Southern California acknowledges its football program committed NCAA violations while building a West Coast dynasty over the past decade. The Trojans simply believe last year's nearly unprecedented punishment didn't fit the crime.
Athletic director Pat Haden wasn't surprised to learn Thursday that the NCAA disagrees.
The NCAA flatly rejected USC's appeal to reduce sanctions imposed on its storied football program, keeping in place 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.
Haden led a chorus of exasperated resignation at Heritage Hall after the NCAA's final ruling on its punitive sanctions for a variety of misdeeds surrounding Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush.
"We have to look at ourselves in the mirror here," said Haden, who took over the athletic department last July. "We could have and should have done things better. We had a player who knowingly did things wrong. We are not innocent here. We deserve some penalties, but it's the severity of the penalties that we think are unfair."
While disappointment spread throughout campus and in the Pac-10 offices upstate, 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 the most extensive sanctions handed out since SMU football was shut down for two years by the so-called "death penalty" in 1987.
"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 years away from attending USC 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 NCAA refused to comment beyond its public report, which said it found "no basis on which to reverse the pertinent findings."
The NCAA conducted a four-year investigation primarily 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.
BCS executive director Bill Hancock said in an email Thursday that the presidential oversight committee and conference commissioners will consider whether to strip USC of the 2004 BCS title it won by beating Oklahoma 55-19 in the Orange Bowl. He said there is no timetable set for that decision to come down.
"The championship would not be awarded to another team; it would simply be vacated," he wrote.
The Associated Press will not vacate the championship it awarded USC in 2004.
Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott echoed the USC leadership's feelings, saying the conference is "extremely disappointed with today's decision."
"I respect USC's decision to take the high ground and not pursue any further recourse to the NCAA ruling," Scott said. "At the same time, I fully expect that every NCAA member institution be held to the same high standards. These sanctions, notably the postseason ban, have a devastating effect on current student-athletes, most of whom were in elementary and junior high school at the time of the alleged violations. To me, that is a source of great frustration and disappointment."
Indeed, the NCAA's ruling should send a shiver down the collective spine of Ohio State, which is under investigation for multiple well-documented misdeeds under coach Jim Tressel. Five Buckeyes already have been suspended for the first five games of the upcoming season for selling memorabilia to the owner of a local tattoo parlor, but the scandal seems to widen in scope weekly.
USC President Max Nikias also 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.
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.
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."
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 and working toward the squeaky-clean image coveted by Haden, the former USC quarterback and Rhodes Scholar.
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."