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USC's Involvement Is the Key to Bush Case

September 16, 2006|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

The day after new allegations surfaced regarding Reggie Bush's link to marketing agents, questions remained about the potential fallout for the USC program he left behind.

An NCAA official said investigators want to speak with sources from a Yahoo Sports report that Bush and his family accepted benefits of more than $100,000 from agents while the tailback was still playing college football.

But because Bush has gone to the NFL -- beyond the NCAA's reach -- the main focus of the investigation will be USC.

"I think we're trying to determine, is this something the institution was on the hook for?" said Ron Barker, an associate commissioner with the Pacific 10 Conference, part of the joint investigation.

Bush, speaking after practice with the New Orleans Saints, continued to deny wrongdoing.

"I'm not worried about any of these allegations or anything like that," he told reporters. "Because I know what the truth is, like I said from day one. Once the smoke clears, everybody's going to see we did nothing wrong."

The NCAA and Pac-10 launched their investigation last spring, after it was alleged that Bush's family had received cash and lived rent-free in a house owned by a founder of New Era Sports & Entertainment, a fledgling marketing company that hoped to sign Bush as its first client.

Bush eventually signed with another marketing agent, Mike Ornstein, and New Era fell apart. An attorney for the company's founders has said he plans to file a $3.2-million lawsuit against the player.

In a report this week, Yahoo Sports cited documents and various sources alleging New Era also had paid for Bush's hotel accommodations on two occasions and had given him $13,000 for a car.

The report said Bush's family received weekly payments of at least $1,500 and travel accommodations from Ornstein and one of his employees. Ornstein declined to comment.

Such benefits could violate NCAA rules, rendering Bush retroactively ineligible for his final season or longer, depending on when the alleged violations began.

Declining to comment further on the investigation, an NCAA spokesman did say that in such cases, the association tries to discover if the school knew -- or should have known -- about any relationship between its student-athlete and agents.

Penalties could include fines and erasing victories from the record book, NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said.

In USC's case, if the violation extended back to the 2004-05 season, the Trojans' national championship Bowl Championship Series victory over Oklahoma could come into play.

The NCAA has no jurisdiction over the BCS game, so any action to vacate the title or otherwise penalize USC would be left to BCS partners, who have discussed the situation.

"The BCS conferences and Notre Dame would wait until the NCAA or [Pac-10] conference finished their processes," BCS administrator Bill Hancock said. "If they found violations that would result in penalties, then the conferences and Notre Dame would determine if any action was appropriate."

But the NCAA faces a challenge in proving that a school should have known about the actions of any student-athlete and his family.

Speaking in general terms, former NCAA executive Steve Morgan said investigators look for "a smoking-gun memorandum that Coach A says to Coach B, 'Gee, it looks like so-and-so is getting benefits from an agent and what should we do about it?' "

"Absent that, you're trying to determine what kinds of signals and flags would have gone up to cause people at the institution to know," said Morgan, now an attorney with Bond, Schoeneck & King, a firm that has represented athletes and schools -- including USC -- in NCAA cases.

"It can be difficult to get to the 'should have known' aspect," he said.

The Yahoo Sports report cited two unnamed sources in alleging that Todd McNair, who coaches USC running backs, was aware of Bush's ties to New Era before last season's national championship game against Texas.

McNair could not be reached Friday. A USC spokesman said the assistant would not comment because of the pending NCAA investigation.

Coach Pete Carroll had previously claimed to have no knowledge of the relationship and Barker, of the Pac-10, said USC had cooperated with investigators.

Two former USC running backs, Andre Woodert and David Kirtman, said they had not heard the subject of New Era mentioned around the team last season.

"All I know is that [McNair] is a great coach and a great guy," Kirtman said.

Bush, who has declined to comment on specifics because of the threatened lawsuit, said the controversy had taken its toll.

"It makes you want to go out there right away and tell your side of the story. Show everybody the facts, the truth," he said. "But you can't do that. That wouldn't be the right way to do it."

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Times wire services contributed to this report.

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