In wake of comments made by high school running back Joe McKnight, USC compliance officials are investigating whether an NCAA recruiting violation occurred during the Trojans' pursuit of the Louisiana prep star.
McKnight, regarded as the nation's top running back prospect, signed a national letter of intent with USC on Wednesday. During a news conference announcing his college choice, he told reporters back home that his mind was put at ease about USC after he listened to a telephone conversation between Coach Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush, the Trojans' Heisman Trophy-winning running back.
There are allegations that Bush received improper benefits while playing for USC, and McKnight was worried that the Trojans might face NCAA sanctions.
McKnight's involvement in telephone communication between Carroll and Bush could itself be a violation of NCAA recruiting rules.
Thursday night, Carroll vehemently denied such a call took place and McKnight, through his high school coach, said he misspoke during the news conference. Earlier, a USC athletic department spokesman said the school was looking into it.
Former players are regarded by the NCAA as "representatives of athletics interests" and are forbidden from telephoning prospective recruits. For example, NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199.1 states, "Representatives of an institution's athletics interests are prohibited from making telephonic communications with a prospective student-athlete or the prospective student-athlete's relatives or legal guardians."
"It never happened," Carroll said.
Carroll said he broached the subject of a conference call with assistants before a visit to McKnight's home but was told it was against NCAA rules. He also said that McKnight never spoke to Bush, who recently completed his rookie season with the New Orleans Saints.
Bush could not be reached for comment.
The NCAA and the Pacific 10 Conference are investigating whether Bush or his family received "improper benefits" from agents while he was playing for USC. The NCAA has interviewed USC coaches, but Bush and his family have declined to cooperate.
If the NCAA finds violations, USC could be punished. Bush also could lose his Heisman.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that McKnight said Carroll set up a conference call so he and high school coach J.T. Curtis could talk to Bush and ease their worries that USC might be sanctioned.
Curtis said in a telephone interview Thursday that he spoke to Carroll during McKnight's recruitment, but not on a conference call with McKnight or Bush. He also said McKnight told him that "Coach Carroll was talking to Reggie on the speakerphone and Joe was able to listen and hear Reggie Bush's side of the story."
After being informed of Carroll's denial Thursday night, Curtis called McKnight. He later said the player told him he never heard Bush on a speakerphone.
"He said when they came in his house, the discussion was brought up about probation and that's when the conversation came up that they had talked to Reggie, but Joe was not there," Curtis said. "He said, 'I was not on the speakerphone. I never called him and he never called me. I want to make it clear I never spoke to Reggie and he never spoke to me. I just messed it up. I shouldn't have said it that way [at the news conference].' "
Curtis said McKnight might have been overcome Wednesday by the attention and scrutiny that accompanied his announcement.
"At the press conference, it seemed like he got 1,000 questions in five minutes," about the controversy surrounding Bush and possible sanctions, Curtis said. "If you saw what was going on it would be easier to understand."
Mike Matthews, associate commissioner of compliance for the Pac- 10, said boosters are not supposed to be involved in the recruiting process but he could not comment about whether a violation occurred without knowing all of the details. Matthews said schools annually investigate dozens of situations to determine if violations have occurred, most of which fall under "secondary" status that do not result in major penalties.
Crissy Schluep, an NCAA spokeswoman, said she could not comment about whether a violation had occurred without knowing the specifics of the situation.
Quarterback Mitch Mustain, who started eight games as a freshman last season at Arkansas, will visit USC and possibly transfer, a source confirmed.
Mustain passed for 894 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 12 games.
Former Arkansas receiver Damian Williams, a high school teammate of Mustain's, transferred to USC last month.