LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California hadn’t even taken the Coliseum field for its first game after its football postseason ban ended before reports of even more possible NCAA violations surfaced.
While the top-ranked Trojans wait weeks, months or years to find out what comes out of the latest allegations, they’ll try to concentrate on improving a football team that looks ready to contend with the nation’s best once again.
USC pounded Hawaii 49-10 in its season opener Saturday, but also learned that an employee of the Los Angeles County assessor’s office apparently gave gifts to long-departed tailback Joe McKnight and basketball player Davon Jefferson.
“We were completely focused on the game, and will be the same next week,” Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin said Sunday night. “It’s not even registering with us, as far as this football team and what we’re doing.”
But just when athletic director Pat Haden, USC President Max Nikias, Kiffin and men’s basketball coach Kevin O’Neill might have thought they had fully cleaned up the mess left behind by former athletic director Mike Garrett and coaches Pete Carroll and Tim Floyd, more trouble surfaced in the report by the Los Angeles Times.
“We have discussed those allegations with the NCAA and Pac-12, and we will thoroughly investigate them and take any and all necessary actions,” Haden said.
USC is on probation from severe NCAA sanctions leveled against the athletic department in 2010 for an array of misdeeds related to Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball star O.J. Mayo. The Trojans were hit with the NCAA’s harshest sanctions in a quarter-century, including the bowl ban and the loss of 15 football scholarships per season over three years.
The severity of trouble from these latest allegations is impossible to predict until the school, the conference and the NCAA investigate more thoroughly.
The Times report implicated Scott Schenter, the former appraiser who was already a peripheral figure in the Trojans’ troubles after he apparently loaned a Land Rover to McKnight during the 2009 season. The Trojans and the NCAA already investigated that relationship several years ago, and USC wasn’t punished.
The new report includes descriptions of illegal gifts including a different car, an airline ticket and cash given to the two athletes by Schenter. The alleged infractions are still within the four-year statute of limitations set by the NCAA for pursuing punishment.
Yet USC also is likely to get credit for its strenuous attempts to run a clean department under Haden, the former Trojans quarterback who took over the department in July 2010, about six months after Kiffin was hired by Garrett.
“We have diligently worked to enhance a culture of compliance throughout the athletic department and the university,” Haden said. “We have been a national leader in athletic compliance matters. ... I can personally assure you that USC takes its compliance obligations with NCAA and Pac-12 rules extremely seriously, and we are dedicated to playing and competing the right way.”
Until USC has a better idea of what the allegations will mean for its current Trojans, the school is likely to focus on a team that looked worthy of its preseason No. 1 ranking in its debut.
Kiffin wasn’t totally pleased with his star-studded offense, lamenting the offensive line’s play and an overall lack of balance despite headline-grabbing performances by Matt Barkley and Marqise Lee.
He had few complaints about a defense that picked up right where it left off last season, when the Trojans beat UCLA 50-0 at the Coliseum in the final game of the second year of their postseason ban.
Kiffin was particularly pleased by his rebuilt defensive line, which showed remarkable promise with its new array of starters and contributors. Junior-college transfer Morgan Breslin, freshmen Antwaun Woods and Leonard Williams, and sophomore George Uko were among the playmakers.
“They’re the story of the day,” Kiffin said. “A lot of question marks there, and it seemed they made a bunch of plays.”
Kiffin was particularly impressed by Williams, the touted recruit from Daytona Beach, Fla., who made his college debut. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron already has compared Williams to former USC star Shaun Cody.
“I saw some great things out of Leonard,” Kiffin said. “Some things where you really say, ‘Wow, that’s what they’re supposed to look like.’ Stuff you see in the SEC every day. He made some mistakes, like any freshman would, but he’s going to be special.”
While watching the Trojans’ increasingly dominant efforts on defense late last season and again in the opener against Hawaii, it’s easy to forget the Kiffin staff’s first defense was among the worst in USC history. Those 2010 Trojans gave up more than 400 yards per game, the most since the school started keeping records six decades ago, and a school-record 347 points.
Defensive gurus Monte Kiffin and Orgeron have fixed much of what ailed the Trojans that year, returning USC to the defensive dominance fostered by Carroll.
“I was pleased with the rotation we were able to get, and guys got some playing time,” said Orgeron, the defensive coordinator and line coach. “That’s a luxury. I don’t know if we’ll have that luxury later on when the games are tight.”