The NCAA on Thursday rejected Southern California's appeal to reduce sanctions imposed on its storied football program, keeping in place some of the harshest penalties leveled against a school in a quarter-century.
USC must serve the second year of its two-year postseason ban this fall, making the Trojans ineligible for the first Pac-12 title game or a bowl game. USC also will lose 30 scholarships over the next three years, giving them just 15 available scholarships per season — 10 below the normal yearly limit — until 2015.
Athletic director Pat Haden led a chorus of exasperated resignation at Heritage Hall after the NCAA's final ruling on its nearly unprecedented sanctions for misdeeds surrounding Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush.
"Clearly, I'm very disappointed, but I'm not surprised," Haden said. "I think the appeals committee is a group of fair-minded folks. We just vehemently disagree with the result, with how they saw our argument, and how past precedent didn't play a role in their decision."
After a brief team meeting in which coach Lane Kiffin cautioned his players not to spout off about the decision on social media, the Trojans took the expected news in stride. Haden had predicted bad news for the players, who were mostly in junior high when Bush apparently accepted lavish illegal benefits from two aspiring sports marketers.
"Just like Pat and the rest of the university, we don't agree, but we'll deal with what we're dealt," quarterback Matt Barkley said.
The Trojans also expressed relief their half-decade of NCAA drama finally was over. Haden confirmed USC won't sue the NCAA to further contest its penalties.
"We could have and should have done things better," said Haden, who took over the athletic department in July. "We had a player who knew he had done things wrong. We're not innocents here, and we deserved some penalties. It's just the severity of the penalties that we think is unfair."
The NCAA refused to comment beyond its public report.
The NCAA conducted a four-year investigation into the murky dealings around Bush, who returned his Heisman last year after the NCAA's ruling. USC was banned from postseason play last season after going 8-5 in Kiffin's first campaign, but the scholarship limitations were postponed on appeal.
"I feel so badly for our seniors in particular, who have had two years of this and had really nothing to do with what went on," Haden said.
School President Max Nikias believes the NCAA has harmed the credibility of its decision-making process with its ruling.
"We are very concerned that the historical value of case precedent and the right to fair process in the NCAA adjudicative process, both in terms of the ability of an institution to defend itself or prove an abuse of discretion on appeal, have been substantially eroded," Nikias said.
USC's seniors are still allowed to transfer to another school without sitting out a season, a sanction that Kiffin has criticized as "free agency." A few players left the Trojans after the sanctions were handed down last year, but most were backups unhappy with playing time.
"I haven't heard anything" about seniors planning to transfer, said Barkley, a junior and a two-year starter.
"That doesn't mean guys aren't thinking about it, but given the vibe of the team, it doesn't seem like guys are going to do that," Barkley said. "It looks like guys want to be here, want to face the challenge and deal with it."
Since the NCAA applied a new standard to its appeals process in 2008, only one of 11 appeals of sanctions has been successful. When Haden and other USC officials went before the NCAA's Infractions Appeals Committee in January, they asked the panel to cut the harshest penalties in half, taking away just 15 scholarships and making the Trojans eligible for a bowl game this fall.
The NCAA's decision should send a shiver down the collective spine of Ohio State, which is under investigation for multiple, well-documented misdeeds under coach Jim Tressel's successful administration.
Last summer, the NCAA ruled Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo had received improper benefits under the administration of athletic director Mike Garrett, football coach Pete Carroll and basketball coach Tim Floyd, who have all left the university. In addition to the football sanctions and self-imposed sanctions on the basketball program, USC was put on four years of probation.
Kiffin, who replaced his former boss five months before the NCAA's penalties, hasn't allowed the looming sanctions to stop him from getting commitments from eight top prospects for his 2012 recruiting class.
"I am disappointed for our players, our fans and our staff that another bowl game and now a possible Pac-12 championship game has been taken away from them," Kiffin said. "We have been operating with these sanctions for a year now, and have felt their effects on multiple fronts. We will continue to execute the plan we have in place to make the most of the hand with which we have been dealt.
"I am proud of how our players have performed on the field and represented us off the field under very difficult and trying circumstances."
USC has made wholesale changes in its athletic department during Haden's short tenure, dramatically beefing up its compliance staff.
But the formidable recruiting skills of Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron will be tested by scholarship limitations for the near future. Kiffin and Orgeron stocked up on players earlier this year while the sanctions were under appeal, signing 22 recruits to letters of intent or scholarship agreements shortly after eight additional players enrolled in January.
Kiffin said he has been "impressed with the reception we have received from recruits. They understand the value of a USC degree and the opportunities afforded them by playing football here."