Can college teams win without cheating?
In an episode of "Hard Knocks," the HBO documentary that follows the New York Jets through training camp, linebacker Bart Scott was poking fun at Joe McKnight, the USC rookie running back who had been pouting.
"He’s just mad ’cause he’s taking a pay cut," Scott said.
It was a funny line from one of the NFL’s quickest wits. But the funny thing was nobody was laughing. Those around Scott just nodded in agreement.
McKnight left school after his junior season in the wake of questions about the SUV he was driving last season. Though it wasn’t quite the gelt that Reggie Bush grabbed when he was a Trojan, McKnight was emblematic of what USC had become under Pete Carroll – a place where blue-chip players came to expect red-carpet treatment.
For seven consecutive seasons, USC won at least 11 games and finished no lower than fourth in the Associated Press poll, including a share of two national championships.
They did this in an environment in which coaches turned a blind eye, the compliance staff was undermanned and the administration compliant.
Now, that has all changed. Carroll is gone, as is athletic director Mike Garrett and president Stephen Sample. The Trojans have been walloped with sanctions – a loss of 30 scholarships and a two-year bowl ban – that hit far more substantially than the forfeiture of the national titles and the return of Bush’s Heisman Trophy.
"We are going to have a culture of compliance," said Pat Haden, the former USC quarterback and Rhodes Scholar, when he replaced Garrett as athletic director. "But it will not be a joyless exercise. We want the players that are going to make the highlight reel plays, but we are also going to play by the rules."
The question is whether USC, under new coach Lane Kiffin – a former member of Carroll’s staff and a serial rule bender at Tennessee – can win by playing by the rules?
Really, though, that’s a question that, as the college football season is about to kick off, can be asked at a lot of campuses around the country.
How honestly did North Carolina come by its reputation as an up-and-comer under Butch Davis? Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, a possible first-round NFL pick, and receiver Greg Little are being investigated by the NCAA for possibly receiving improper benefits from an agent, and last week, the school began a probe into academic misconduct.
At South Carolina, several players have been instructed to move out of a hotel they were living in because it may have constituted an extra benefit.
At Oregon, the problem isn’t rule breakers but lawbreakers. Coach Chip Kelly, who not long ago had a national championship contender, will now find out what he has without Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback. And for the season opener, he’ll be without tailback LaMichael James and kicker Rob Beard – two Ducks who, like Masoli, ran afowl, er, afoul of the law.
Masoli, who was arrested twice this year before being booted from the team at Oregon, is now at Mississippi, where he’s going to need an appeal of a different kind in order to be eligible. Not surprisingly, Ole Miss is in desperate need of a quarterback, hence the interest in a player who the local cops may view as a Rebel with probable cause.
These are certainly not the first cases of players with hands out, coaches eager to cut corners or football players gone rogue – didn’t Barry Switzer’s Oklahoma teams win that particular triple crown? But with coaches contracts booming along with TV contracts and players still being prohibited from taking a dip in the revenue pool, this is not going away any time soon.
Many eyes will be on USC this year to see how the Trojans roll – not just the cars they drive, but how they play without the carrot of a bowl game, let alone a national championship. They will also be watching to see how Kiffin plays it.
But perhaps they should be focused across town instead.
When Rick Neuheisel was hired at UCLA three years ago, his alma mater was the only school that would touch him. Neuheisel had left Colorado and Washington on probation, and had begun to come to terms with the likelihood that the rest of his career would be spent in the NFL, as someone else’s assistant.
So he promised when UCLA hired him that he would never do anything to embarrass his school. And thus far, he has not.
But as Neuheisel enters his third season, having won a total of 11 games and with major questions about his team, the seat on which he sits is getting warm. He has proven that he can play by the rules, but not that he can win by them.