USC, outraged over play-by-play veteran Brent Musburger's revealing during ABC's telecast of the Nebraska game what the Trojans contend was privileged information, fired off a complaint Monday to ESPN, which now oversees all sports programming on ABC.
With just over 9 1/2 minutes to play in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game and USC leading, 21-10, Musburger began describing on the air how USC quarterback John David Booty lets his receivers know he has spotted a certain kind of coverage.
"John David told us that his signal when he finds one-on-one and they're coming, it's that 'hang loose,' that familiar sign you've seen surfers use," said Musburger, referring to the sign where the thumb and little finger are raised.
That information had been gleaned from Booty on Friday during a standard production meeting. Announcers and producers meet with coaches and star players as part of their game preparation. However, much of what is said in those meetings is considered private, as background only, to help the announcers spot trends and potential plays.
USC sports information director Tim Tessalone, on behalf of the university, sent a formal complaint to ESPN/ABC game producer Bill Bonnell and a copy to the Pacific 10 Conference office in Walnut Creek, Calif.
"We're supposed to be partners in this," Tessalone said, "but this is certainly going to make us think twice about trying to help them have as good a broadcast as possible.
"What he did was unconscionable. In my 28 years, I've never seen such an egregious breach of trust. Brent is not a rookie at this, and he should know better."
Musburger late Monday, through an ESPN spokesman, issued this statement: "We've explained to USC that during our pregame meeting we discussed how we used replays to illustrate a specific signal the week before in the Ohio State-Texas telecast. In that context, we asked if USC has a similar way of communicating and the specific signal was offered.
"Clearly, there is a misunderstanding, and we regret the confusion. We look forward to working with USC on future telecasts as we continue to cover [its] great program."
The ESPN spokesman, Josh Krulewitz, also offered this company statement: "We are very mindful of what we learn in pregame meetings in terms in what is appropriate for broadcast and what is for our background. We're sorry this led to an unfortunate misunderstanding, which was never our intention."
Retired play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson, long considered the voice of college football on ABC, was told of the situation involving Musburger and Booty.
"I would have stopped [Booty] in mid-sentence," Jackson said from his vacation home in British Columbia, referring to the Friday production meeting. "I would have told him I don't want to know."
It all began when the subject of secret signals came up in that Friday meeting. A replay of the Ohio State-Texas telecast on Sept. 9 had shown how Buckeyes quarterback Troy Smith taps the top of the helmet to let receiver Ted Ginn Jr. know he's noticed one-on-one coverage. Booty was asked if USC had a similar signal. At that point, he told Musburger about USC's signal.
Booty was surprised that it had become an issue by Monday. "Going in there the other day, I wasn't going in there to tell them what we were doing or what we were trying to accomplish," he said of the production meeting. "And I'm going to do the same thing the next time I go in there."
Coach Pete Carroll, asked what his reaction was when he heard about Musburger's on-air revelation, said with a laugh, "Just wondering what they're going to tell us next.
"I'm not worried about it. There's a million signals, a million ways to do it."
After Musburger mentioned Booty's hand signal, commentator Bob Davie, the former Notre Dame coach, said on the air: "I was surprised he told us that, particularly now that you've told all of America what the signal is."
Commentator Kirk Herbstreit added, "He can use it as an indicator next week." An "indicator," which can also be verbal, tells players whether a signal is for real or not.
Musburger responded, "Yeah, he can use it as an indicator. What the heck."
USC will appear on ABC at least five more times this season, including Saturday at 5 p.m. when the Trojans play at Arizona. But that is a regional telecast, and the announcers will be Dan Fouts and Tim Brant. Musburger may not work another USC game until Nov. 25, when USC plays host to Notre Dame. That game will be televised nationally on ABC at 5 p.m.
USC offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is also taking it in stride. "It's not a big deal, " he said. "I'm sure people would think it would be, but we change our signals a lot. They're on film anyway."
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.