Under Pete Carroll, USC won consecutive national titles and just missed a third. It became the premier college football program in the country, a Heisman Trophy and NFL pipeline where you were liable to run into Snoop Dogg or Will Ferrell on the sidelines. USC was where the cool kids went. You know -- all those prep All-Americans.
The program was a colossus standing astride college football, sporting a smirk that infuriated its rivals (though, let's be honest, both Oregon and Stanford busted the Trojans in the chops last year in blowout victories as they staggered to a 9-4 finish and Pete Carroll ran off to the Seattle Seahawks).
It certainly didn't happen overnight -- it took four years, actually -- but the NCAA cut the Trojans off at the knees Thursday, citing the program for the dreaded lack of institutional control and sanctioning it with a two-year bowl ban and a loss of 30 scholarships -- 10 per recruiting class -- over the next three years.
USC will appeal. It believes the infractions committee didn't give its defense a fair shake. We'll see. A completely different committee will review any appeal, so maybe a new set of eyes will see things differently. Of course, a lengthy process -- a final ruling on an appeal wouldn't come until the spring of 2011 and might take much longer considering the complexity of the case -- could just prolong the embarrassing notoriety and delay any righting of the program under first-year coach Lane Kiffin.
Yes, USC will right itself. Eventually, no doubt. The right coach at USC, which may or may not be Kiffin, will win, just like the right coach at Alabama or Ohio State or Florida or Texas will win.
Just know that these sanctions have teeth. A loss of 10 scholarships from the next three recruiting classes will significantly damage overall depth. And, as Tom Luginbill points out, the margin for error in recruiting will become razor thin. A couple of busts and the program could find itself with gaping holes heading into the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
But it's not just about the loss of 10 scholarships per class, it's also about the remaining 15. Kiffin will be challenged to convince elite prospects who have no emotional ties to the program to sign. The bowl ban won't matter that much. Even with the 2011 class, you're talking about an incoming freshman only missing one postseason (though an appeal would mean the Trojans could play in a bowl after this season but not the next two). No, the recruiting challenge will emerge from USC not being in the national title hunt in the near future. A recruit who signs this February or the next one or the next one probably can't count on being a member of a national contender.
And, you may have noticed, national contenders seem to do well in recruiting.
Will USC's 2011 recruiting class, which is off to a fast start, hold together? And will the Trojans see a number of players transfer? We shall see.
We will also see if another Pac-10 team can take advantage of USC being knocked to the canvas. Obviously, there will be more hotshot southern California prospects available and more reasons for them to look elsewhere.
The first beneficiary could be UCLA. Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel already has made big recruiting inroads, even beating USC for a couple of elite prospects in February. Football monopoly? The Trojans just lost their hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk.
Oregon appears on the cusp of moving up from a top-25 program to something more elite, and the Ducks seem like the team most likely to get the first shot at taking the Trojans perch. They now are the favorites to win a second consecutive Pac-10 title. You might recall that winning consecutive conference championships wasn't easy before Carroll arrived at USC and did it seven times.
But the Pac-10's overall depth is as good as it's ever been. The conference, in the short term, could revert to its old, unpredictable self, pre-Carroll. Rose Bowls from 1995 to 2003 featured seven different Pac-10 teams, including Washington State twice and the mighty Trojans just once.
Then there's this little expansion issue. When USC's bowl ban is over heading into the 2012 season, the conference might look very different. Texas over in the Pac-16 Western Division might have already tried to extend its powerful recruiting tentacles into Trojans territory. That could get interesting.
Alabama got hit hard by NCAA sanctions in 2002, losing 21 scholarships over three years. The Crimson Tide appears to be in fine shape today.
No reason USC can't recover as quickly.
But the NCAA, without question, has changed the near-term trajectory of the Trojans program, which means the Pac-10 heads into 2010 feeling much different than it has in recent years.