LOS ANGELES -- Near Pat Haden's office desk in Heritage Hall rests a shopping bag from what looks to be an upscale store. In it is a baby gift intended for a former Trojan, something you or I would give to a friend congratulating a couple on the birth of a child.
The player in question has graduated and has no eligibility left after playing in 2010.
"I cannot give him my baby gift," USC's AD said.
|New USC AD Pat Haden says the program is 'trying to build a better relationship with the NCAA.' (Getty Images)|
Welcome to the new-look, rules-compliant, though somewhat befuddled, USC athletic department. Most of the makeover is the result of the crippling penalties slapped on the football program in June as a result of Reggie Bush's misdeeds. Haden, the former USC quarterback great, inherited the mess when he took office in August, replacing the decidedly NCAA-unfriendly Mike Garrett, whose hubris toward, and ignorance of, the NCAA process most likely added to the severity of the penalties.
"We're trying to build a better relationship with the NCAA," Haden said. "We have not been very good at that at USC. It's our fault."
Haden, a Rhodes Scholar as well as a lawyer by trade, intends to change that toxic atmosphere in a hurry. While he hopes for the best in an NCAA appeal to those penalties, USC seems resigned to a reaffirmation of the NCAA hammer that fell in June: A two-year bowl ban (one year has been served) and a stripping of 30 scholarships over three years. Because of the appeal, coach Lane Kiffin recruited as if he had 25 scholarships to give in February. If the appeal is lost, the clock will start with the recruiting class of 2012.
"The next year is where we start hitting the sanctions," Haden said. "You're going to see this thing really develop three, four, five years from now. Our fans base may not understand, 'What do you mean the sanctions are hitting? That was years ago.'"
That's the biggest question: Is USC among the handful of schools that could survive such penalties? Haden says the current penalties are the second-worst in history, next to SMU's death penalty. He adds that even if there is relief from the appeal, the penalties will rank eighth-worst.
Asked to quantify those assertions, Haden says, "This is our lawyer, I didn't do the research myself. We're fully accepting responsibility. We just don't think it's been fair."
The NCAA doesn't "rank" the severity of infractions cases. It does keep track of number of convictions. Arizona State leads all time with nine major-infractions cases. USC has six.
It took Oklahoma 12 years and four coaching changes to win a national championship after suffering similar, though not as harsh, penalties in 1988. In 2009, Alabama was hit with major sanctions for the fourth time in 14 years. The Tide won it all that same season. All that's at stake for USC is the long-term health of one of the most recognized brands in the sport. There seems to be anxiety on every front. As USC plows through spring practice missing 19 players because of injury, it knows the answer to the appeal will come any day. (The hearing with the NCAA was Jan. 22.) Only then can the program move forward.
"There definitely is uncertainty," Haden said.
Part of that has to center around Kiffin. Monte's kid remains a lightning rod with arguably more promise than accomplishment as a head coach. Kiffin is 15-11 in college going into his third season. There is little track record because there isn't much record to track. Two teams in two years prevents anyone from knowing if he can actually do the job.
In his only season at Tennessee (7-6), Kiffin was picking up the pieces after Phil Fulmer. Then he abruptly left. In the first year of the probation, USC (8-5 in 2010) was slowed by injuries and depth issues while losing three games by four points or fewer. It's hard to conclude that things are going to get better anytime soon.
"Are we winning or losing [the appeal]?" Kiffin said, joking with reporters. "I don't think about it except when you guys ask me every day. I can't do anything about it. Our players don't talk about it."
That's not entirely accurate. Injured tailback Marc Tyler said last week, "That break was nice, Jan. 1, watching games being able to be home."
Quarterback Matt Barkley spent part of the Christmas holiday on an 11-day trip to Nigeria as part of a mission with his family.
"I wasn't thinking about college football the whole time," he said. "I did watch the national championship game. But it was awesome just to get away from your phone, the Internet, to be free."
Offensive lineman Matt Kalil added firmly: "Regardless of bowl game or not, we're always going to try to win as many games as we can."
The uncertainty is heightened by the possibility of two-time defending Pac-10 champion Oregon getting ready to take off and leave the new Pac-12 behind. The Ducks have a similar look to that of USC did the last decade. Pete Carroll owned the conference -- and arguably college football -- going to seven consecutive BCS bowls from 2002-'08. Oregon shows no sign of letting up after going to the Rose Bowl and BCS title game in Chip Kelly's first two seasons.
"I'm not worried about them, except for the week we play them [Nov. 19]," Barkley said. "Even then I'm not worried about them. I'm not scared of them."
Long before the Trojans get there, the question has to be asked: Given the current climate in the NCAA, is Kiffin worried about being suspended by the association? In the Tennessee notice of allegations, he is charged with "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance" and "failure to monitor the activities regarding compliance," two potential major violations. That could mean trouble at both Tennessee and USC.
It should be noted, that the NCAA seems to be entering a new age on that front. Michigan State's Tom Izzo was suspended for a game for hiring a person associated with a recruit at a camp. UConn's Jim Calhoun will miss three games next season for his part in Connecticut recruiting violations. For the first time it seems that the NCAA isn't afraid to take offending coaches off the field.
"I don't have a lot of concern for it [suspension]," Kiffin said. "I don't think that is a question at all in this situation."
Haden reiterated how impressed he is with his inherited coach. He pulled out a thick binder that is Kiffin's review of the 2010 season. It contains everything from stats to rosters to academics to player evaluations.
"It's also what the roster is going to look like ... when he gets off penalties," Haden said. "He's got a plan. I'm very impressed with him. He's a very, very smart guy. He does not leave any stone unturned, from the kids that are getting recruited, to what movies are on the plane."
Haden is the antithesis of his predecessor. Proactive doesn't begin to describe it. He convened a summit at USC in early February to discuss the agent issue. The list of luminaries included the Pac-12 ADs, NFL and NFLPA reps, commissioner heavy hitters Mike Slive (SEC) and Jim Delany (Big Ten), the NCAA's new director of enforcement, Julie Roe Lach, as well as super agents Tom Condon and Jimmy Sexton (Kiffin's agent, by the way).
Nothing concrete was decided, but at least the discussion moved to another level. Agents running amok and their runners are essentially why USC is in this position. An office visitor told Haden that one time it was a "war zone" around the football program, with agent reps literally standing in the Heritage Hall lobby among Heisman trophies. Former Trojan assistant Pat Ruel tells the story of profanely yelling at the reps to get the heck out.
"I would be surprised," Haden said when that story is recounted, "if they [agents] were that brazen."
USC's greatest strength, producing NFL talent, lately has been a liability. Without direct help from the NFL or NFLPA, tangible change may be difficult. Haden hopes implementation of a rookie salary cap can reduce the incentive for runners to poach. Lower bonuses theoretically mean lesser commissions.
"You know that every one of your football players and basketball players want to get to the NBA and NFL," Haden said. "Most of them aren't good enough, but that's OK. We need to embrace that and help them get there."
Haden's intent is to bring in noted speakers to talk about the NFL experience with his players, "rather," he said, "than some old white guy standing up in front of a room telling them to go to class, we're going to have a little different perspective."
Meanwhile, the vibe around spring practice is hardly different than during the Carroll days. The practices are up-tempo. Enthusiasm abounds. Assistant Ed Orgeron's booming voice can be heard across the fields. Admission, though, is not "free." Visitors have to sign a practice field form that promises they are not an agent, will not provide extra benefits to, or have contact with, a recruit.
The days of Will Ferrell showing up at practice in full gear and catching a bomb from Matt Leinart are seemingly over. If the movie, TV and Twitter superstar (and former USC sports information staffer) wants to watch practice these days, he has to be the guest of a senior USC administrator. If Ferrell wants to watch a game, it has to be from the stands, not the sidelines.
There is still a lot of learning to do, but Haden is heartened, inspired lately by a new book he's reading. Former USC athlete Louie Zamperini is the subject of the latest bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit. Zamperini survived being stranded at sea and becoming a Japanese POW during World War II. At age 93, he is still going strong.
The title of the book seems to apply to Zamperini and his school going forward: