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USC's coming day in 'court' probably won't be pleasant

USC, facing allegations of wrongdoing in football and men's basketball, goes before NCAA Infractions Committee on Thursday. Veterans of the process say it will resemble a judicial proceeding, and USC officials could feel like they’re on the hot seat.

February 17, 2010|By Lance Pugmire and Gary Klein

It wasn't long ago that R.C. Johnson appeared before the NCAA Infractions Committee, and he doesn't envy USC officials who this week will defend their athletic department against allegations of college rules violations.

Johnson is the athletic director at Memphis, and last year, his school was punished for major rules infractions in men's basketball and women's golf.

"It's no cup of coffee," Johnson said of his appearance. "I absolutely hated being in there."

USC's hearing begins Thursday, and experts say what will take place behind the closed doors in a hotel conference room in Tempe, Ariz., will be similar to a court hearing -- with the NCAA enforcement staff acting as prosecutor, USC officials as defendants and the 10-member infractions committee as judge and jury.

A court reporter will be present and the proceedings are recorded.

"It's an intimidating room," said Brian Battle, Florida State's compliance director, who participated in a 2008 infractions committee hearing. "Someone said it's like visiting a funeral home. It's not that bad, but you feel like you're going to court."

Both sides will give opening statements, the enforcement staff will outline evidence it gathered and USC will give an overview of its case. Committee members then have an opportunity to question both sides. After that, USC and then the enforcement staff will make closing statements.

And then: "We hear the evidence, and if the finding is adverse to the university's position, we will impose a penalty," said Paul Dee, chairman of the committee.

While no one would confirm who is scheduled to appear, NCAA literature on infractions meetings indicates that USC's contingent probably will include Athletic Director Mike Garrett, the university's compliance director and faculty athletic representative, attorneys, and perhaps even school President Steven B. Sample.

The attorney for former USC basketball coach Tim Floyd told The Times last week that Floyd plans to attend, and former football coach Pete Carroll could also take part, either in person or by video conference. Dee told The Times coaches who worked during the time of an alleged violation are "strongly encouraged" to participate.

The most serious allegations USC faces are that star athletes in football and men's basketball received cash, gifts and favors from would-be agents or marketers.

USC has already self-imposed punishment on its basketball program, forfeiting victories, taking away scholarships, imposing recruiting restrictions and banning its current team from postseason play in acknowledging that rules were broken in connection with O.J. Mayo, who played for the Trojans during the 2007-08 season.

USC's football problems stem from allegations that former Trojans tailback Reggie Bush and his parents accepted cash and extra benefits in 2004 and 2005 from would-be sports marketers trying to secure the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner as a client.

It is unclear whether issues concerning former tailback Joe McKnight will be part of the hearing. McKnight was seen last season driving a Land Rover owned by a Santa Monica businessman. USC compliance officials held McKnight out of the Emerald Bowl in December and McKnight later decided to leave school for the NFL.

Tom Yeager, NCAA infractions committee chairman from 2001-04 but no longer a member, said committee members and the school's contingent come to hearings equipped with a case summary put together independently by the NCAA enforcement staff.

The hearing will start with verbal presentations from the enforcement staff and USC, sitting at tables facing each other, with the infractions committee seated at the head table.

After the presentations, individuals from both sides are questioned by the NCAA committee.

"These are questions coming from judges, attorneys, people who have been through this process more than once," Florida State's Battle said. "You have to give an impressive answer without stuttering, hemming and hawing, facing the pressure to articulate what you're being asked."

The hearing "is not 'Law and Order,' " Memphis' Johnson said. "You don't jump up and down at each other. You get your chance to say, 'That's not true,' but you don't ever want to interrupt them while they're talking."

Yeager said the committee discusses penalties at the end of the weekend, then assigns a committee member to write a final report, which "may be 100 pages long" and will involve "lengthy conference calls" before being finalized.

A final public report, revealing findings and any sanctions, is issued about 10 weeks later, Dee said.

"Every case is handled by the committee in the same way," said Dee, a nine-year committee representative and former Miami athletic director. Said Yeager: "We are well aware that everybody is watching and that you've got to be able to apply the same rules to the No. 1 team in the country as you do to No. 350."

Johnson said he believed the committee treated the Memphis case "open-minded."

Memphis had all of its 2007-08 men's basketball victories vacated and was fined more than $500,000. The school is appealing the penalties.

Florida State vacated 12 football victories and was slapped with four years of probation and reduced scholarships.

"When it's over, there's a sense of relief," Battle said of the hearing.

"Like, 'We've taken the test; now let's just wait for the grade to come back.' "

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimespugmire

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein

Taking precedents

Recent cases before the NCAA Infractions Committee offer clues to what USC might face. C5

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