by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After Southern Cal was hit with a heavy dose of NCAA penalties last year in the aftermath of the Reggie Bush fiasco, we had to recall similar sanctions the NCAA levied upon the Trojans in 1982, which included a 2-year ban on bowl games. More specifically, we recalled legendary L.A. area radio sports personality, the late Jim Healy, putting the Trojans’ predicament in perspective 29 years ago. “I have good and bad news for USC football fans,” Healy said on the day the penalties were announced in ‘82. “The bad news is that the Trojans have been put on probation for the ticket-selling scandal. The good news is that they didn’t get caught for all of the other things they’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”

The latest NCAA penalties, which include a postseason ban that will continue this season, and ongoing scholarship cuts, are hardly the first time SC has been in the crosshairs of college sports’ governing bodies. Over the past 52 years, the Trojans have been nailed with no fewer than four different bowl bans and various other punishments. Indeed, in the pantheon of NCAA transgressors, SC warrants it own wing, and deserves no worse than equal billing with some of the more-publicized cheats in college sports over the past 50 years.

The Trojans swear they have cleaned up their act, however, and went to great lengths to do so last year after the most-recent punishments were announced. Among the more important changes was the dismissal of AD Mike Garrett and subsequent hiring of the fair-haired boy of Troy, Pat Haden, former QB, attorney, and TV analyst, and for many years also a member of the school’s Board of Trustees. Haden, however, did not have any official involvement with the athletic department during the recent firestorms that enveloped the football and basketball programs, so his appointment was considered a clean slate for the image-stained department. And, so far under Haden’s watch, SC has been minding its manners, and then some, although its appeal to the NCAA to have its penalties reduced was rejected in the spring.

What Haden was not involved with, however, was the hiring in January 2010 of HC Lane Kiffin, Pete Carroll’s one-time understudy and eventual successor. Regional sources report that Garrett didn’t even pull the trigger on the Kiffin hire, instead taking a back seat to the school’s power brokers who believed Kiffin was the right choice to continue the Carroll legacy of success. But it was a ham-handed move by the cigars, and brazen, too, considering Kiffin’s brief but hardly uneventful stint at Tennessee in 2009 when he was a walking-and-talking rules violation. During his one year at Knoxville, Kiffin also alienated most of the Vol faithful and SEC opponents. And when the NCAA finally got around to announcing its penalties for the Trojans in the spring of 2010, it was safe to say that Kiffin’s recent hiring hardly scored the school any points with the infractions committee.

According to sources, the extended byproduct of Kiffin’s hiring, and its relation to the subsequent appointment of Haden, is that there is no way these two souls would have ever come together in any other set of circumstances. In other words, Haden would never have hired Kiffin, and most in the know around the SC program acknowledge as much. Haden’s disdain for Kiffin is illustrated by not just his lukewarm support for the coach, but also the fact Haden has assigned one of deputies, his former receiver and current assistant AD J.K. McKay (son of the legendary SC coach), to “babysit” Kiffin and the football program. Most informed observers suspect Haden is looking for an excuse to rid SC of Kiffin, whose first season in charge, albeit under difficult circumstances, hardly recalled the glory days of the program. Kiffin thus walks a very treacherous tightrope, with any hint of transgressions likely triggering his ouster, not to mention any further regression of the on-field product, which eroded alarmingly a year ago and included Troy's first loss to hated Notre Dame in nine years.

On the surface, Kiffin’s 8-5 mark in 2010 doesn’t look so bad, except when examining the schedule and realizing it would have been hard for the Trojans to do much worse. There were some occasional highlights that reminded SC fans of the Carroll years, but also enough lowlights to recall the days of Carroll predecessor Paul Hackett. And while the ESPN generation might not realize as much, the Trojans, like any other grid powerhouse, have never really been any better than their coaches. Just ask Notre Dame. The tenures of Carroll predecessors Ted Tollner, Larry Smith, John Robinson (second stint), and Hackett all ended awkwardly, with SC rarely a contender for national honors in the 20 years prior to Carroll’s hiring in 2001. And, to this point, we have no evidence that Kiffin, who turned burning bridges into art forms in his previous abbreviated head coaching stints with the NFL Oakland Raiders (who could forget Al Davis’ press conference, excoriating young Lane, after firing Kiffin four games into the 2008 season?) and Tennessee, is up to task any more than Tollner or Hackett during their failed regimes at Troy.

The pressure is thus squarely on Kiffin to at the least stop any further bleeding in 2011, although without that bowl carrot to dangle in front of the players, keeping the troops focused won’t be easy. Moreover, there is evidence that papa Monte, a longtime coach and decorated NFL coordinator who followed his son to Tennessee and then SC, might be past his sell-by point as a defensive mastermind. The Trojan stop unit never mastered Monte’s pet “Tampa 2" schemes last year when allowing over 400 yards and 26 ppg, among the worst defensive numbers in school history. The 30 TD passes allowed was also one of the worst marks in the country (ranking 115th), alongside the likes of East Carolina and Memphis at the bottom of national stats in a category where a triple-digit rating is bad news. Late-game defensive collapses also proved costly in losses to Washington. Stanford, and Notre Dame when the Trojans surrendered fourth-quarter leads.

The hope is that another year of learning Monte’s complex schemes might benefit the stop unit, but against various high-tech aerial-oriented attacks in the Pac-12, any continuing pass defense shortcomings could again be ruthlessly exposed. Four new starters in the secondary last season could be partially blamed for those depressed pass defense numbers, and all return in 2011. Free safety T.J. McDonald has generated the most preseason accolades, but alarming gaps in coverage were exploited by all competent enemy passing games a year ago. There are, however, signs that the defensive line, coached by the boisterous recruiting whiz Ed Orgeron, might emerge as a strength if jr. DE Nick Perry picks up where he left off at the end of last season and in spring, when he was a terror. But keeping the key linemen healthy remains an X-factor after Perry, DE Wes Horton, and the versatile 295-lb. Armon Armstead were all hobbled at one time or another over the past year. Similarly, the LB corps dealt with various injury problems in 2010 and loses its top two tacklers from a year ago in Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan. The once-touted sr. OLB Chris Galippo has endured a choppy career and has yet to emerge as the sort of playmaker that used to dot Trojan defenses, although jr. MLB Devon Kennard looks a better bet to continue the tradition of productive SC linebackers.

Still, observers of spring practice were not convinced any dramatic turnaround is imminent, and took note of the fact the “D” spent no time working on special “spread-prevent” defenses against the sorts of attacks that gave SC particular fits in 2010. Onlookers found that development especially curious, given that spring work seemed a perfect time to introduce some new schemes that will have to be employed sometime in the fall.

Meanwhile, the offense moved in fits and spurts in 2010 behind now-junior QB Matt Barkley, whose hype preceded him to the Coliseum but whose performances have hardly justified the John Elway-like comparisons coming out of high school. Without the sort of dominant supporting cast he enjoyed as a prep at storied Mater Dei HS in nearby Santa Ana, or that benefited the likes of predecessors Matt Leinart, John David Booty, and Mark Sanchez at SC, the jury remains out on Barkley, still reluctant to throw the deep ball and prone to meltdowns despite tossing 26 TD passes a year ago. It also isn’t helping Barkley or the offense that the traditional strength of the SC attack, the offensive line, has regressed from recent dominating units, and only two starters return up front this fall, although LT Matt Kalil has a chance to become the latest in a long line of Trojan first-round NFL draft choices along the forward wall.

The usual weaponry in the Trojan arsenal is also a bit muted from past editions. There was a logjam at the fabled TB spot in spring, but with no one emerging as anything close to a Bush-like force, the likes of sr. Marc Tyler (913 YR LY) and last year’s ballyhooed recruit, soph Dillon Baxter, were slated to share carries when the regular season opens September 3 vs. Minnesota. That was prior, however, to Tyler's mid-summer suspension related to some ill-advised (to put it mildly) comments to TMZ. His status for the fall likely won't be determined until later in the summer. Replacing the various dimensions of versatile FB Stanley Havili (especially as a receiver out of the backfield) will likely be the task of 255-lb. true frosh slammer Soma Vainuku. Soph WR Robert Woods flashed plenty of upside in 2010 when catching 65 passes, but the old homerun dimension from the receiving corps might be absent unless true frosh George Farmer emerges. Newcomers will also be entrusted with both the place-kicking and punting chores.

Oddsmakers might also want to reconsider their usual premiums placed upon the Trojans, who stand only 9-17 vs. the number over the past two seasons, and just 3-9 vs. the spread at the Coliseum over that span.

Summary...The Lane Kiffin regime sits on some shaky underpinnings at the moment, with an AD and majority of the support base hardly convinced he is the coach to lead SC out of the probationary period and back into prominence. And since some of Kiffin’s touted recent recruits don’t figure to be making big contributions anytime soon, the immediate prospects for 2011 are bleaker than at any time since prior to Pete Carroll’s arrival a decade ago. With evidence lacking that papa Monte’s defensive expertise can translate to the college level, or that once-touted QB Barkley is any sort of savior for the offense, the Trojans might be hard-pressed not to exceed last year’s five losses. What consequences that might have for the younger Kiffin remain to be seen.

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