September 2010

The Fall of Troy

With USC FOOTBALL crippled, fans need to hear the truth: The school’s supreme arrogance cemented its massive NCAA sanctions by BAXTER HOLMES / illustrations by MIKE THOMPSON

New and old money packed the hotel ballroom. Nearly 180 boosters in all. University of Southern California athletic director Mike Garrett, wearing a dark suit and cardinal-and-gold-striped tie, stood before his program’s generous donors. Just hours earlier, the NCAA had dropped the guillotine on Troy.

The boosters had paid at least $85 each to attend the function, held at the San Francisco Airport Marriott. They sipped beer, cocktails and low-end chardonnay, then entered the ballroom to feast on seared filet mignon, tomato bread pudding and chocolate mousse cake.

Garrett rose. He is not a brilliant speaker—he is an introvert. In a small group, he is fine; in front of a crowd, he is not. Still, the guests’ edge, sharpened by bad news, had been smoothed by booze and fine food, so perhaps he didn’t need to say much.

But he couldn’t help himself. The NCAA had just punished the Trojan football program—the one for which he had played and won its first Heisman Trophy—to within an inch of its life. According to the NCAA’s published report, USC broke major rules. And it happened on Garrett’s watch. And after those accusations surfaced, USC mishandled its overall response—and that, too, happened on his watch.

Garrett’s rep was ruined, a graceful retirement impossible. So he took a parting shot. “As I read the decision by the NCAA,” he said, “I read between the lines, and there was nothing but a lot of envy. They wish they were all Trojans.”

The stunned, silent faces of the boosters spoke volumes. Even university officials onstage were shocked. “I couldn’t believe he said that,” one later commented. Back in USC’s athletic department, the feeling was mirrored. How could Garrett say something so colossally stupid, not to mention incendiary?

Many assumed that Garrett, who was replaced about a month later by USC icon Pat Haden, knew he wouldn’t last and chose that moment to go out on his terms.

Maybe, but even in USC’s darkest hours, Garrett’s words reflected the school’s attitude. USC violated rules, the NCAA stated. Star athletes accepted cash, cars, clothes and other benefits from outsiders. That isn’t unusual for Division I sports, as NCAA findings show agents, marketers and handlers are besieging college campuses now perhaps more than ever.

But in two areas, USC fell woefully short in a way that affected the final sanctions. The school remained stubbornly silent and did not act preemptively when accusations became public. The Trojans were, in quick succession, dismissive, secretive, combative and egotistical. Things culminated that night, when Garrett said he’d always wondered how big USC’s brand was and that the sanctions proved “we’re bigger than life.”

Yet it isn’t just the facts of what happens that ultimately dictate a school’s punishment (if it even receives one) when it meets with the NCAA’s infractions committee. How a school acknowledges charges can lessen a punishment. “The committee is always looking at how seriously schools respond to a case,” said Steve Morgan, an attorney at Bond, Schoeneck & King, one of the firms that specialize in representing schools and athletes in NCAA cases. He was not speaking specifically of USC. “There are expectations.”

For example, if rules were indeed broken, what actions does the school take? An immediate vigorous self-investigation? Self-imposed sanctions? Swift and decisive dismissals? Does it confess its sins and pledge anew to obey the rules?

“Carroll has sidestepped all questions, repeatedly blaming the NCAA. We’re USC, the school’s silence seemed to say. The USC...the one and only.”

Morgan said some schools might not be proactive because they view the situation as adversarial. Then they hire attorneys who take an approach more appropriate to conventional criminal or civil litigation.

“A lot of times with attorneys, the NCAA administrative process is backwards...because they’re out to prove their client didn’t do anything wrong or to make the NCAA prove that they did,” Morgan said. “Well, with the NCAA, that’s just not how it works. Schools have an obligation as NCAA members to disclose all violations, to cooperate in any investigations and to be fully forthcoming.”

For Trojan fans, that grim reality is no doubt followed by the question, What could USC have done differently?

A lot, apparently. In fact, when it comes to an overall response, USC “provided a textbook case of what you do not want to do,” said Michael Buckner, a Florida-based attorney and investigator who also works on NCAA cases.

• Within USC’s athletics department, a key early media report that alleged star tailback Reggie Bush had a relationship with an agent was considered “sensationalistic,” the NCAA stated. Even limited inquiries were not undertaken.

• School officials waited more than two years after accusations surfaced to contact would-be sports marketer Lloyd Lake, who said he had given Bush cash and other perks while Bush played at USC.

• Instead of refuting Lake’s evidence, USC painted him—perhaps the key figure in this case—as a convicted felon who couldn’t be trusted.

The list of mistakes continues, from not imposing sanctions on the football program to belatedly cutting ties with those involved, such as Garrett. But one area that made USC stand out from almost all other schools that have faced allegations of scandal was its astonishing silence from the start.

In USC’s case, taking action early might have helped significantly because, as the NCAA’s public report shows, the association’s enforcement staff didn’t find in its four-year investigation a considerable amount of hard evidence to prove USC knew about the alleged benefits.

In fact, following USC’s three-day February hearing before the infractions committee in Arizona, USC officials were even confident the NCAA didn’t have the smoking gun needed to hit the program hard.

How wrong they were. The NCAA infractions committee decided to punish the program heavily based not just on what USC knew but what it considered USC should have known. And as NCAA bylaw states, it had the right to do so: The committee can base its decision on information it determines “credible, persuasive and of a kind on which reasonably prudent persons rely in the conduct of serious affairs.”

With the opinion that USC “failed to heed clear warning signs” and that the campus environment itself was conducive to violations, the NCAA handed down massive sanctions against USC football: a two-year postseason ban, four years’ probation, 30 scholarship losses and 14 vacated wins. It cited the university for a “lack of institutional control.”

To contrast how USC mismanaged its response, Buckner—who is coincidentally a USC alumnus—pointed toward the University of Michigan’s vaunted football program, which faced major allegations last year. The day after the NCAA sent its notice of charges, which centered on excessive practice time, Michigan held a press conference. “No accusation against our program is trivial,” said then incoming athletic director David Brandon. “We take this report very seriously, and we will learn from it and get better.”

A few months later, Michigan released an official response, admitting fault, imposing some of its own sanctions and acknowledging that the violations were a chance to improve.

“Look at how the two schools handled the cases,” Buckner said. “USC was very secretive. They were going to discredit Lake and blow it off. Michigan, they were very open. Michigan has a better reputation going into its infractions hearing.” [UM had a seven-plus-hour hearing on Aug. 14; a decision is expected within eight weeks.]

USC has appealed its penalties, hoping to cut in half the postseason and scholarship sanctions, but now the NCAA has changed a bylaw concerning appeals, making the criteria far more stringent—only 1 in 11 schools has triumphed on appeal since the change. So a win for the school here looks unlikely.

Either way, several Trojan football players have decided to transfer, and one—considered the nation’s top recruit of the 2010 class, who had verbally committed to USC—decided not to come. What’s left of the team faces an unusual season that starts September 2. It will last only three months, ending, no matter what, December 4 against crosstown rival UCLA.

Now, because USC is a private university, it is permitted to withhold documents and other information as it sees fit. However USC is a nonprofit institution of higher learning, and that makes it, technically, a charity. On top of that, the football team plays at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum—built by taxpayer dollars.

For these reasons alone, a reasonable level of transparency should be required, said Ken Berger, president and CEO of Charity Navigator, the nation’s most utilized evaluator of philanthropies. “A lot of people, when they think of a charity or a public charity, they think of a social-service agency,” Berger said. “Schools and hospitals are the largest public charities in the United States.”

It is a small group of about 1.2 million public charities—a fraction of 1 percent—that actually gets close to 60 percent of the total money, which adds up to more than $1 trillion annually. Not surprisingly, that minuscule group is composed largely of schools and hospitals.

“If anything,” Berger said, “one would expect that those with the most charitable dollars, the biggest tax breaks, should be the role models, that they should be the most transparent of all. Sadly, that’s often not the case.”

For USC to withhold comment on the specifics of its investigation isn’t unusual. In fact, the NCAA advises schools not to say anything that could “hamper the investigation,” NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said. But Brian Battle, former compliance director at Florida State, said, “You want to control the news cycle a little bit. Don’t let rumors run rampant, because 9 out of 10 reports are rumors.”

The NCAA allows such comments, but rumor or fact, USC addressed neither, and Buckner called its silence “remarkable, even for a private institution.”

In May 2009, the Los Angeles Times published a story questioning USC’s silence and its effort to investigate the allegations, concluding that effort was lacking in several areas. USC’s silent-treatment approach, a source close to the school confirmed, came partly on the counsel of an outside PR firm, which had advised school officials to avoid all public comments except the occasional choreographed video statement.

Even the school’s most devout supporters disagreed with that method. “When you don’t say anything, you look guilty,” said one USC booster.

University spokesman James Grant disagreed: “We feel we’ve been pretty up front about showing our concern for this and trying to honor the process.”

When USC finally decided to tell its side of the story, it did so after the sanctions hit in June, releasing its 169-page response to the allegations it submitted to the NCAA in December 2009.

Publicly, the timing was a mistake. The Trojans stated that they couldn’t have known what went on, adding, “Nor should we have known until the allegations were reported in the media.” But that’s what the NCAA essentially punished them for the day before, so USC’s point carried no weight.

The university’s response also included the following statement, which, if released before the NCAA report, might have drawn public sympathy, but because it was not, it seemed instead like a last-ditch attempt to play the victim: “After three and a half years of intensive public and media scrutiny, including repeated questions as to why USC football has not yet been ‘brought to justice’ by the NCAA, the pressure to accuse USC of having had actual knowledge of and a direct connection to the alleged impermissible benefits is very real.”

“The infractions committee decided to punish the program heavily based not just on what USC knew but USC should have known.”

Grant said these decisions were made collectively but declined to go into detail when pressed because the school was in the appeals process: “We’ll let the documents that were made available speak for themselves.”

USC’s external message seemed to indicate what was going on internally, where, the NCAA report and interviews state, an all-powerful troika of Garrett, former football coach Pete Carroll (who now heads the Seattle Seahawks) and former basketball coach Tim Floyd (who now coaches at the University of Texas El Paso) were not to be disturbed as long as the wins and titles kept coming.

The NCAA noted in its report an instance in 2006, when Garrett entered Floyd’s office to ask about Rodney Guillory, an L.A. events promoter. Guillory was instrumental in delivering star guard O.J. Mayo to USC. The university had been in trouble before because of Guillory’s involvement with a Trojan basketball player, and the NCAA had previously considered him a “runner” for a sports agent.

Was Guillory a runner or an agent? Garrett asked. Floyd said Guillory had always denied it. “That’s all I need to know,” Garrett said, then left the office, the report stated.

“Even to the end of Mike Garrett’s time, he made steps in the wrong direction,” said Hayden Coplen, a USC broadcast journalism student who works in the sports department at the campus TV station.

Of the three, Carroll held the most power. More demagogue than coach, he carefully crafted his messianic message, one followers would unquestionably adore, fulsome in its every word.

In June 2009, an article written by a personal spokesman about Carroll’s attendance at a conference for military leaders was posted on Carroll’s Website. It stated Carroll and his Win Forever philosophy “are altering the overall strategy for U.S. armed forces in astonishing ways.” But on multiple occasions, USC officials approached Carroll about the possibility of self-imposing sanctions on the football team to stave off harsher penalties. Each time, Carroll refused, said a source close to the program.

That response was in line with Carroll’s mentality about the investigation. When questioned about it in 2009, the coach stated he had always wanted to build a program where “everyone was coming after us.” Carroll—who did not respond to multiple interview requests made through the Seahawks—has sidestepped all questions ever since, instead repeatedly blaming the NCAA. But that’s virtually all that has been said. We’re USC, the school’s silence seemed to say. The USC...the one and only.

Tremendous success gave birth to that mentality. Always compete, Carroll would say. No matter the cost, he and others proved. But it’s not only the athletes who pay the price. For Trojans around the world, bowl season just won’t be the same.

As history tells us, hubris, the sin of the Greeks—or one of them anyway—has befallen many an empire. Trojan football is just its latest victim.

BAXTER HOLMES writes about sports for the L.A. Times. He wishes everyone would realize Jim Thorpe was the greatest athlete in history.