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Southern Cal Football and the Committee on Infractons - History Repeats Itself

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The relationship between Southern Cal's football program, its coaches, and the NCAA - particularly its associated enforcement arms such as the Committee on Infractions - has been a hot topic in the sports media, blogs and message boards for the past several months. While the NCAA has uttered its final word in the matter of 'Bushgate', people will be talking about it (and lawyers may yet be litigating it) far into the future. What remains true is USC's longstanding historic relationship with the Committee on Infractions. Southern Cal is not the most heavily-cited institution by the NCAA - the 6 major violations that USC has been found guilty places it behind ten other schools, with SMU and Arizona State leading the way with 8 each. What is interesting is that in every one of the 6 major violations cases, the USC Football program has been implicated in the misconduct; While all of SMU's violations - including the 1980's Death Penalty - were related to the football program, the other members of the NCAA's dishonor roll seen their violations arising from varying sports at varying times. It is rare for one athletic program at a university to be the focus of so much rulebreaking - don't let it be said that SC Football lacks a certain talent.

Southern Cal's first date with the NCAA's Committee on Infractions came in 1956, after news of a series of 'pay for play' schemes - covertly funneling payments to football players - among several members of the then Pacific Coast Conference came to light. Let's not gloat on this one, as UCLA was one of the other schools with a similar system and later punished by the conference and the NCAA, as was Cal, Washington and (previously) Oregon. As a result of the investigation by the PCC (the conference investigating, and passing judgment on a member's misdeeds?!?) and the NCAA, a 2-year bowl ban was imposed on the football program. The university was also fined and placed on NCAA probation for 2 years. The NCAA also reduced the eligibility of players having taken money.

While other west coast schools had committed the same NCAA violation as USC football had, and had been punished accordingly, none of the other schools had their football program busted for violating other NCAA rules related to giving money to student-athletes. Yes, USC as an NCAA repeat violator is not a new story at all...

While the university's athletic programs were on probation, and the football team specifically subjected to a postseason ban, USC found itself again under the scrutiny of the NCAA. As described by the NCAA's 1959 Infractions report, USC found itself in trouble due to their the conduct of their 'representatives' involving two football recruits; one recruit who did not qualify for admission as a freshman was recruited by a USC official to attend a Los Angeles JC, with his plane ticket to LA paid by USC (not an insubstantial sum in the 1950's). The second recruit also had his airfare to LA paid for by USC (a violation of PCC and NCAA Rules of the time), as well as additional promises of compensation by the university:

. . . representatives of USC assured the student-athlete that he could enjoy cost-free transportation between Los Angeles and his home during the Christmas vacation period and at the conclusion of the college year, this transportation to be financed by income realized from Christmas and Easter vacation jobs, and whereas the Council considered it unlikely that thestudent-athlete could earn sufficient income to offset these costs during such a limited employment period;

As the NCAA at the time noted, the cost of air travel was not a trivial sum - there were no $29 Southwest flights out of LAX as there were during my time at UCLA - and the claim by USC that the player would later repay the school out of work earnings - itself a violation - was seen as a pretext. In writing its report and determining appropriate sanctions, the Committee on Infractions noted that USC had committed these violations while on probation for the previously-discussed rule violations, and came down hard. The 2-year department-wide period of NCAA probation from the 'pay for play' scandal was extended by nearly a decade as a result of the case. The NCAA barred all USC sports teams from competing for the NCAA Championship of their sport for one year, and imposed a TV ban. Thanks to its football team, Southern Cal's athletic program entered NCAA probation in January 1957, not to emerge from this state of scrutiny until January of 1968. In an effort to keep USC in line during this 11-year long probation, the COI included the following in their 1959 infractions report:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that any violation of NCAA requirements during the period of this probation shall be considered by the Council as cause for recommending USC's expulsion from membership in the association;

No, Southern Cal never did get kicked out of the NCAA, and yes, USC fans whining about the recent violations and the response by the NCAA might want to gain some perspective. Whether or not they tried cleaning up their act, they did get better at keeping their activities under the radar. USC Football did not have another run-in with the conference and the NCAA until 1982. The violations found In that case, according to the Committee on Infractions report:

"represent a significant and extensive pattern of improper benefits made available to enrolled student-athletes, particularly members of the university's football team, over a period of approximately 10 years, as well as a lack of administrative control in the conduct of the university's intercollegiate athletic program.

This case brought before the NCAA brought together several elements to lead to the charge of a "lack of administrative control" at Heritage Hall, led by major violations committed by members of the football coaching staff. For a period of nearly 10 years, an assistant coach acted as a facilitator in the selling of complementary game tickets provided to USC football players to boosters, going so far that before at least one game, the coach solicited tickets from his players during a team meeting. Additionally, members of the football team were employed in 'no-show' jobs by USC, and instances of academic misconduct by student-athletes of several sports were discovered. In imposing its sanctions for the above violations, the Committee on Infractions report noted that:

" . . .  because of the benefits that accrued to student-athletes who had been instrumental in contributing to the successful football team records of the university, the institution realized a significant competitive advantage over other member institutions," Wright said. "The committee believes such an improper competitive advantage and the resultant athletic prestige gained by the university should not be realized without substantial disciplinary action."

As a result of this investigation, Southern Cal was placed on 3-years probation by the NCAA. In addition, the football program was subjected to a 2-year bowl ban AND a 2-year TV ban.

While on probation for the last major NCAA violation, the athletic department again violated the association's bylaws by providing impermissible benefits to a number of football recruits as well as their families and high school coaches. The benefits included extra (free) tickets to USC football games, coaching of recruits by USC assistant football coaches and staff during the off-season, free travel and merchandise provided by coaches and impermissible contact of recruits by members of the football coaching staff. In their 1986 report, which adopted the sanctions already levied by the Pac-10 (Larry Scott, are you reading this?), the Committee on Infractions placed Southern Cal on 2-years probation, imposed a loss of 7 scholarships on the football program over those 2 years, and reduced the permissible number of assistant coaches by 1 for a year. In a sign of how things have changed inside the Pac-10 as well as at USC, read the following:

It also should be noted," said Remington in closing, "that the efforts of Pacific-10 Conference personnel to investigate and collect complete information concerning the matters under inquiry were exemplary, and the university's cooperation with conference and NCAA personnel aided the committee in the consideration of this case."

It seems that the Pac-10 did once care about holding its membership accountable for following the rules of the game. While Commissioner Scott is to be commended for the recent massive media contract and his efforts to expand the visibility of the conference, unfortunately he is turning a blind eye to the misdeeds within the conference, and hopes that others will also ignore or not respect the findings of fault by the NCAA.

Southern Cal was able to make it out of that period of probation, and through the 1990's without being investigated by the NCAA. But, the new century brought with it new scrutiny. In June 2001, USC found itself back in front of an old friend, the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, responding to allegations of:

 . . . unethical conduct involving academic fraud and the provision of false and misleading information, with allegations of a lack of institutional control and failure to monitor associated with the academic fraud.

The main thrust of the charges involved academic fraud committed by three student-athletes - two USC football players and a member of the diving team - and their athletic department-assigned tutors, in which the tutors researched and wrote academic papers for these students, which were submitted by the athletes for class credit. In addition to these main violations, the NCAA also found that USC had failed to adequately monitor the tutoring program, and found other 'secondary violations' of NCAA bylaws. As a result of this investigation and finding of violations, USC's athletic department was placed on 2-years probation. The football program lost 2 scholarships for 1 year, and the diving team lost 1/2 of a scholarship for a year. Particularly relevant to the later 'Bushgate' case was the mention of the NCAA's repeat violator rule (Bylaw, which would be applied to Southern Cal if it violated NCAA rules again in the following 5 years after this investigation concluded.

That last case, and the repeat violator clause of course, led into the Reggie Bush/OJ Mayo violations that the NCAA has just now concluded. As the recent case against USC Football came to a head, the coach that led the team to that dishonor left, creating a void in the program. When considering the six decade history of USC's football program and the enforcement arm of the NCAA, the school made the perfect choice of head coach to continue this long honored relationship: Lane Kiffin. The one thing weighing against Kiffin and his assumption of this historical role is the timing of USC and the commission - or the discovery - of NCAA violations.

There is a chronological pattern in the above cases: Including the Bush case, Southern Cal has been found guilty of football-related violations and placed on probation 3 times (1956, 1982, 2001). In each of those three instances, while on probation, members of the football program have been found to have committed further (repeat) violations of NCAA rules (1959, 1986, 2010), followed by a period of compliance. While Kiffin's pedigree is solid, if history is a guide, his coaching ability will have to allow for several more years at the top of USC football before having the opportunity to emulate his predecessors in front of the Committee on Infractions, not to mention the chance to be yet another Trojan repeat violator.