DENVER — Even as NFL owners convened Monday to mull a return to the greater Los Angeles area, at the Coliseum or in Anaheim, USC President Steven B. Sample raised concerns that the university could be left "totally vulnerable" should the league return to the Coliseum without a deal also being reached for USC to keep playing there.
In a letter dated last Friday that apparently was not delivered until Monday to the Coliseum Commission, Sample asks for "assurances" that the commission "will not sign any lease deal with the NFL unless a sublease deal has also been reached between USC and the NFL that is acceptable to USC."
Failure to do so, he says, could "forever" force USC out of the Coliseum, "with our athletic program reduced to shambles."
Sample, out of the country Monday, could not be reached for comment. Stanley P. Gold, chairman of the USC board of trustees, also could not be reached for comment.
The letter comes as an unexpected development in the long-running saga involving the league's potential return to the nation's No. 2 television market after a 12-year absence, painting a doomsday scenario for USC without offering evidence or rationale for such concerns but nonetheless injecting a further complication into what has long been an enormously complex matter.
The letter surfaced as an 11-owner NFL committee, dubbed the "L.A. working group" and meeting at a downtown Denver hotel, reviewed the variety of extensive construction projects now ongoing in and around downtown Los Angeles. A similar review of Anaheim developments is on tap in the near future, league officials said.
"From our perspective," said Pat Lynch, general manager of the Coliseum, referring to the NFL and USC, "we've always put them in direct contact with each other.
"The NFL is negotiating directly with USC. We talk to both sides continuously and have been assured negotiations are progressing satisfactorily. Frankly, we were surprised at the letter."
A full complement of NFL owners is due today to consider a proposal that would authorize Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to direct the spending of $5 million to $10 million for extensive design and architectural studies at the Coliseum, in Anaheim -- or both.
An NFL delegation, perhaps including Tagliabue, is due to visit Southern California, tentatively June 14 and 15, to gauge business support for an NFL return. The area has been without an NFL team since after the 1994 season, when the Rams moved to St. Louis and the Raiders moved back to Oakland.
The working Coliseum plan is for the NFL and the Coliseum Commission to enter into a lease -- the commission as landlord, the NFL as tenant for a 25-year lease extendable to 55 years. USC would be a sub-tenant.
USC and the NFL have been involved in "on-again, off-again discussions" for two years without reaching an agreement, Sample says in the letter.
He acknowledges that the university has not been given a copy of "the draft Coliseum lease agreement" but nonetheless says USC believes "the NFL's latest draft of the lease" says only that the league and the university "will work together to attempt to develop a mutually satisfactory arrangement."
He also says it is his belief that the draft lease suggests the NFL and USC would have two years to work out deal points; if they could not do so in that time, USC "could be forced out of the Coliseum forever."
Sample says, "We need the commissioners to confirm in writing the promise that there will be a single signing day for the NFL lease and the USC sublease."
He also asks that renovation not force USC out of the Coliseum for more than two seasons and that seating for USC games not fall below 80,000.
The remodeled Coliseum project, approved last Friday by the Los Angeles city council, would see the 92,000-seat bowl reworked around the famed peristyle end into a 68,000-seat stadium, expandable to 80,000 for Super Bowls and USC games.