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SPECIAL REPORT

USC stays silent about NCAA investigation

The university has not addressed allegations of improper benefits for Reggie Bush or O.J. Mayo, or questioned key accusers.

May 31, 2009|Paul Pringle

Weeks have dragged into months, and months into years, since USC was rocked by allegations that star football player Reggie Bush broke rules by accepting cash, a car and free housing from two businessmen who hoped to profit from him after he turned professional.

Now, the still-unresolved case has become a clinic in the limits to self-policing in college sports. The lesson that has taken on greater significance with more recent accusations against Trojans basketball Coach Tim Floyd and his former marquee player, O.J. Mayo, which also involve purported payments and gifts.

USC finds its reputation on the line, not just as a sports powerhouse but as an institution whose academic achievements have come to eclipse its storied athletic traditions under the leadership of President Steven Sample.

And yet Sample and others at USC have maintained an enduring silence on the allegations and have chosen not to directly interview some of the key accusers.

The governing body of major college sports, the NCAA, has broadened its investigation to determine whether USC lost "institutional control" over its athletics program. It is examining whether USC administrators knew of any transgressions, or should have known by being vigilant.

The punishment could be severe -- a reduction in sports scholarships, the voiding of past victories and championships, and a ban on lucrative television appearances and postseason play.

The NCAA moves notoriously slowly, but it expects swift action by schools that may have reason to suspect violations, experts say. Colleges routinely report allegations to the association, and are free to conduct their own investigations and mete out punishment to staffers and student athletes without waiting for the NCAA.

But with USC there are scant outward signs of an intense internal probe.

Lloyd Lake, one of the would-be sports marketers who brought allegations against Bush, has not spoken directly with anyone from USC, according to his attorney, Brian Watkins.

The lawyer said the school did not try to make contact with his client until last fall, more than two years after the accusations became public and 11 months after NCAA investigators interviewed him. A letter to Watkins from a university attorney, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times, supports that claim.

Lake was willing to talk, Watkins said, but USC never followed up on its request.

Some of Lake's assertions go to the heart of institutional control. He has said he believed USC knew about his relationship with Bush because the aspiring marketer had several social encounters with running backs coach Todd McNair. Lake further alleges that he had overheard a telephone conversation in which football Coach Pete Carroll told Bush's stepfather to "put everything in order, to have a lease agreement" for a house that Lake's former partner in the marketing venture, Michael Michaels, provided to the player's family, allegedly rent-free.

And Watkins says the coaches also must have known about a $3,000-a-month Los Angeles condo Bush lived in that Lake and Michaels allegedly paid for.

Carroll has said he knew nothing about the Bush family's living arrangements. McNair has said he might have met Lake at an after-hours function but otherwise did not know him and had no knowledge of anything improper.

Meanwhile, USC also has not tried to question Louis Johnson, who has accused Floyd and Mayo, though it did sit in on NCAA interviews with him, said Johnson's attorney, David Murphy.

"It did seem kind of bizarre that they didn't seek to speak to my client directly," Murphy said of the school. "As far as I know, there has not been a single phone call."

Rarely has a sports program been hit with fresh volleys of serious allegations in the midst of an ongoing NCAA probe. But three years into the USC saga, and a year after the initial accusations against Mayo opened a new front, the investigation is lumbering along and exactly what the school might be doing to bring it to a conclusion is largely unknown.

NCAA head Myles Brand has made it clear from the beginning of his six-year tenure that college presidents must play a hands-on role in athletics and be held accountable if the programs stray from good conduct.

In his 18 years as president, Sample has won praise for reversing the view of USC as a jock-centric campus with modest academic ambitions. He has fattened the university's endowment, boosted its instructional requirements and attracted better students.

But blockbuster sports remain ingrained in USC's culture. Under Carroll, the football program has revived its glory years and become a well-oiled revenue engine. How much the school values football is reflected in Carroll's $4.4 million compensation package, the richest of any private university employee in the United States, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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