Citing a history of misdeeds by an out-of-control athletic department, the governing body for college sports hit USC with a string of penalties Thursday that will keep the powerhouse Trojans football team out of bowl games for the next two seasons and could cost the university millions of dollars.
The sanctions culminated a four-year investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. prompted by separate reports that two star athletes — Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball guard O.J. Mayo — had accepted improper gifts from outside sports marketers and agents.
The NCAA's Committee on Infractions, which also penalized the men's basketball and women's tennis teams, cited USC for a lack of institutional control, extra benefits and unethical conduct by an assistant football coach, among other issues.
"The general campus environment surrounding the violations troubled the committee," the NCAA's public report said.
Mike Garrett, himself a former Heisman-winning tailback who now oversees the university's athletic department, walked past reporters outside his office saying he had no comment. Later, USC senior vice president Todd Dickey announced that the school would file an appeal with the NCAA.
"We acknowledge that violations occurred and we take full responsibility for them," Dickey said. But, he added, "we feel the penalties imposed are too severe." University President Steven B. Sample also called the punishment "excessive" in a letter addressed to "Members of the Trojan family" that was posted on the school's athletic website.
In addition to the postseason ban, the football program will lose 10 scholarships a season for three seasons. The Trojans additionally must vacate their final two victories from the 2004 season — which could jeopardize its national championship — and all 12 of their wins from the 2005 campaign.
Also in peril is the football team's highly regarded new wave of recruits. Incoming freshmen would have to ask to be released from their scholarship by the school in order to transfer without penalty. The program also already has nonbinding verbal commitments from top players who will be high school seniors next fall, and those recruits, experts predicted, would probably wait to see how the appeal progresses.
First-year football Coach Lane Kiffin said he expected players would still flock to USC and promised that the Trojans would "continue to play championship football" and "recruit the best players in America to come here."
USC had already imposed its own sanctions on the basketball team, agreeing to a one-year postseason ban as well as scholarship and recruiting restrictions. The school will return $206,200 from its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008.
Equally significant, the athletic program was placed on four years' probation, which could lead to harsher penalties if the NCAA discovers subsequent rule-breaking by any USC teams.
Mike Glazier, a Kansas attorney who represents schools accused of NCAA violations, said an appeal could be tricky: "I think it would be a pretty big uphill battle for them to be successful."
Bush and Mayo have repeatedly stated they did nothing wrong.
Bush, who now plays for the New Orleans Saints, issued a statement Thursday saying he had "great love" for USC and felt "much regret" about "the turn this matter has taken." He added that he would "continue to cooperate with the NCAA and USC," though investigators indicated that he had not fully cooperated in the past.
Any penalties against the football program could affect other sports at the school, if only because football is the athletic department's cash cow, generating more than $76 million in 2007-08, the most recent season for which figures were available.
Some of the luster that USC has acquired over recent years could be lost, too.
That 2004 season championship could be revoked by way of a provision the Bowl Championship Series quietly enacted several years ago. BCS officials said they would meet shortly to discuss the matter.
Bush's status as the 2005 Heisman winner also could be in jeopardy if the Heisman Trophy Trust, which declined to comment, decides to take action.
Thursday's ruling certainly damages the reputation of the Pacific 10 Conference, which is in the midst of an ambitious expansion. Colorado agreed to join the Pac-10 on Thursday, and other high-profile schools, including Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, could follow.
Though UCLA fans quickly filled Internet chat rooms to discuss the penalties — most, no surprise, were in favor — the official response from USC's cross-town rival was muted.
"It is certainly newsworthy," football Coach Rick Neuheisel said of the sanctions, declining further comment.