USC turned a blind eye

They always thought they would be treated differently.

Like Hollywood celebrities blinded by success who figured they were above the law, the Trojans continued to bend, twist and break the rules time after time, believing they would never face anything more than a slap on the wrist … if they were ever caught.

What USC received Thursday was the equivalent of a knockout punch it will spend at least the next two years recovering from.

The constant cloud of investigations and allegations which hovered over the program for the past four years finally passed and left behind the harshest penalties anyone within Heritage Hall could have imagined. The punishment for the football program includes a two-year postseason ban, a reduction of 30 football scholarships over the next three years and a vacating of wins from December 2004 to the end of the 2005 season. Subsequently, USC will likely lose its 2004 BCS national championship trophy and Reggie Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy won during that time.

The penalties will forever tarnish Pete Carroll's legacy at USC and turn Bush from a hero to a villain.

There's no other way to view the coach who presumably allowed these transgressions to continue under his watch and left town before these penalties were levied, and the player who knowingly accepted improper benefits while he was in school and brought down an entire football program in the process long after he had left.

While the spotlight will be on Carroll, Bush, Tim Floyd, O.J. Mayo and others who are no longer at USC, the blame for the school's current predicament ultimately lies with athletic director Mike Garrett and a staff which failed to see and react to what was so blatantly clear to casual observers.

It wasn't so much that Bush and Mayo took improper benefits while they were at USC (although that's ultimately why USC is in the mess it's in), it was that they basically did very little to hide this fact to anyone who wasn't wearing cardinal (and gold) colored glasses.

Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels, who formed a sports agency for the specific purpose of representing Bush when he turned pro and financially backed him and his family while he was in school, visited Bush in the USC locker room several times while he was in school and were often seen on the sidelines at USC games and in Heritage Hall.

Rodney Guillory, an event promoter who provided thousands of dollars' worth of clothes, a flat-screen TV and hotel rooms for Mayo, was around the basketball program as much as any assistant coach while Mayo was at USC. People at USC knew Guillory's sordid history. He had previously gotten former USC guard Jeff Trepagnier in trouble for accepting agent kickbacks and yet there he was in Floyd's office when Mayo's signed letter of intent arrived at Heritage Hall.

This wasn't a simple lack of institutional control; it was a blatant disregard for any kind of control whatsoever.

Bush and Mayo were seen on campus and in the locker rooms talking with the men who were financially backing them while they were in school. Neither of them hid the fact that they were far from amateur athletes while they walked around campus in flashy clothes and jewelry or drove around in flashy cars. Bush drove around campus in his tricked-out black-on-black 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS while he was at USC. His customized car, which was outfitted with high-end rims and an expensive stereo system, was more apt for the "Whips, Rides and Dubs" edition of MTV "Cribs" than a college football player whose family was in debt. But apparently no one at USC questioned it as long as Bush was making long, darting runs on the football field.

During USC's 34-game winning streak from 2003 to 2005, the Trojans were viewed as Los Angeles' pro football team (insert joke here) and their players were the biggest celebrities in town. Remember, this was around the time the Lakers failed to make it out of the first round for three years after trading Shaquille O'Neal, and Manny Ramirez was still three years from being a Dodger. Carroll, Bush and Matt Leinart were the kings of Los Angeles and the lifestyle of a struggling student-athlete certainly doesn't fit the bill when you hit the town. Bush never looked like an amateur athlete while he was at USC and was being treated like a celebrity around town, and no one blinked an eye.

After he won the Heisman Trophy, he rolled around New York City in a limousine, reserved the upstairs VIP room at Marquee, the hottest club in Manhattan at the time, and had a never-ending supply of bottles brought to his table. When he went to a birthday party for Marshall Faulk in San Diego or a weekend trip to Las Vegas -- referenced in the NCAA report -- he stayed in posh suites and ran up four-figure tabs and no one ever thought to ask him how he was living a life better than NFL players while he was still in college. Again, when you're being blinded by his runs on the field I guess you can't really be bothered by questioning what he's doing off the field.

Even after ignoring Bush's documented and publicized transgressions, Garrett could have lessened the long-term effects of the punishment if he had simply self-imposed sanctions on the football team last year as he did with the men's basketball team and the women's tennis team. Those sanctions were satisfactory for the committee, which didn't take further action against either program. If Garrett had banned the football team from postseason play last year during its 9-4 season, the Trojans would have missed out on going to the Emerald Bowl, but maybe they would have stayed alive for the Rose Bowl next season.

Instead, he did nothing to the football team. He hoped the NCAA would go easy on USC and somehow reward the Trojans for punishing their men's basketball and women's tennis teams while ignoring the transgressions made by the football program.

Now USC faces not only playing for nothing more than pride the next two years, but also wasting the final two years it has of vying for the national championship while playing in the Pac-10 before it becomes the Pac-16 (or whatever they end up calling the expected super-conference with half of the Big 12). It will be nearly impossible for USC to have the kind of sustained success it once enjoyed if the likes of Oklahoma and Texas join a conference which had already caught up with and surpassed USC last season.

If Garrett had simply treated the football program like he did the other sports that were being investigated and dealt with these issues in-house, USC would be in a better position moving forward than it is now. Garrett, however, wasn't about to do that. He was willing to let the football program live or die by the NCAA's ruling without taking a proactive approach to save it from what he should have known was coming.

What else would you expect from an athletic director who has refused to address and answer questions about this investigation while hiding behind edited video messages and press releases? Not surprisingly, in lieu of a proper news conference, USC issued another press release and video message after the NCAA announced the university's punishment. This time it was to appeal the NCAA's decision while announcing the school had reached out to ex-FBI director Louis Freeh as an adviser on how to protect its student-athletes from agents and marketers.

It's a move that's about four years too late for USC and won't save the Trojans from the two-year bowl ban their football team earned from years of believing they were immune to the rules and regulations of collegiate athletics. Anything less would have been a slap on the wrist for a program that should have known better and needed this kind of force to change its ways.

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com