USC faces tough hurdle in its NCAA appeal Saturday

By Gary Klein

Los Angeles Times

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 8:15 p.m. MST

INDIANAPOLIS — Arriving in Indiana on Friday, USC Athletic Director Pat Haden and university President Max Nikias were greeted by snow on the ground, icy roads and single-digit temperatures.

"It's a beautiful day in Indianapolis," Haden said.

Haden, Nikias and USC's contingent hope for a warmer reception Saturday when USC sits before the NCAA's Infractions Appeals Committee.

USC faces a difficult mission: Persuade the five-member panel to reduce by half the severest penalties that were handed down last summer by the NCAA's Committee of Infractions, which cited USC for a lack of institutional control.

USC has accepted four years' probation, the vacating of 14 football victories during the 2004 and 2005 seasons and the banishment of former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush.

But Haden and the school's legal representatives will argue that a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years was excessive. The school is seeking to have the bowl ban reduced to one year, already served in 2010, and to have the scholarships reduction limited to five a year over three years.

USC has undergone a significant shift in personnel since the NCAA completed its four-year investigation of the Trojans athletic program.

Former coach Pete Carroll was replaced by Lane Kiffin after Carroll left to become coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks last January. Todd McNair, a running backs coach who was cited by the NCAA for unethical conduct, is no longer part of the Trojans staff. (McNair is awaiting a ruling from the NCAA on his own appeal). In August, Nikias succeeded Steven Sample and installed Haden in place of Mike Garrett. USC also has beefed up its compliance effort, hiring David Roberts as a university vice president for athletic compliance and assembling a staff that is among the nation's largest.

While the changes could mollify the NCAA, they are not part of the appeal.

"There can't be any new information specific to the case entered into the process," NCAA spokesperson Stacey Osburn said.

In the last few weeks, Haden has repeatedly said that he was not optimistic about USC's chances of winning the appeal.

And for good reason.

For USC to gain its desired relief, it must convince the appeals committee that the penalties were so excessive as to constitute what the NCAA defines as an "abuse of discretion."

Since January 2008, when the NCAA changed a bylaw that forces schools to prove abuse of discretion, only one in 11 appeals has been successful.

Florida-based attorney Michael Buckner, a USC graduate who is not part of USC's legal team, represented Alabama State in the one successful appeal since the bylaw changed. He said the odds are stacked against his alma mater.

"Since the Alabama State case, the Committee on Infractions has been crafting their opinions to make sure they are kind of appellate-proof," Buckner said. "It makes lawyers' jobs a whole lot harder."

USC is expected to argue that the penalties imposed against the Trojans were perhaps second only to the NCAA's suspension of Southern Methodist's football program in the mid-1980s.

USC also will probably point to a case involving Alabama, which was penalized in 2002 after the NCAA determined that boosters had paid players and a high school coach. Among the penalties: the loss of 21 scholarships over three seasons.

It is unclear if, or how, USC might reference more recent controversial decisions.

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