Citing a history of misdeeds by an out-of-control athletic department, the governing body for college sports hit USC with a string of penalties last Thursday that keep the powerhouse Trojans football team out of bowl games for the next two seasons and could cost the university millions of dollars.

The sanctions culminated a four-year investigation by the National Collegiate Athletic Association prompted by separate reports that two star athletes – Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush and basketball guard O.J. Mayo – accepted improper gifts from outside sports marketers and agents.

In addition to the postseason ban, the football program loses 10 scholarships a season for three seasons. The Trojans additionally must vacate their final victories from the 2004 season – which could jeopardize their national championship – and all 12 of their wins from the 2005 campaign.

USC had already imposed its own sanctions on the basketball team, agreeing to a one-year postseason ban as well as scholarship and recruiting restrictions. The school will return $206,200 from its NCAA Tournament appearance in 2008.

Equally significant, the athletic program was placed on four years’ probation, which could lead to harsher penalties if the NCAA discovers subsequent rule-breaking by any USC teams.

Any penalties against the football program could affect other sports at the school, if only because football is the athletic department’s cash cow, generating more than $76 million in 2007-08, the most recent season for which figures were available.

Thursday’s ruling certainly damages the reputation of the Pacific 10 Conference, which is in the midst of an ambitious expansion. Colorado agreed to join the Pac-10 on Thursday, and other high-profile schools, including Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, could follow.

Times staff writers Chris Foster and Baxter Holmes contributed to this report. © 2010, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.