In late January, a contingent of key people from the USC athletic department will prepare for a trip to Indianapolis, home of the NCAA. Long underwear will be packed, maybe even a stocking cap for Pat Haden's receding hairline.
It will be appeal time, USC's chance to be heard on its wish for a softening of the sanctions from the Reggie Bush case. When that bomb was dropped last June, the Trojans' football program lost two years of bowl eligibility and 30 scholarships. It was like telling General Motors to stop making trucks for two years.
USC just finished its football season at 8-5. Many schools would rejoice at that success. For the Trojans, it was like a little dark cloud, hanging over their heads. The Trojan horse lost weight. The oats just didn't taste as good. Amazing how talk of being ranked and going to a bowl can improve everybody's appetite.
So the wish list for this traveling contingent will be simple: Find a way to avoid another autumn of discontent. Get bowl eligibility for 2011 and 15 scholarships back. Be prepared to argue every angle, from seeing-things-in-perspective, to good-business-for-everybody, to second-chances-are-the American-way.
This is complicated. The NCAA took four years to sniff out information on Bush and his family. During the sniffing, USC was arrogant and cocksure, both trademarks and success formulas of the Mike Garrett/Pete Carroll era. The NCAA hated the wide-open practices, the Hollywood scene along the sidelines at every home game, the Snoop-Dog-is-a-Trojan imagery.
Their perception was that Carroll played loose and, worse, had fun. The NCAA is many things, but certainly not a yuk-it-up group.
So January's Trojan travelers have their hands full. The NCAA softening original penalties is not exactly a trend.
But USC's leverage bar changed last week.
The same NCAA that slapped the Trojans over Reggie Bush extended a helping hand to Auburn's Cam Newton. The NCAA said that, while his father may have shopped young Cam around to various universities for as much as $200,000 before he settled on Auburn, it had no evidence that Cam received any payments or knew of his father's plans.
Their ruling was quick and clear: No proof. So go West, young man — to the Jan. 10 Bowl Championship Series title game in Arizona.
Now there are some apples and oranges here, and the NCAA group that meets with the Trojans' contingent will be prepared to cite them. The Infractions Committee nailed the Trojans. The Eligibility Committee ruled on Newton. The NCAA is sure the Bush family took some money. It is only pretty sure that Newton's father didn't come away empty-handed from his solicitations.
Still, the existence of the Newton case at least gives USC a substantial talking point. And while the NCAA will be able to explain away the differences in the cases, it also will know that no amount of explaining will calm the current wave of public opinion.
To most sports fans, it is simple. Parents of a USC player sought special favors on behalf of their son and the NCAA nailed USC. The parent of an Auburn player, according to testimony and documentation, did the same thing and the NCAA let Auburn skate. Perception becomes reality.
So what gives? Inquiring minds, especially those that like to fight on, want to know.
If USC didn't have to fear burning a bridge with the NCAA, it would get a tough lawyer to pound on a podium and plead the school's case.
The lawyer would point out that Carroll and Garrett are gone, the first of his own volition and the second at the hand of the school. Haden's reputation would be noted, as well as his steps to clean things up and beef up USC's compliance staff. Also noted would be the departure of former Trojan assistant Todd McNair, whose minute-and-a-half phone conversation with a Bush wanna-be agent was a main part of the lack-of-institutional-control ruling.
A further argument could be made that Lane Kiffin, not a favorite of the NCAA because of questionable things at Tennessee, has been a model citizen at USC.
It also could be pointed out that USC acted immediately and suspended a player for an entire game for riding in a golf cart with a student NFL agent, who has since been decertified by the NFL. It took the NCAA eligibility committee two days to review and grant Newton's eligibility. That was three days less than it took to reinstate Dillon Baxter for his golf cart ride.
These arguments would all be before any mention of the comparative merits of the Bush and Newton cases.
Then again, no mention at all of Auburn might be strategically smart. The NCAA reads papers, listens to broadcasts, reads the Web. It knows that the public wonders, that the natives are restless. It knows that college football fans smell a rat.
The best approach might be the subtle one. Just have Haden walk in, wearing a stocking cap of orange and blue.