COMMENTARY: USC -- It's worse than it seems

It was beginning to look like USC had gotten away with one. An investigation that stretched back to 2004 had dragged on. And then suddenly, after a decade-plus of handing out little more than wrist slaps, the NCAA shocked much of the college football world by displaying a set of claws many considered long since gone. The four most frightening words in NCAA Sanction lexicon were displayed.

Lack. Of. Institutional. Control.

It wasn't the Death Penalty, but it was certainly Death Penalty Lite. And this reduced calorie beverage still carries all the flavor punch of the original.


Vacation of wins after the Orange Bowl in 2004, when the NCAA deemed that Football Player 1 (known to the rest of us as Reggie Bush) was no longer an eligible player. Big whoopie. Memories can't be erased, and recruiting gains realized from that season can't be undone.

Scholarship reduction in the amount of limiting the program to 75 total scholarship players and no more than 15 players signed to a new scholarship for each of the next 3 seasons. Ouch, that's going to leave a mark. And then another hammer -- 2 year post-season ban. For the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the USC Trojans will be absent from any postseason play.

And then came the death blow, the coup de grace..

USC UPPERCLASSMEN MAY transfer without penalty, without having to sit the requisite one season. And interested programs may initiate contact with eligible players. The Pac-10 is still going to require USC players who want to transfer in-conference to sit out a season, and each transfer would have to also be approved by the Pac-10, and that will prevent SC opponents in the Pac-10 this season from shopping at Trojan Mart.

Yet there remains a general feeling that USC won't be hurt that bad, that they'll overcome all this. If that's what you're thinking, think again. The combination of these penalties are crippling.

WHEN NEWS OF sanctions first began to leak out, I had a conversation with a friend on the phone. The word at that time was that SC would be hit with a 10 scholarship per year reduction and a 75 scholarship limit per year for the next 3 seasons. I explained to him why that isn't particularly crippling for the Trojans, but he didn't really get a grip on how (3) x (10) might not really equal up to 30.

Call it new math, I said, and get out a piece of paper. And here's a link to the official roster from USC .

Like many schools, USC is traditionally a bottom-heavy program -- they have a lot of underclassmen. But USC generally has a few more than most. They send players to the NFL early, every school has academic casualties and career-ending injuries, some players transfer to other schools in search of playing time, they don't recruit heavily from the JC ranks, and they don't often award scholarships to walk-ons. SC has just 15 seniors on scholarship for 2010.

Write down 85, (presupposing all 85 slots are currently spoken for), and then subtract 15. 70, right? So SC takes a 10 scholie hit this year. They sign 5 players. They sit back at 75.

USC's 2010 juniors include 16 scholarship players. Subtract 16 from 75, then add back 15, the maximum allowable number of players and SC holds steady at 74 scholarships. See how that 2 x 20 became just 11? New math, I know.

BUT BY NCAA rule, these upperclassmen can walk without penalty. And now the program starts to truly shrink.

Recruiting also becomes a lot more difficult when the program appears to be in disarray and shadowed by the cloud of sanctions. Filling up year after year on more than their share of Top 100 prospects is, at this moment, a thing of the past. Lane Kiffin may be a good recruiter, but there's no way to dodge the questions about what it's like to sit at home for the holidays.

And underclassmen leave. The Happy Trojan Family becomes the Dysfunctional Trojan Family, (although some would argue that's long been the case, now it's just publicly apparent to all).

USC's 2010 RECRUITS who haven't yet enrolled can simply let their LOI lapse by sitting out in the fall and then signing with any school they wish, enrolling for spring term where they can compete in spring practice and look to get on the field right away at a school with post-season aspirations.

Say just 10 players per year transfer out, wash out academically, or leave early for the NFL -- knowing there is no bowl game waiting for them at the end of next year, no possibility of a national championship, let alone a conference title. Making money in the NFL or staying home or watching the bowl games on TV on their Mom's couch…which do you think they choose?

Matt Leinart doesn't stay and take ballroom dancing without that National Championship carrot dangling in front of him.

NOW TURN YOUR piece of paper over, because we're going to get down to the nitty gritty. Write 75 down again. Take that 75 and subtract 25, then subtract 26, then subtract 30. Add back 45 for the 3x15 that SC will be permitted to sign the next 3 seasons. What does the number in front of you look like? Looks like 39 to me.

The NCAA figures the sustainable matriculation rate to be 85 out of 125 on average – schools can use a max 25 scholies per year on a signing class, but 85 is the overall limit they can have on scholarship. It figures out to about 70 percent making it through.

Even if SC only graduates 10 players per year and all of their incoming players qualify, don't transfer, don't flunk out, best case scenario is that they can operate at a plus-15 margin per year. They're 46 scholarships below the 85 scholie minimum, and it will take 3 years just for them to get back to the full 85 scholarships.

BUT HOLD ON a minute - remember that 70 percent? One third aren't going to stay all the way through 5 years. The absolute, most optimistic scenario, SC will be somewhere in the range of plus-10 per year, meaning they are looking at a good SEVEN YEARS before they can get to a full 85 scholarships. And it very well could be a decade.

The program will virtually have to be rebuilt, and while Lane Kiffin may have had the skillset to take the keys to a Ferrari and simply not crash it, I don't think he has the toolbox to rebuild it from the ground up.

Given his one-and-done at Tennessee, I doubt he has even the wherewithal to weather the awful storm looming on the horizon of Heritage Gall.

Death Penalty Lite, indeed.

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