LOS ANGELES — The specter of his legend still looms over USC. His electrifying run from 2003 to 2005 remains an essential thread in the fabric of Trojans football and college football writ large, impossible to untangle from the rich histories of either. Recruits who barely witnessed his supremacy still whisper his name, still mimic his style.
But since June 2010, on the campus where he once captivated a generation, Reggie Bush has been a ghost. It was then that the NCAA imposed harsh sanctions against USC, stripping away its 2004 national title and forcing the school to permanently disassociate from its star running back.
Any mention of Bush at USC was erased, every image scrubbed, all records tagged with an asterisk after a yearslong NCAA investigation revealed he and his family accepted improper benefits from two would-be sports marketers.
Bush returned his 2005 Heisman Trophy as part of the fallout, the only player ever to do so. The replica trophy that once sat triumphantly in Heritage Hall now gathers dust with the Heisman Trust. The No. 5 jersey that once adorned the peristyle end of the Coliseum is gone too; and no Trojan has worn the number since.
But now, after 10 years in exile, shifting public sentiment over amateurism along with a subtle change in the internal operating procedures of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions have cleared the way for Bush’s return to USC.
Wednesday marks the final day of the disassociation ban — since reduced from a permanent one — levied against Bush exactly a decade ago. In the eyes of the NCAA, he will be free to return to USC’s campus, and the university plans to welcome him back.
“It’s definitely long overdue,” said LenDale White, the other half of USC’s 2004 running back tandem. “Reggie should’ve never been in this situation, considering he was a kid when this went on. We’re 35 years old now. I definitely believe it’s time.”
Others are not so sure. There’s no doubt anti-Bush sentiment — he was, for a time, a living embodiment of everything wrong about big-time college athletics — has softened over the years. But 15 years after USC’s vacated national title, some people are still awaiting an apology.
Bush did not respond to requests for comment about a return to USC, but several of his former teammates and others affiliated with the program during its charmed run were supportive of his reinstatement.
“Reggie don’t owe anybody an apology,” White said. “He don’t owe nobody anything.”
Said former Trojan tight end Alex Holmes: “At no point in time have I ever felt any negativity towards him — at all. The reality … is that Reggie didn’t do anything wrong.”
USC would not comment on Bush’s return, and its plans are unknown. While some people still clamor for an explanation, others see Bush as a victim — even a martyr. Some teammates wonder if reinstatement is sufficient penance for the pain of the past decade.
“That’s for Reggie to decide, ultimately,” Holmes said. “He’s not getting the last 10 years back. I mean, how do you make up for that?”
USC has long maintained it would like to welcome Bush, and Bush has said he’d like to return.
Now, as that day arrives, can the healing finally begin?
“I would hope so,” said Pete Carroll, the title-winning former Trojans coach. “I don’t think there’s any other choice to make.”
It was June 10, 2010, after four years of investigations, that the NCAA committee on infractions cited USC for lack of institutional control and slapped the university with suffocating sanctions.
The final two wins of the Trojans’ 2004 title run, including the Orange Bowl victory over Oklahoma that clinched a national championship, were vacated. It meant forfeiting every win from 2005, a memorable season that ended in a legendary Rose Bowl loss to Texas. USC was put on probation for four years, banned from postseason play for two, and docked 10 scholarships each year over the following three seasons.
“We basically got the death penalty,” former linebacker Keith Rivers said.
In all, the committee’s report listed 25 penalties to be meted out against USC’s football, men’s basketball and women’s tennis programs. No. 15 on the list — “Disassociation of student-athlete 1” — remained one of the last vestiges of that devastating decision.
Student-athlete 1 was approaching his fifth NFL season when his ban from USC was announced. In his first meeting with reporters following the decision, Bush called it “the closest thing to death without dying.”
Yet, when USA Today reported that the running back had called athletic director Pat Haden to apologize, Haden called the Los Angeles Times to clarify, saying that while Bush was contrite, “never did he say ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize.’ Never did he say, ‘I lied to the NCAA’ or ‘I took stuff.’ ”
As USC followed the NCAA’s edict and cut ties from Bush, many of his teammates wondered why the university didn’t fight harder to defend a player whose presence helped power the Trojans to a school-record 34-game winning streak and earn the university millions.
In a 2018 podcast with former NFL running back Arian Foster, Bush suggested “the people at the university bailed on me.”
White sees it much the same way.
“If there’s anyone to blame, it’s the people who came into our moms’ and dads’ houses and said they were going to protect us and keep us safe,” White said. “You can’t be mad at a kid. Your jersey done sold 1,000 times in a single day, and you gotta borrow money from your teammates to get a dollar burger from Wendy’s? Look, I don’t blame Reggie at all, so much as I blame the so-called higher-ups, the people who are supposed to save us at that point.”
That perception only intensified when subsequent NCAA investigations at Oregon, Ohio State and Miami elicited far less severe sanctions. And when Penn State was offered relief from sanctions handed down after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Haden met with NCAA officials but no adjustments were made.
“To disassociate yourself from a player like that, then for the NCAA to go soft on Miami and all these other schools, I thought (USC) was going to do something,” said Lawrence Jackson, a defensive end from 2004-07. “All this time we talk about fighting on, but we’re not fighting in this instance?”
But while that bitterness simmered in the years that followed, an administrator was quietly taking action behind the scenes to rectify the situation.
Dave Roberts, now a special assistant to USC athletic director Mike Bohn, was hired to help build its compliance department in the wake of the 2010 penalties. Five years later, his work earned him a place on the very NCAA committee that had so severely punished USC.
It was in that role on the NCAA’s committee on infractions that Roberts would play a part in changing internal operating procedure 5-15-8.
Until the rule was changed in 2017, the committee frequently handed down disassociation bans as part of university sanctions, according to Rod Uphoff, an attorney who served as a nonvoting member of the committee during USC’s case. Such bans, Uphoff said in an email, “were usually permanent.”
However, that was not the case for Michigan, where former star basketball player Chris Webber was indicted on five criminal charges in 2002, including obstruction of justice and lying to a federal grand jury, after he was found to have accepted nearly $300,000 in cash and gifts from a Michigan booster. The NCAA ordered Michigan to disassociate from Webber for 10 years.
The disparity between Webber’s ban, which ended in 2013, and the permanent ban given to Bush was not lost on USC. Indeed, it would become the inflection point in the committee’s decision to limit disassociation bans going forward.
Roberts was named vice chair of the committee on infractions on Sept. 1, 2017. A month later, the committee adopted a new internal operating procedure, limiting disassociation penalties past and present “to not exceed 10 years from publication of the COI’s infractions decision.”
The change was not publicly announced, but USC sports information director Tim Tessalone said that USC was informed about it at the time. Asked in April 2019 about a potential return, Tessalone suggested that the NCAA’s ban was all that was standing in the way. “We would love to have him back,” he said.
In Webber’s case, it took five years after his ban’s expiration for the bitterness between player and school to subside. In November 2018, a quarter century after he last played for the university, Webber was invited to be an honorary captain at a Michigan football game.
“This was a great moment, in front of 100,000 people,” Webber said at the time. “I had goosebumps and chills and definitely some watery eyes.”
Last September, Reggie Bush stood in the end zone of the Coliseum and surveyed the grassy stage where he once starred. Now, he was 34, wearing a gray suit and clutching a microphone as part of Fox’s college football coverage team.
His mere presence required permission from the NCAA. But as fans gathered in the south end zone, chanting his name through the pregame, it was clear that his disassociation from the university had not erased his legacy on campus.
“I don’t know what they can do to rectify everything and make up for all of this lost time, but they definitely need to reinstate him,” former receiver Steve Smith said. “Hopefully they give his Heisman back. Put his memorabilia back up and his jersey. Have a ceremony apologizing and introducing him back in. Bring all the guys and make him feel special again.”
Said Jackson: “They should re-retire his jersey.”
Said Holmes: “He should be in the College Football Hall of Fame, ASAP.”
But there’s no ceremony that could erase the emotional pain or undo the collateral damage that came from the NCAA’s 2010 decision. There are no delusions of the NCAA suddenly offering restitution or returning USC’s vacated wins. The Heisman Trust, which did not respond to requests to comment for this article, is unlikely to return Bush’s trophy, barring an NCAA decision that reinstates his eligibility from the 2005 season.
Even as society grows more sympathetic to the plight of student athletes and the NCAA considers a future in which they can earn a profit off their name, image and likeness, there is no rewriting that history. But USC may view Bush’s situation as a rare opportunity to win back at least a little shine from a tarnished era.
“You can never really take Reggie away,” White said. “Reggie is a part of that history. He’s a part of USC. Maybe once we get Reggie back, we can get back to our glory days again.”
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