USC doesn't need trophy to be champs

LOS ANGELES -- The 2004 BCS national championship trophy is no longer displayed inside of USC's Heritage Hall.

The Waterford Crystal football which had been the centerpiece of the athletic department's lobby for more than six years now rests in a box, waiting to be shipped away.

Consider it the final package sent to an ex after a messy divorce which has lasted far longer than either party would have liked.

On Monday the BCS officially stripped USC of its national championship. It was a decision that was as anticipated as the NCAA infractions appeals committee's ruling to uphold all penalties and findings against USC nearly two weeks ago.

The trophy had always been a source of confusion for USC athletic director Pat Haden, who wasted little time in scraping, deleting, removing and erasing every reference and mention of Reggie Bush in and around campus since he arrived last summer.

As we spoke in January prior to his meeting with the NCAA infractions appeals committee I asked him why the school was still displaying the BCS national championship trophy after USC had already vacated its 2005 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma.

"I'm confused about that, too," Haden said. "I'm not exactly sure. They can take all that stuff. I'm not worried about that. I'm looking to the future."

Haden, whose short tenure has been defined by a proactive approach which was sorely missing under former athletic director Mike Garrett, really should have shipped the trophy back last year. He had already sent back Bush's 2005 Heisman Trophy last July, two months before Bush decided to forfeit it and long before the Heisman Trust even had a chance to vote on its fate.

He knew it was only a matter of time before the BCS would strip USC of the 2004 national championship trophy. BCS executive director Bill Hancock said as much last June after the NCAA penalized USC for the numerous improper benefits Bush received during his final year at school. Hancock stated that USC's 2005 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma would be vacated but said the BCS would hold off on vacating the 2004 BCS national championship until USC's appeal had been ruled on.

The problem was USC was never appealing to win back the 14 victories it was forced to vacate, the ones Bush played in while he was ineligible from December 2004 through the 2005-06 season. USC was simply appealing to reduce its two-year bowl ban to one year and limit football scholarship reductions to five in each of the next three years instead of the scheduled 10. The result of the Trojans' appeal had no bearing on the 2005 Orange Bowl and the decision the BCS would ultimately make regarding the 2004 national championship.

Nevertheless, Haden waited for the inevitable, deciding to take an opposite approach with the crystal ball than he did with Bush's Heisman. It wasn't hard to ship back a trophy celebrating the accomplishments of one shamed player who helped bring down a football program, but it was hard to take the same stance with a trophy signifying the accomplishments of an entire team.

After all, the Associated Press decided it would not strip USC of its 2004 national championship because its poll is intended to measure on-field performance, and if teams are allowed to play they're allowed to be ranked. Maybe, Haden hoped, the BCS would see things the AP's way.

While not as gaudy and well-known as the BCS national championship trophy, USC will still display the 2003 and 2004 AP national championship trophies at Heritage Hall. They are still back-to-back national champions. The BCS might not agree with them, but how many of us ever agree with the BCS?

Anyone who saw USC during the 2004 regular season would be hard-pressed not to consider the Trojans national champions even after Monday's ruling. Bush was eligible for the entire regular season before beginning to accept improper benefits in December. Since the NCAA wasn't able to pinpoint exactly when he began accepting those improper benefits, USC was also forced to vacate its regular-season finale win over UCLA on Dec. 4.

Bush's participation in the 2005 Orange Bowl, a game which took place a month after the 2004 regular season, ultimately cancelled everything the team did through the first 11 games of the season in which Bush was eligible and the Trojans won their games by an average of 20.5 points, including seven games in which the margin was at least 30 points.

Chances are good USC would have beaten Oklahoma in the 2005 Orange Bowl without Bush. Maybe the final score wouldn't have been 55-19 but Bush's presence on the field that night certainly didn't account for a 36-point difference.

Bush had 75 rushing yards, 31 receiving yards and 43 yards on kick and punt returns, and no touchdowns. Meanwhile, Matt Leinart threw five touchdown passes, three to Steve Smith, one to Dwayne Jarrett and another to Dominique Byrd, while LenDale White rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns. USC forced five turnovers and began celebrating the win on the sideline with more than nine minutes left in the game, up 55-10.

While the 2004 BCS national championship trophy will no longer be displayed at Heritage Hall, the players and coaches who were on that team will still consider themselves national champions and have no plans of returning the championship rings they earned that season.

"People can say whatever they want but we still played every game the way we had to … no one will ever be able to take that away," Leinart said. "I've talked to a lot of people I played with on those teams and we all say the same thing. Everyone who knows football knows we won those games and we won the title."