Were USC's sanctions fair?
That debate will rage for years. Along with the unprecedented action taken against Penn State in 2012, those sanctions will be the measuring stick by which future NCAA sanctions are compared.
Like driving, discussing whether X team was shafted can cause level-headed folks to unleash a fit of uncontrollable expletives.
USC athletic director Pat Haden is a bit more restrained. He has to be.
"I will go to my grave thinking they were unfair," Haden told Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times about the sanctions. "I'd be surprised if that kind of penalty will ever be imposed again."
Tuesday marks the end of those sanctions levied against the program four years ago, brought about (in part) by impermissible benefits received by former running back Reggie Bush. USC received a two-year postseason ban and a loss of 30 scholarships over three years as a result.
All because, in the eyes of the Committee on Infractions, coaches and administrators "should" have known what was going on.
But USC has served its time. Now, the Trojans are ready to return to normal—which, for them, means competing for Pac-12 and national championships.
The question is how soon USC can make it happen.
The postseason ban was inconvenient, but nothing compared to the loss of scholarships. As Klein notes, the reductions were only part of the formula that left USC with little more than half of a normal roster:
Scholarship reductions combined with injuries, transfers and attrition left USC's football team with 44 available scholarship players for last season's Las Vegas Bowl. That's 41 fewer than the NCAA maximum, so it will take at least two years of signing maximum-size recruiting classes of 25 before the Trojans are back to full roster strength.
The Times' timeline for a return to an 85-scholarship roster makes some sense mathematically. USC signed 19 players—five were early enrollees—as part of the 2014 class. Starting next February, first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian will be able to sign a full class.
Factor in another class or two and the Trojans should finally be back to or near the 85-man limit. But there are always early departures, transfers and natural attrition to take into consideration.
Whether the rebuilding project takes two, three or four years, the consensus should be that it won't take seven, eight or nine.
USC has shown it can win without depth too; it just couldn't do it consistently. The Trojans won 10 games last year, most of them with interim coach Ed Orgeron, with 40-something scholarship players in the second-toughest conference in college football. Two seasons before that, USC went 10-2 and would have had a spot in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game had it not been for the postseason ban.
Overall, a 35-17 record during the four-year probation is a sign that USC can survive, and sometimes thrive, in difficult circumstances.
"That’s a testament to what SC’s about," tight end Randall Telfer, who is entering his final season at USC, told B/R's Trenise Ferreira. "But at the same time, we hold our team to the highest standard. We got guys who are capable of going the distance and for a year or two we fell short.
"But in light of the sanctions, we accomplished a lot and I am very proud of this team."
As odd as it sounds, former coach Lane Kiffin deserves some kudos for that. For all the criticism Kiffin received, he recruited well amid the sanctions. From 2010-12, Kiffin hauled in three consecutive top-10 signing classes, according to 247Sports. Sarkisian's first class in February ranked 11th nationally.
USC will never have trouble recruiting, but even the most vocal Kiffin critics have to admit having top-10 classes with sanctions is impressive.
Ultimately, it was Kiffin's inability to do anything consistently with that talent that cost him his job. And, yes, injuries played a role—especially in 2012 when USC went 7-6. That's when the roster attrition hurts the most: when second- and third-string players aren't the same caliber as usual.
What USC needs is a full roster of blue-chip players and a top-tier coach to maintain long-term success. That's true for any program with championship aspirations.
The talent part shouldn't be an issue. Soon enough, depth won't be an issue. If USC can't get back to competing for conference championships, let alone national championships, within the next five years, that's on Sarkisian.
Too much is made about "splash hires"—Pete Carroll certainly wasn't one when he took over USC in 2001—but Sarkisian is a wild card. In fact, USC's persistence about staying within the Carroll coaching tree has been questioned (Sarkisian was an assistant under Carroll).
Hired last December to replace Kiffin, Sarkisian went 34-29 in five seasons with Washington. To post an overall winning record with a program that had gone winless the year before his arrival is nothing to scoff at.
At the same time, Washington isn't lacking in the resources department, and Sarkisian posted a top-25 recruiting class following each full season in Seattle. Yet, the Huskies never won more than eight regular-season games under Sarkisian. Furthermore, Sarkisian recorded just one victory against Stanford (2012) and no wins against Oregon.
There may not be much shame in losing to Stanford and Oregon—the two are among college football's best at the moment—but the 1-9 record against them stands out all the same.
But these are just numbers—past numbers, at that—and in no way indicative of the future. For all anyone knows, Sarkisian may be the guy to take USC to the level of success it once enjoyed under Carroll.
USC is, if nothing else, confident.
"No program in the country could have endured the past four years the way USC has," Haden said in an official statement through USCTrojans.com.
The program did manage to upgrade its facilities and expand its compliance department, all while running a balanced budget. All in all, the sanctions were nowhere as crippling as they first appeared.
Furthermore, the court of public opinion has turned on the NCAA, and many now wonder why athletes receiving benefits is such a big deal. It's amazing how the roles of bad guy have flipped.
Adding another thrust into the heartbeat of the NCAA would be for USC to come back as strong as it was before the sanctions.
The pieces are in place for that to happen.