USC Sacrifices Basketball to Try and Save Football

You only throw the basketball program under the bus if you fear for something bigger getting hurt.

By Kurt Helin
|  Monday, Jan 4, 2010  |  Updated 12:18 PM PDT
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March 14, 2009: USC Wins Pac-10 Tourney

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OMAHA, NE - MARCH 20: O.J. Mayo #32 of the USC Trojans against the Kansas State Wildcats during the Midwest Region first round of the 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on March 20, 2008 at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Kansas State won 80-67. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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The act of a school sanctioning itself to prevent a more harsh reaction from NCAA investigators is almost as old as the NCAA’s seedy investigations themselves. The idea is pretty simple: We’ll slap our own wrist so that the NCAA does not come through and cut off our hand.

But USC on Sunday pretty much cut off its own hand in self-sanctions tied to the recruitment and treatment of O.J. Mayo. No Pac-10 or NCAA Tournament play this year (even though the surprisingly good Trojans may have been in line for both). Losing one scholarship for this season and next season. Plus some recruitment cuts, — one fewer coach can head out on the road this summer, and they number of days they can recruit next year will be cut by 20 (from 130 to 110).

If that is the slap on the wrist, what does USC really fear would come down?

The answer is that the investigation and punishments would land on the football program. That is the big sport on campus, the cash cow.

The NCAA’s investigation of how Mayo ended up at USC — and if he was paid by Rodney Guillory while he was enrolled — was tied by the NCAA to its investigation of benefits football star Reggie Bush may have received while playing for the Trojans. The combination of the two investigations implies the NCAA is looking at the dreaded “institutional control” concept.

So, USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett threw the basketball program under the bus in hopes of saving football. Ohio State did this more than a decade ago (around Maurice Clarett) and it worked. Garrett and the university will spin that differently, but the fact is that they are not making the “we cleaned house” appeal to the NCAA. “The player that was the problem is gone, the coach is gone, see we are cleaning things up ourselves!” USC did all that and still severely punished the program.

This was no real surprise to anyone — there were reasons that so many USC players went pro this year and recruits changed their mind after making a verbal commitment. Everyone knew a punishment was coming. Not that it’s fair to the players on the team now, who have rallied and played above expectations this season, but it is not a surprise.

The question is, will it work. Or is the cash cow of football still in the NCAA’s sites?

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