At a W hotel in New York City this week, the Pac-10 unveiled its new logo, philosophy and direction.
But amid the optimism, uncertainty hung in the air.
All the revamped branding cannot change the league’s new on-field reality — it will have to thrive this season and beyond with a watered-down version of its flagship program, sanction-riddled Southern California.
The new USC football media guide perhaps summed that up best, showing a picture of Lane Kiffin, the Trojans’ first-year coach, staring at a cloudy horizon. On the inside, a flurry of asterisks — about 100 overall — tried to erase many of the core accomplishments of the Pete Carroll era.
As the Pac-10 tries a bold makeover, USC is lurching into a meek new era. Seemingly doomed for a long period of mediocrity in the wake of a two-year bowl ban, the loss of 30 scholarships and a flurry of attrition from the ranks of its recruits, the once-mighty Trojans are contemplating life as one of college football’s have-nots.
"They have an us-versus-the-world mentality right now," Kiffin said about his players. "Everyone is counting SC out a little bit."
Until recently, considering USC an underdog would have been like lumping the Yankees with the Kansas City Royals or worrying that LeBron James was being hindered by a lack of exposure. The Trojans had cornered the market in sideline celebrities and national cachet and had become one of football’s premier pipelines of talent into the NFL.
But the NCAA’s scathing report about USC has raised suspicions that the university’s success could be tied to its lack of compliance with NCAA rules. As Kiffin tries to lead the program out of its probationary wilderness, he is likely to be held to the unrealistic standards set by Carroll in an era when the Trojans seemed to have engaged in widespread cheating.
"No one likes to see sanctions, especially the magnitude that have been handed down," said Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott, who along with Kiffin made sure to point out that the sanctions are under appeal. "In the long term, USC is still USC."
The immediate future does not look awful for the Trojans, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. USC’s talent level is clearly the highest in the conference, and the Trojans have one of the country’s top quarterbacks, sophomore Matt Barkley.
"You can trade the bottom 20 guys or 25 guys on your roster for a great quarterback," Kiffin said. "It’s more important."
Kiffin may come to regret that remark because his depleted roster may be his biggest obstacle. It fell to 70 scholarship players yesterday, when the university gave a full release to junior college linebacker Glen Stanley. Four reserves and two signees have bolted the program.
USC was already 15 scholarships short of the NCAA maximum of 85 before the reduction of 30 scholarships began. Kiffin said USC would be unable to exceed 75 scholarships in the next three years.
Kiffin said that USC had brought in just three offensive linemen in its past two recruiting classes. Eight to 10 would have been ideal, and he is feeling the numbers crunch.
"The margin for error is very, very small for me," Kiffin said. "If we’re going to sign classes of 15 guys and other people are signing 25, the last thing we can do is sign three guys who don’t make it academically or two guys who end up getting kicked out of school."
There are other signs that Kiffin’s tenure at USC could be more of a blip than a reign. He said Tuesday that the Trojans’ new athletic director, Pat Haden, has not mentioned anything about extending his contract to help him survive the sanctions. That is a common practice when a coach has to deal with the sins of a previous regime.
Haden’s tolerance for nonsense is clearly limited. He ordered Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy taken out of Heritage Hall soon after taking over for Mike Garrett. Bush, a running back for the Trojans, and members of his family received gifts from two off-campus agents, the NCAA report said.
Kiffin, once an assistant coach under Carroll, will have to function in a culture of accountability, but he was known in his single year as the head coach at Tennessee for breaking secondary NCAA rules and garnering unwanted publicity.
From antagonizing Florida coach Urban Meyer to the NCAA’s looking into the Vols’ use of hostesses in recruiting, Kiffin’s ability to make headlines resonated more than his coaching.
USC still has tradition, a fertile recruiting base and plenty of recent success on its side. But as Kiffin’s first Trojans training camp starts next week, the long-term prognosis is not good as he stares at an emaciated roster and impending sanctions.