In the wake of USC’s failed appeal of the sanctions levied against the school by the NCAA, outlook over the next three to five years does not appear to be good for a team and fan base that became used to 10-or-more-win seasons.
The two-year bowl ban—of which they’ve already served one year—is costly, but the loss of 30 scholarships over three years could be an even harder pill to swallow if they don’t play their cards right. The Trojans are also prohibited from participating in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game.
But will the Trojans weather the storm, or will the program fall into disarray as some have not-so-secretly hoped it will?
The effects of the sanctions have already begun to affect the program as several players, although nobody Trojans fans like to think was significant to the success of the team in the short-term, decided to transfer before last season. With the appeals unsuccessful and another year without a bowl game to look forward to, some have speculated that even more would transfer to greener pastures.
More specifically, though, the full effects of the scholarship reductions have not yet impacted Trojans football. Head coach Lane Kiffin, in anticipation of the reductions, went ahead and signed 30 players to his 2011 signing class including 15 four- or five-star players. Said athletic direction Pat Haden according to the Daily Trojan: “[Kiffin] is going to have challenges that other coaches have not had here. No matter how many we get going forward, I think we will get a lot of good players. We will have to get a little bit lucky, but I think there is no reason we cannot be competitive.”
When you’re used to bringing in 20 or so players a year and suddenly that number drops, you need to get creative. The good news for Trojans fans, though, is that USC has gotten by over the last few years recruiting 18 or 19 players a year. They’ll be limited to 15 scholarships per year for the next three years and a cap on total scholarship players on the roster will be placed at 75 instead of the usual 85.
Following the 1995 season, Miami was hit with a one-year bowl ban and a scholarship reduction of 31 over three years beginning in 1996. Paul Dee, then Miami’s athletic director, told ESPN in 2001: “When recruiting, you have to make sure the quality is superb. If you usually bring in 23 or 24 people a year and hope that yields 12 starters, now (a higher percentage) of the players you do recruit have to end up as starters. There’s no room for error. [Head coach] Butch [Davis] and his staff did a great job at that.”
Bruce Feldman in a mailbag article last summer pointed out something similar: “Davis and his right-hand man, Pete Garcia, had to be very creative in getting talented players into the program without some scholarships, either juggling with academic scholarships or track scholarships and also getting some help from a former pro baseball player.”
With younger players seeing the field more than they normally would, the team was able to build some veteran leadership in the following years. “It can pay off down the road,” Dee said in 2001. “You have to play a lot of freshmen at first, but three years down the road they’ve got a lot of experience.” In 1997, Miami finished below .500 for the first time since 1979 only to reemerge the following year and win the national title in 2001 and play for it again in 2002.
Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told ESPN, also in 2001, “Cutting scholarships really is just a small rap on the wrist. If you really want to get a school for cheating, ban them from the bowls for a couple years. Then kids won’t want to come.”
Lemming has a point. If you want to penalize a team so they feel it for more than a few years, the best way to go about it may be to ban the team from playing in a bowl for more than one or two years. USC will begin its scholarship reductions in the next signing class, but is wrapping up its bowl ban punishment this season. They recruited well in bringing in a lot of talent in the 2011 signing class, and according to Rivals currently have verbal commitments for the 2012 class from seven four-star players, and two running backs not yet assigned a star-value but likely to receive similar recognition.
Of course, that brings up the issue of whether current players and coaches should be punished for the misdeeds of a single, often former, player or coach who may have acted independently of the program, but that’s a story for another day.
Miami went through some down years, but was able to carry on with some success through the scholarship reductions. The sanctions against the Hurricanes were announced on December 20, 1995. Miami finished 9-3 in 1996, 5-6 in 1997, 9-3 in 1998, 9-4 in 1999, 11-1 in 2000 (finished ranked 2nd in the country) and 12-0 in 2001 (national champions). Even with the scholarship reductions right smack in the middle, the time between Miami’s fourth and fifth national championships was 10 years. If the ‘Canes do not win their sixth national championship this year, they’ll exceed the time gap between their fourth and fifth titles. It goes to show you that smart recruiting and good coaching, something that was present in the mid-nineties for the ‘Canes and less so in the new millennium, can overcome most obstacles.
USC will play through similar turmoil as the coaching staff is allowed to bring in fewer players next year, but expect them to make a similar bounce-back. With nothing but pride to play for, the Trojans finished 2010 with an 8-5 record (they were allowed to play 13 games because they played at Hawaii in the opener). Without a whole lot to play for, the Trojans dropped games against Washington, Oregon State and Notre Dame—three teams they probably should have beaten. Nevertheless, they finished tied for third in the Pac-10. What’s more, USC is slated to play on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 six times in the upcoming season, so the sanctions don’t seem to have affected their national appeal.
Whether quarterback Matt Barkley returns for his senior season in 2012 is going to be interesting. He’s played in one bowl game in his USC career—the ’09 Emerald Bowl—and with an opportunity to lead what could still be a very good USC team back into the bowl season next year, he may stick around for his final season of eligibility. He’s already shown loyalty to the school in opting to stick it out with the Trojans rather than seeking a transfer.
USC should be competitive this season, although with not a lot to play for again I expect another year of ups and downs with a loss or two against a team they should have beaten. In 2012, though, with talent still on the roster and the depth chart not yet depleted due to scholarship reductions, USC could make a last hurrah before a down year or two. Whether the Trojans will be able to quickly rebound from the heavy sanctions levied against them will depend largely on the coaching staff’s ability to get creative and bring in top talent in the down years. Based on this staff’s history, I expect they’ll be able to do just that.
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Danny Hobrock, is our College Football Editor and NCAA Football On-Air Personality. Danny's writing on College Pigskin has garnered national attention and has been critically acclaimed. You may email Danny directly @ email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @DannyHobrock