Trojans still standing

LOS ANGELES -- It was two years ago this week that the NCAA brought down sanctions against USC in the Reggie Bush case.

It was a stunning blow when the penalties were first announced: a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships for a three-year period, a roster limit of 75 scholarship players and the right for upperclassmen to transfer without penalty of sitting out.

It was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down by the NCAA, and there was a lot of speculation as to how crippling it would be to the Trojans program.

USC is an elite program with a strong foundation. Then again, so is Alabama, and there was a noticeable impact on the Crimson Tide program a decade ago when it suffered from lesser NCAA scholarship losses. Even Trojans athletic director Pat Haden commented about how the impact of the sanctions could be felt for up to 10 years.

For a football team that had known such recent success, the sanctions were suddenly a potential turning point for the Trojans. Gone was the coach -- Pete Carroll -- who had led that recent success, and in his place was Lane Kiffin, an unproven commodity. Sure, Kiffin had potential, but at that point there was no guarantee that he was the right man for the job.

Kiffin had come in and immediately put his own stamp on the program. Players who had been recruited by Carroll and his upbeat style were suddenly being subjected to an approach that was, shall we say, much different. Kiffin was no-nonsense, as focused as they come on doing his job, and there was definitely an adjustment period going on at that time.

What people didn't see was the plan that Kiffin was putting together for how to deal with the sanctions. It would involve managing the roster properly and working with the timing of the sanction penalties to minimize the impact on the program.

During the appeal process, the Trojans elected to serve the two-year bowl ban immediately but delayed the scholarship reductions until after the ban was completed. This allowed Kiffin to build up the roster with full recruiting classes in those first two years so that he would have as many of his recruits as possible on the roster when the team would be eligible again for a bowl. The result is a bowl-eligible 2012 team that is as loaded with young talent as any team in the country.

Kiffin's style has also proven to work, as he has refused to let the team use the sanctions as a distraction. He has the players focused on preparation being the key to getting better, and they have bought into it. Of course, it helps to have success. With the way the Trojans played at the end the 2011 season, the players certainly have faith in Kiffin as the leader of the program now.

Another critical leader who has helped guide the Trojans ship over the past two years is quarterback Matt Barkley. It's hard to imagine a better team representative during the uncertain early stages of the sanctions. There wasn't much constant in the USC world for much of that time, but Barkley was out in front through it all, always positive, telling everyone that he was a Trojan no matter what.

While it was Kiffin who provided the foundation for the program during the sanctions, Barkley deserves his share of credit for raising it so quickly back to lofty heights just two years later. It was Barkley who was at the controls of the offensive assault last fall, shattering several team and conference records. It was Barkley who created a buzzstorm of excitement last December when he announced that he would return for his senior season. And it was Barkley who got 15 of his teammates to join him on an aid trip to Haiti last month and reminded every USC fan of why they can be proud of the players who will represent them this fall. It's just hard to overstate his importance to the Trojans program right now.

Haden has played an important role as well. The leader of the athletic department has brought a renewed spirit to Heritage Hall, and nowhere is that more evident than in the new John McKay Center rising up next door.

There had long been a cry around USC for new athletic facilities, a concern that the Trojans were falling behind in the race to keep up with rivals by building a sparkling new training center for the athletes. Within six months of taking office, Haden led a groundbreaking ceremony for the McKay Center, which is scheduled to be completed before the upcoming season. Rarely has a building been such a source of pride as this one because it serves as a symbol to many USC fans of the program rising in the face of the sanctions.

The Trojans are well positioned now to enter the season as one of the top teams in college football, but that doesn't mean the sanctions are over or won't be felt in the future. There is still very much an opportunity for the scholarship reductions to hurt in future seasons, but that is a worry for another time.

For right here, right now, the Trojans are in the middle of every discussion of the national title contenders for the 2012 season. USC fans should enjoy that because not a lot of people thought that would have been the case when the sanctions were originally handed down.