Senior Writer

USC ignored warning signs during Mayo recruitment


O.J. Mayo was running around with some sketchy characters, living and traveling in a way that seemed to suggest, even to outsiders, that there might be problems with the high school star's amateur status as defined by NCAA guidelines. So the Southern California compliance department did exactly what a compliance department is supposed to do: It recommended to Tim Floyd that he formally end his recruitment of Mayo.

But ...

"[Floyd] failed to heed the advice," the NCAA said, "and the administration took no further action."

Tim Floyd knew the risks in recruiting O.J. Mayo to USC but he chose to ignore them. (Getty Images)  
Tim Floyd knew the risks in recruiting O.J. Mayo to USC but he chose to ignore them. (Getty Images)  
And so now here we are.

The beating Stanford put on the USC football team last season is nothing compared to what the NCAA did to the school Thursday. USC's football program must vacate wins, spend the next four years on probation and endure a two-year bowl ban as well as the loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period. The public demanded a stiff penalty for the program Pete Carroll ran equal parts beautifully and recklessly, and the NCAA responded appropriately. That's what's getting headlines around the nation, and rightfully so, because USC football is a relevant national brand and USC basketball is, well, something different.

But I get paid to write about basketball.

That's my job.

So I took special interest in the basketball part of the NCAA's findings, specifically the part that claimed USC's compliance officials told Floyd, now the coach at UTEP, to stop recruiting Mayo in October 2006. Floyd responded by ignoring the advice like it was a warning sign for an oil leak.

It's a revelation that's embarrassing for a lot of people -- including Floyd, who was technically cleared by the NCAA for the same reasons Connecticut's Jim Calhoun was mostly cleared by the NCAA, i.e., because he was very good at closing his eyes and ears and, when the you-know-what hit the fan, pleading ignorance. But is ignorance really an excuse? Especially when you're told to stop recruiting a prospect because of potential problems? Especially when those potential problems become real and punishable problems?

I can't see how it should be.

But whatever.

I'm not here to debate the way the NCAA administers blame.

(Maybe next week.)


Dennis Dodd
It was a wild ride while lasted, but it turns out watching Southern California football these last few years, was like watching McGwire and Sosa flex their home run muscles in 1998. More

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I'm here to highlight a larger problem -- the way compliance directors are in a no-win situation at big-time basketball programs where the single-most-important goal is to recruit high-profile prospects to win high-profile games. That was the case at USC under Floyd. The school brought in an "NBA coach," opened a new arena and began an attempt to catch, or at least draw near, crosstown rival UCLA. To do that, Floyd would need future pros who demanded attention, and there was no better candidate than Mayo, who was among the most hyped prep players of the past decade.

Floyd had Mayo locked up early.

In fact, I sat with Floyd and John Calipari in July 2006 at Sonny Vaccaro's tournament in Las Vegas while Mayo and Derrick Rose played against each other, and I listened to the then-USC coach and the then-Memphis coach privately discuss scheduling a game between their two future stars even though neither Rose nor Mayo was publicly committed at the time. That game ended up being in New York, a game Memphis won in December 2007. But that's not the point. The point is that Floyd knew in July 2006 that he had Mayo on the way. It was done. So when the compliance department told Floyd three months later to stop recruiting Mayo, the compliance department was actually telling Floyd to take a McDonald's All-American already in the boat and throw him back into the ocean for other programs to pursue.

That wasn't happening.

Floyd wasn't about to take Mayo off his hook.

At which point the compliance director was stuck. Because what do you think happens to the compliance director who continues to challenge a million-dollar coach on a prospect who will likely be cleared, at least initially, by the NCAA and bring unique amounts of attention and revenue into an upstart program?

Answer: Crushed.

"You have no chance if the coach is against you and the AD is with the coach," said a compliance official at a high-major university who spoke to on the condition of anonymity. "I don't make anything close to what my basketball coach makes. I'm not nearly as important. If I took a stand against a star prospect and my coach ignored me, I guess I could take it to the AD. But if the AD ignored me too or backed the coach, what can I do? I can't fight people more powerful than me. That's suicide. If the prospect goes to another school and nothing ever comes of it, they turn on me. Either way, they turn on me, and before long I'm pushed out and replaced with someone more agreeable because that's what most coaches want anyway."

Sadly, that's true.

The approach many coaches have taken for years is that if you can get somebody through the NCAA's Clearing House, they're good, and nobody -- particularly nobody at your own school -- should make the process more difficult than the NCAA already makes it. But the problem with that approach is that sometimes the warning signs ignored before enrollment can cause big problems after the prospect has come and gone, as we learned first with Memphis and Rose, then with USC and Mayo. So it seems clear at this point that athletic departments must start more carefully examining prospects with red flags or risk facing an embarrassing and costly punishment that taints accomplishments and ruins reputations.

Will they?

I can't honestly say for sure.

Probably depends on the school.

The athletic director.

The coach.

And how much they're all willing to gamble in the pursuit of wins.

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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