LOS ANGELES - Southern California was no ordinary football program over the past decade, winning seven straight Pac-10 titles and two national championships while annually fielding a gleaming array of NFL prospects.
That's just one reason the Trojans received no ordinary penalties when the NCAA finally announced on Thursday the results of its four-year investigation.
The NCAA threw the book at storied USC, imposing a two-year bowl ban, four years' probation and signficant scholarship losses that likely will damage the program's foundations. The Trojans also must vacate 12 wins from the 2005 season, all stemming from improper benefits given to Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush by fledgling sports marketers dating back to the 2004 national championship.
The NCAA ripped USC for a lack of institutional control, condemning the star treatment afforded to Bush and former basketball player O.J. Mayo, who spent just one year with the Trojans before bolting to the NBA and leaving the men's program in shambles.
"The real issue here is if you have high-profile players that your enforcement staff has to monitor ... it is extremely likely that the people who are receiving these interactions outside the institution are going to receive a bigger reward," said Paul Dee, chairman of the NCAA's committee on infractions. "So higher-profile players require higher-profile monitoring."
With pointed language, the NCAA said in its report that USC's oversight of its top athletes ran contrary to the fundamental principles of amateur sports. In a particular slap to the Hollywood-friendly Trojans football team, the NCAA banned most non-essential people from attending practice or standing on the sidelines during games, a favorite pastime of actor Will Ferrell and other wealthy alumni.
"Elite athletes in high profile sports with obvious great future earnings potential may see themselves as something apart from other student-athletes and the general student population," the NCAA report said. "Institutions need to assure that their treatment on campus does not feed into such a perception."
The coaches who presided over the alleged misdeeds - football's Pete Carroll and basketball's Tim Floyd - left USC in the past year.
USC reacted with uniform outrage to the harshness of the sanctions, promising an appeal.
"I'm absolutely shocked and disappointed in the findings of the NCAA," Carroll said in a video statement produced by the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, who hired him in January. "I never thought it would come to this."
The penalties include the loss of 30 football scholarships over three years and vacating 14 victories in which Bush played from December 2004 through the 2005 season. USC beat Oklahoma in the BCS title game on Jan. 4, 2005, and won 12 games during Bush's Heisman-winning 2005 season, which ended with a loss to Texas in the 2006 BCS title game.
Bill Hancock, the executive director of the BCS, said a committee will meet to consider vacating USC's 2004 championship. While no action would go into effect until USC's appeals are heard by the NCAA, Hancock said there would be no 2004 champion if USC's victory is vacated.
"I take the same stance as our university," new football coach Lane Kiffin said. "There is some guilt, but the punishment is too severe. That's why the appeal process is taking place."
The rulings are a sharp repudiation of the Trojans' decade of stunning football success under Carroll.
The NCAA says Bush received lavish gifts from two fledgling sports marketers hoping to sign him. The men paid for everything from hotel stays and a rent-free home where Bush's family apparently lived to a limousine and a new suit when he accepted his Heisman Trophy in New York in December 2005.
The NCAA found that Bush, identified as a "former football student-athlete," was ineligible beginning at least by December 2004, a ruling that could open discussion of the revocation of the New Orleans Saints star's Heisman. Members of the Heisman Trust have said they might review Bush's award if he were ruled ineligible by the NCAA.
"I have a great love for the University of Southern California, and I very much regret the turn that this matter has taken, not only for USC, but for the fans and players," Bush said in a statement.
USC, which plans to appeal some of the football-related penalties, released details later Thursday of its defense arguments. The school believes the NCAA discovered only two flimsy connections between USC and the extra benefits provided by outside parties, resulting in the damaging finding of a lack of institutional control, which led to harsh sanctions.
The NCAA cited a 2½-minute phone call in January 2006 between fledgling marketer Lloyd Lake, who allegedly provided many of Bush's illegal benefits and USC assistant coach Todd McNair, who said he couldn't remember the call. The NCAA also believed Bush's $8-an-hour internship with sports marketer Michael Ornstein - which was approved by the NCAA at the time, the school says - constituted illegal benefits and erroneously classified Ornstein as a booster.
With no resolution of any appeal expected until next spring at the earliest, an appeal won't help many of the current Trojans.
"It does stink to possibly not play in a bowl game," said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, a freshman starter last season. "But at the same time, I came here to get a degree from one of the best universities in the country and to win football games. If we play 13 instead of 14, then we're going to try to win all 13 of those."
The NCAA took no further action against the men's basketball team, which had already banned itself from postseason play last spring and vacated its wins from Mayo's season. Floyd, now coaching at UTEP, resigned from USC last June, shortly after he was accused of giving cash to a middleman who helped steer Mayo to USC.
"As Coach has wanted to say publicly for a long time, 'It didn't happen,'" Floyd attorney Jim Darnell said in a statement.
The bowl ban is the most damaging to Kiffin, who will have to ratchet up his formidable recruiting skills to entice players with no hope of postseason play before 2012. USC also will lose 10 scholarships annually from 2011-13, but Kiffin believes he'll still land a large share of the nation's top talent.
"I don't think it's going to have an impact on recruiting," said Kiffin, who doesn't plan to sign additional players this year before the scholarship sanctions take effect. "We've talked to a lot of people, from our team to our signees to recruits, and we do not feel the impact at all, because USC is still USC. We're still going to play an extremely high level of football. They'll still get a great education as they come to USC."
The women's tennis team also was cited in the report for unauthorized phone calls made by a former player, but the NCAA accepted USC's earlier elimination of its wins between November 2006 and May 2009.
The football team barely avoided further punishment that would have removed one of the sport's most popular teams from television. The committee discussed a TV ban, but decided the penalties handed down "adequately respond to the nature of violations and the level of institutional responsibility."
USC is the first Football Bowl Subdivision school to be banned from postseason play since Alabama served a two-year ban ending in 2003. The NCAA issued no bowl bans during the tenure of late president Myles Brand, but the NCAA reportedly regained interest in the punishment over the past year.
The NCAA condemned McNair's professed ignorance of Bush's dealings with sports marketers Lake and Michael Michaels. Each sued Bush in attempts to recoup nearly $300,000 in cash and gifts they say were accepted by Bush's family during his career with the Trojans while they attempted to sign him as their company's first client.
"I know they did a very, very thorough investigation," said Brian Watkins, a San Diego attorney who represented Lake in a lawsuit against Bush. "It surely wasn't a rush to justice."
Watkins said he spoke with Lake after the sanctions were announced.
"He was sad. He wished that wouldn't have happened," Watkins said.