Stewart Mandel (The Athletic) — If sports are considered the “front porch” to a university, USC’s has broken glass in the windows, gaping holes where there should be stairs … and a raging fire rapidly incinerating the whole thing.
On Tuesday, three Olympic-sport coaches and a senior administrator at USC were part of an explosive national college admissions scandal in which parents paid expensive bribes to get their kids admitted to prestigious universities. Many other coaches and schools were implicated, including crosstown rival UCLA, but none with the same scope of involvement as that of USC.
It’s just the latest black eye for an athletic department that’s been attempting to set a world record for them over the past decade or so. And they’ve got to stop. USC means too much to its loyal alumni, the Pac-12 and the city of Los Angeles to be such a chronic source of shame and embarrassment.
In the university’s characteristically arrogant fashion, its interim president, Wanda M. Austin, had the temerity to write a letter Tuesday stating “USC is a victim” (underline theirs) in a scheme that happened to involve its second highest-ranking athletics employee and a 16-time national championship coach. The school has quite a bit of experience lately in this crisis management bit; less than 18 months ago, ex-basketball assistant Tony Bland got caught in his own bribery sting, this one the FBI’s running investigation into college hoops pay-for-play schemes. (Bland pleaded guilty earlier this year.)
Yet “victim” is the last word anyone in the USC administration should be throwing out these days. For one thing, the school recently reached a $215 million settlement with real-life victims of a 30-year campus gynecologist accused of sexually abusing women he treated. USC has been under an interim president since last August because Austin’s predecessor, Max Nikias, resigned amid that scandal.
With no one of permanent authority at the helm, USC’s athletic department has only wandered further into the abyss under comically unqualified AD Lynn Swann. Like his predecessor, Pat Haden, Swann got his job in 2016 due to his stature as a former Trojans football star and … not much else. He’s known primarily as the guy who opted to retain highly unpopular fourth-year coach Clay Helton but make Helton fire virtually everyone around him under the guise of promoting “stability” in the program. Stability like celebrated offensive coordinator hire Kliff Kingsbury holding the job for all of five weeks before bolting to the NFL.
The admissions scheme described in Tuesday’s indictment began several years before Swann’s arrival, but the central figure was one of his chief lieutenants. Donna Heinel, senior associate AD in charge of women’s athletics, is accused of taking more than $1.3 million in bribes to falsify credentials for more than two dozen students. By falsely designating the kids as recruited athletes — with doctored pictures of the “athlete” in action, no less — she could bring their applications to an admissions subcommittee that grants special exceptions for athletes.
The school fired Heinel on Tuesday afternoon, along with 16-time national champion water polo coach Jovan Vavic, both of whom were charged with racketeering. It kind of makes you miss the good old days when a running backs coach got in trouble because he didn’t turn in Reggie Bush for taking free hotel rooms. That seems so quaint now.
How did this happen? How did USC become a poster child for incompetence and corruption in athletics? After all, we’re only a decade removed from the glory years, when Pete Carroll’s Trojans routinely dominated their competition and Hollywood celebrities roamed the sidelines basking in their spotlight. Or at least bigger celebrities than Full House alum and USC mom* Lori Loughlin.
(*Lori, herself indicted, allegedly paid $500,000 in bribes to get her two daughters admitted.)
I know numerous USC alums with close ties to the football program, and they all use the same phrase to describe the athletic department — a country club. Which seems an even more apropos description today given the extent to which wealth and privilege fueled the fraudulent admissions scheme.
But they use it more to describe the chummy, elitist mindset by which only members of the “USC Family” get to be part of the inner circle. It’s how former players with no qualifications get to run the athletic departments, and why the past three underwhelming football coaches, Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Helton — all had previous Trojans experience.
It’s a sweet arrangement if you’re sitting in one of those plush suites at the newly renovated L.A. Coliseum. Not so much if you’re one of the hundreds of thousands of regular USC fans who just want to see the Trojans A) win and B) not be a national laughingstock.
But it’s been one set of missteps after another since the day Carroll left for Seattle. There was the institutional defiance that helped fuel heavy-handed NCAA sanctions in 2010. Perfectly personifying that “USC Family” mindset, ex-AD and Heisman winner Mike Garrett told a group of boosters at the time that the Committee on Infractions’ report was “a lot of envy, and they wish they all were Trojans.”
And then there was Garrett’s successor, Haden, giving the polarizing Kiffin a preseason vote of confidence in 2013 only to fire him on an airport tarmac five games into the season; initially allowing Sarkisian to keep coaching in 2015 even after it was apparent he had a substance abuse problem (he later fired him); and then hurriedly giving interim coach Helton a fully guaranteed contract the week of that year’s Pac-12 championship game that made it prohibitively expensive for Swann to fire Helton even after the entire fan base had turned on him last year.
And then, you know … all the bribery and such.
The closest thing to victims in this latest scheme were the deserving students out there got waitlisted or denied admissions because someone’s mom or dad could afford a payoff to get their own kid in instead. Rival fans have long referred mockingly to USC as the “University of Spoiled Children,” and that stereotype has never held truer than it does today.
And the fact that it was not some low-level recruiting lunky making $35,000 a year but in fact the senior associate AD riding those spoiled kids’ coattails makes the whole thing that much more galling.
At some point, presumably, USC will hire a new president. The search has been underway since last August. One of his or her first orders of business should be this: Blow up the athletic department.
Seriously. The front porch to your university is ugly and rotting. The neighbors are all making fun of it. Burn it to the ground and start anew. Give your supporters something they can actually be proud of for a change.