative. Team managers -- students who shuttle equipment and help at practice -- are favorite candidates, though none of the more than two dozen players, parents, coaches and agents interviewed for this story said that occurred at USC.

The dynamic is common enough that agents get calls from people who know high-profile athletes and want to sell their personal connection. Runners accept a flat fee or, more often, ask for a percentage of the agent's cut.

"It could be ... a kid who fits into the student body," an agent said. "When you see a runner with a kid, he could be a kid's cousin. If you get an agent walking around, it's a whole different deal."

The situation at USC was an amplification of what occurs at any big-time program. As John Mackovic, a former coach at Texas and Arizona, explained: "The better the players, the more unscrupulous the agents." And if they cannot get at the athletes, he added, "they go straight to the parents."

Bush's family has come under investigation by Pacific 10 Conference and NCAA officials who want to know if they received improper benefits from a fledgling marketing company while their son was playing for USC. Bush has repeatedly said his family did nothing wrong.

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