As of today, the book penned by USC during the four years of its sanctions finally comes to a close.
What a relief.
As much as USC has done to shake the weight of what are now considered to be some of the most vindictive sanctions in sports history, it feels different to formally be able to break the chains that confined the Trojans to mediocrity.
For the students, fans and student-athletes who went through the sanctions, Tuesday marks an important turning point for the program.
“When I was deciding, one of the main things was I wanted to go to school with a lot of school spirit and sports," said Taryn McNamee, who graduated from USC in 2013. "When I was in high school, I liked going to football games, so I wanted to go to a football school."
McNamee's first year of USC football was defined by the Trojans going 9-4, and Pete Carroll leaving for the NFL. And that was only the beginning.
“I loved going to the games. The student section was live. The whole ‘Big Balls Pete thing’, it was all good times," McNamee said. "I felt like the whole school was together as one during those games.”
Then, everything changed.
“I was already sad at the end of our first season because we didn’t go to the Rose Bowl. And then the next year, they didn’t have a bowl, so I was like, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ All of sudden, we couldn’t go to anything."
She wasn't the only one who felt that way.
For those first two years, USC's student population was in flux; is it worth it to go to games when the team can't play for anything?
Zack Jerome, owner of the LostAngeles blog and USC alumnus, had the answer.
"I noticed when looking through Facebook and Twitter," Jerome said, "there were so many younger students coming in that were not excited about going to games. And not in a bad way, but in that general malaise around the fact that the games wouldn't count.
So I got frustrated that people weren’t excited about walking down Trousdale and going to games. The championship is such a small part of the experience," Jerome said.
USC students over the sanctions years will remember Jerome's weekly posts leading up to and recapping Trojan football games during the two seasons the bowl ban was in effect. He got students riled up, excited for the possibility of sticking it to the NCAA.
And it worked wonders.
"When I saw how the posts went, and seeing people use my signs on game day and when players were buying the shirts, when that stuff started happening, I was like, ‘I struck a nerve,'" he said. "I felt a deep sense of community."
For two years, USC students eagerly awaited Jerome's posts, donned his shirts with slogans that read "Bowls are for salad" and "You can't sanction the endzone", and embraced the us-against-the-world mentality that Jerome encouraged.
"I thought I just had a good beat on what our team and our fans and what our school wanted to say if they could, so I took that role very, very seriously," Jerome said. "To me, that time will always be the most special."
In a sense, the whole four-year period that USC went through was special. Special for the extremely difficult situation the Trojans were in, and special for the way the Trojans responded to it all.
"For those of us who worked so hard to get to USC, football was supposed to be a bonus," McNamee said. "So you feel bad for the guys on the team who committed to go there and got crushed. They just had to deal with it all, but they did it well."
For veterans like tight end Randall Telfer, the USC he came into four years ago and the program he represents now are completely different. But even through it all, he's proud to have been a part of this era in Trojan history.
"I grew up watching USC to a certain extent," Telfer said. "My cousins went there and my aunt worked there, so I would come to 'SC every now and again to hang out. But before high school, I was playing soccer and basketball so I didn’t follow it a lot."
Once he got to high school and started taking football more seriously, he knew there was nowhere else he wanted to go. He saw Troy get crushed by the NCAA his senior year of high school, but that didn't turn Telfer away.
"Unless USC went up in flames, I was gonna attend USC."
So he did, though he didn't fully anticipate just how devastating the sanctions would be on his tenure there.
"I didn’t know all that it entailed or what damage it would do. I was like 30 scholarships over three years; how bad can that be? No bowl games, whatever. It didn’t really hit me."
It didn't take too long for him to understand, however.
"When I really realized it was 2011 when we went 10-2. That’s when it really hit me. I was so excited; we’re winning, we kicked UCLA’s butt. We should be playing for a Pac-12 championship or in a cool bowl, and then nothing. That’s when it hit me. Like, dang, we’re sanctioned."
As we know, it went all downhill from there.
After the first two years, USC really started to feel the debilitating impact of the scholarship reduction, which completely decimated the Trojans' depth across all positions.
"Our staff was struggling," Telfer said. "Especially at tight end. We didn’t have many to begin with. So reps that would've been taken by the 3rd or 4th string guys in practice were taken by first string ones."
At the college level, it's normal for guys to want to take more reps, to have more of a role in helping the team. At the same time, they need to take care of their bodies. The sanctions prevented USC's players from doing that.
"Naturally, we are going to come up with injuries that wouldn’t have happened had there been there depth. That’s where it really hurt us. D-line, O-line...a lot of guys had to take reps they would’ve foregone," Telfer said.
Over the past few seasons, USC had an ungodly number of players go down with injuries. So many that the Trojans had just 44 scholarship athletes available when it entered its Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, which USC ultimately won.
It was another instance of sticking it to the NCAA, something the Trojans had gotten used to doing while going 35-17 during those sanctioned years.
Some teams would kill to post that record in a four-year period under normal conditions. USC did it while severely limited, and in the eyes of die-hard Trojans, it wasn't good enough.
That's a hard feeling for Telfer to shake.
"It sucks that my class and I couldn’t get 'SC to a greater level," Telfer said. "I feel like I let some people down. Yeah, there were some years a bowl game was out of the question, but after that…we let some people down."
He also feels like his class in particular wasn't given a fair shot, given the circumstances.
"To a certain extent, I feel like my college experience was taken from me. I will tell you that the 'SC I committed to is different than it is now. I expect that. I expect programs to change. I didn’t get to experience a post season for my first few years and it sucks.
We got to go to one after that, but it would’ve been interesting to see where we would’ve been had we had those scholarships, if we didn’t have those bowl bans."
Having gone through it all puts Telfer in a prime position to lead the next generation of Trojans through what will be a completely clean state. New coaches and the end of probation signal a new beginning, and it's one Telfer and the other veterans embrace.
"I feel like I've got a lot more experience than the average vet just because we have seen a lot, we've been through a lot," he said. "Some kids will play for the same coach throughout their whole career. I got recruited by Pete [Carroll], [Lane] Kiffin was my coach, then O [Ed Orgeron], then [Clay] Helton in the bowl game, and now Sark [Steve Sarkisian]. That’s unheard of."
And even beyond the coaching changes, Telfer has changed a lot as a player.
"I've got a lot to teach the younger guys. I've played, I've started, I've been injured and now I'm back from that. So I plan to lead by example of what it is to be a Trojan," he said.
Telfer said the team hasn't given much thought to their sanctions being lifted, a testament to just how over the whole ordeal they are. They're ready to grind and learn under Sarkisian, and put forth a great effort in 2014.
But if you would have told Telfer he would have witnessed USC get sucker-punched by the NCAA, only to see the Trojans bounce back relatively unscathed, he wouldn't have believed it could be done.
But USC proved otherwise.
"For the old guys like me, it sucks that our careers were under the sanctions, but ultimately it feels good. It feels like we have a lot to prove, a lot to gain this season. Our program has been up and down, especially with this past season. But we were able to compete with every other team in the nation," Telfer said.
And that ability to still contend with the best is something Telfer—and the Trojan Family as a whole—are particularly proud of.
"That’s a testament to what 'SC’s about," he said. "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."
Looking ahead to the future, Telfer just has one thing in mind.
"We put our heads down, do work and win games," he said.
It's that kind of toughness that enabled USC to succeed so much pre-sanctions, and a return of that mentality could serve the Trojans well going forward into this new era.
Four years ago, Trojan fans were very angry about what had happened to their program. And in the wake of other, arguably more egregious violations committed by the likes of Oregon, Ohio State, and Miami, many Trojan fans are still angry about it.
|USC Sanctions vs. Ohio State, Oregon and Miami|
|USC||Reggie Bush and family receive cash, gifts from sports agent in 2004 and 2005. In basketball, O.J. Mayor received impermissible benefits during his recruitment for the '07-'08 season||Lack of Institutional Control||For basketball, self-imposed sanctions of: loss of 2 scholarships; recruiting restrictions on coaches; vacating 21 wins from the season '07-'08 season; and the return of $206,000 from participation in the NCAA tournament. For football: 2-year postseason ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years, among other minor things.|
|Oregon||"Major recruiting violations" that include a 2010 payment of $25,000 to Lyles and his recruiting service, Complete Scouting Services. He allegedly steered recruits towards committing to Oregon||No agreement reached||Loss of one scholarship over a three-year probation period, an 18-month show-cause order on Kelly (after he had departed for the NFL), reduced official paid visits from 56 to 37 for three years, and a ban from using recruiting services during the probation period|
|Ohio State||Ohio State players received free tattoos in exchange for jerseys and other items; then-head coach Jim Tressel lied about his knowledge of the situation||Failure to Monitor||One-year bowl ban, 5-year "show-cause" on Jim Tressell, probation through Dec. 19, 2014, and a loss of three scholarships through the 2014-15 academic year.|
|University of Miami||Miami booster, Nevin Shapiro, gave Hurricanes athletes cash and perks, including strippers and prostitutes, drugs and lavish yacht parties||Lack of Institutional Control||Self imposed sanctions including a two-year bowl ban, and NCAA sanctions of a loss of 9 total football scholarships over three seasons; Loss of one basketball scholarship per year for three seasons; three years' probation|
But for most, the past four years are bittersweet.
"It was a moment that I look back and reflect upon," Jerome said. "Like wow, that was crazy; what a journey. To go from the Roman Empire to the fall of Rome, to being back again in some form. That was crazy, looking back on everything that happened."
For Jerome and many others, the way USC weathered the storm makes them feel proud to be Trojans.
"I think for me, it makes me really proud that we took literally the best punch that the NCAA had. And in the end we were a winning program that had to sit out of bowl games. Nothing they did stopped us from being there. I look at our record and I'm very proud," he said.
Jerome does point out, though, that the chain being lifted doesn't mean USC is ready just yet to return to full prominence.
"It'll probably be another two years before our deck is stacked enough. But it's nice to know that that part's over. At the same time, the world is so much different. We have changed the way people feel about how college sports are covered.
Even people that hate USC, that were the most excited when they got hit. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find an educated college football fan that thinks it was right. So I think that's one of those things where we changed the climate of how things are," he said.
In four years, USC went from being the program that got what it deserved to being the victim of the NCAA's vendettas. The team and the fans had to come together in ways they hadn't had to previously, bringing new meaning to the Trojan Family. Is USC better for it? Definitely, and they will continue to be going forward in this rebuilding process.
And is college football better for it? Well, Jerome has an answer for that, too.
"Anyone can win a bowl game, or a championship, or a Heisman. But very few people can win the battle of public opinion against their captors," Jerome said. "And that’s what gets me fired up every time I hear the fight song. It’s so cool."
All quotes were obtained firsthand, unless otherwise stated.
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