Document Drop: NCAA Botched USC Investigation

After its football program was buried thanks to four years of damning media reports of impropriety perpetrated by Reggie Bush, USC is finally fighting back against the NCAA via its own media leaks.

Pete Carroll

(On second thought … he actually has a point)

Late Thursday Dan Weber and Bryan Fischer of USC Rivals site USCFootball.com published a report attributed to unreleased NCAA investigative documents that indicates the NCAA had very little, if any indisputable proof that a USC representative had direct knowledge of Bush receiving improper benefits while at the school. (The NCAA investigative documents would normally be accessible to the media but as the NCAA and USC are private institutions, respective Freedom of Information Acts are not applicable.)

Those newly-leaked NCAA investigative documents, which were part of the “workbook” used by the NCAA’s Committee On Infractions to prove its case against USC, show the NCAA made crucial errors in attempting to pin down a direct connection between USC assistant football coach Todd McNair and sports marketing agent Lloyd Lake. Lake was one of the men who provided Bush with up to $300,000 worth of improper benefits.

McNair’s alleged direct knowledge of Bush’s improper benefits is the central piece of evidence cited by the NCAA as justification for the harsh penalties doled out to the USC football program.

After reading the entire NCAA infractions report and the lengthy USCFootball.com report citing confirmed NCAA investigative documents, the basis for those penalties can be traced to two key situations.

Situation #1) The NCAA claims that a phone call from sports marketing agent Lloyd Lake, who was involved in providing Reggie Bush improper benefits, was received by the phone of USC assistant football coach Todd McNair at 1:34 a.m on Jan. 8, 2006.

Based on phone records of that call, the NCAA said the USC coach “misled the enforcement staff and failed to inform USC compliance that he’d been told of the intent to funnel illegal benefits to Bush.

All indications are that that call is what the NCAA regards as the most damning piece of evidence against USC in the entire NCAA Infractions Report.

But newly-revealed transcripts of NCAA-led interviews with McNair and Lake about the call from the USCFootball.com report show serious errors by NCAA investigators.

When McNair was asked by an NCAA investigator about the call, he was told the call was made on Jan. 8, 2005. Phone records showed the call was made on Jan. 8, 2006.

For that reason, McNair denied he’d received the call on that date. Astonishly, the question was never corrected and the NCAA never followed up with McNair. To this day McNair has not had a chance to defend himself about the phone call in question.

When the NCAA enforcement staff interviewed Lake about the same call, twice an NCAA official mistakenly stated in the question to Lake that the call in question came from McNair. Phone records showed the call was made by Lake.

From USCFootball.com:

Just 10 days from returning to prison at the time of the Jan. 8 call, Lake did not admit that the call had been made from his phone, as telephone records showed. He answered the question as if it accurately reflected the situation, recounting why McNair had called him even though that was clearly not true.

The Case Summary does not show that NCAA investigators asked Lake to explain this discrepancy or his detailed answer about a phone call that the assistant coach did not make.

More from USCFootball.com on McNair’s specific denial of receiving the call and the NCAA’s conclusion involving the matter:

Given the 2005 date, McNair recounted what he was doing the week after USC’s BCS championship game against Oklahoma, not after the 2006 Texas game, when Bush was a junior headed off early to the NFL.

At that time in 2005, McNair was on the road recruiting Kyle Moore in Georgia and Brian Cushing in New Jersey. Both signed letters of intent with USC in February of 2005.

As a result of the enforcement staff’s mistakes, McNair appears to have never had the chance to respond about the call that the Committee used to convict him. The NCAA admitted that its staff had considered questioning McNair again, but declined since McNair “was on the record and adamant that he had never spoken to Lake.”

The Committee agreed with the enforcement staff’s finding that Lake, despite having given a detailed answer to a key question with a false premise, was more credible.

Situation #2) In its investigation, the NCAA attempted to prove a connection between sports marketer Mike Ornstein, who reportedly provided improper benefits to Bush, and USC coach Pete Carroll.

On page 30 of the public NCAA Infractions Report, the NCAA cited testimony from an unnamed sports agent as evidence that Carroll had facilitated a connection between Bush and Ornstein.

Ornstein is “sports marketer A” and Carroll is the “former head coach”:

There was information in the record that the former head football coach encouraged sports marketer A to hire student-athletes as interns. A current NFLPA certified agent (”sports agent B”) is the chairman of a sports agency and a colleague of sports marketer A. He reported that the former head football coach asked sports marketer A to consider hiring football student-athletes as interns in his agency. Sports agent B reported:

(Sports marketer A) was like, `yeah, here’s (the former head football coach) and the year before, he, he’s tryin’ to get me to hire, you know, three players, you know.’

…How many players, I don’t even know, maybe he tried to get him to hire ten….but it was totally agreed upon between (the former head football coach) and (sports marketer A) that there was an internship program for that summer. That’s all I do know.

At the hearing, the former head coach denied that he asked sports marketer A to hire football student-athletes as interns, although he acknowledged that he knew sports marketer A and that he (sports marketer A) had “something about his past the years before that had gone wrong . . . (and) it was related to the NFL.” [Note: At the hearing the institution’s general counsel reported that, in 1995, sports marketer A had “pleaded guilty to mail fraud for defrauding the NFL.”]

So a third party claim by an anonymous sports agent - who for all we know is in competiton with Ornstein for clients - is the basis for directly connecting Carroll to Ornstein?

… That’s it.

Those are the two strongest pieces of evidence that the NCAA cites in its Infractions Report to justify dropping a nuclear bomb on the USC football program.

No one is denying that Reggie Bush broke the rules in a big way and that USC should’ve known about it. No is denying that USC, Garrett and Carroll ran a loose ship and probably could’ve used a slap on the wrist.

But if that’s the most the NCAA can dig up about USC’s direct connection to rules violations after a four-year investigation, in my opinion, the penalties don’t fit the crime.

Though USC’s failure to cooperate fully with the investigation and its subsequent, public admonishment of the NCAA sanctions likely has already mitigated the effectiveness of a future appeal.