USC basketball program gives another black eye to school that's had its share of them

USCandal, again.

This one is not as serious as this summer’s revelations about medical school dean Dr. Carmen Puliafito, and the penalties won’t be as harsh as those that led to the Reggie Bush devastation, but these allegedly broken rules are sounding like a broken record.

A resounding USC success is being charged with cheating, again.

The USC basketball program is in enough trouble that the team could be cratered, again.

Seven years after its basketball franchise was being rocked by a payoff mess involving player O.J. Mayo, the school must now deal with the case of associate head coach Tony Bland, who was arrested Tuesday on federal charges of conspiracy to commit bribery, soliciting a bribe and wire fraud.

Bland was in a group of 10 men charged in U.S. District Court in New York as part of an investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball. Three other assistant coaches from other schools, an investment advisor, a clothing manufacturer, and three Adidas executives were among an indicted group that represents the tip of the iceberg into a probe into what Joon H. Kim, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, called, “Dark underbelly of college basketball.”

Except it’s not really an underbelly. Everyone has known about this system for years. It’s about representatives from college programs funneling money to players to either play for their schools or later sign with a preferred agent.

Everybody sees it, everybody whispers about it. One major college coach once complained he couldn’t get the best players because he simply couldn’t afford them. The NCAA can barely regulate it, and many folks think players actually deserve it because they are not paid beyond the full value of their scholarships while the schools are making millions off their abilities.

Paying players is against NCAA rules, and puts the universities at the great financial risk of probation and worse. So the FBI set upon a two-year probe that included the sting of Bland, who was charged with paying $9,000 in cash to steer two unnamed current players to Christian Dawkins, a former sports agent who was also indicted. It’s all on video, prosecutors say.

“I can definitely mold the players and put them in the lap of you guys,” Bland said in an August meeting with Dawkins and Munish Sood, chief executive of an investment advisory firm, who was also indicted. Their meeting ended with the agent carrying an envelope containing $13,000 that Dawkins promised to give the coach.

There will be more names surfacing. Celebrated Louisville Coach Rick Pitino has already been placed on adminstrative leave Tuesday after his program was linked to allegedly paying a recruit $100,000. There will be more legends falling as more lower-level figures begin singing. The college basketball landscape could be massively changing, and officials are sending out warnings that will be keeping coaches up nights.

“We have your playbook,” said William Sweeney, assistant director of the New York FBI office.

And the first of these playbooks belongs to USC? After all they’ve suffered at the hands of their own swagger? Even under a new athletic department regime led by former Trojans football great Lynn Swann, there are people who missed the memo?

USC basketball should be the last place to find this sort of trouble, because USC basketball almost disappeared because of it.

In the spring of 2009, with three future NBA stars, the Trojans advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Playing in cozy Galen Center with a bevy of top recruits, they were finally playing their way out of the giant UCLA basketball shadow.

But soon thereafter, the school imposed sanctions on the team when star Mayo was caught accepting all sorts of loot from an event promoter named Rodney Guillory. The Trojans barred themselves from the 2010 postseason, took away some scholarships, and, a year later, they were 6-26 and forgotten again.

This time, it’s the same thing. Last season, the Trojans advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. They were set to return all five starters and were poised to be a national top-10 team this season. It could have been their best team in years.

But now, Bland has been placed on administrative leave, the school has begun its own investigation, and who knows what dominoes will fall next? The job of the head coach, Andy Enfield, is surely at risk. The two unnamed paid players will surely be removed from the team. An atmosphere of promise has suddenly become one of fear, and maybe anger, because maybe they should have seen this coming.

Under then-athletic director Pat Haden, Bland was hired in 2013 strictly to help newly hired Enfield recruit in Southern California. Enfield wasn’t a West Coast guy, Bland was a Westchester High All-City player and former San Diego State player. Bland said all the right things. Bland had only two years of coaching experience when he took the job, but he wasn’t there to coach, he was there to acquire talent.

In his haste, Bland allegedly got careless, just as the football program was careless in its dealings with Reggie Bush and his parents’ free rental home during USC’s national championship run more than a decade ago. The NCAA leveled such onerous penalties that it has taken the football Trojans until this season to find their way back to potential national championship contention.

The NCAA was too harsh on USC then, but it probably won’t give them a break now, either, considering the FBI is involved. There could be more probation, more lost scholarships, another black eye for a school that can apply only so much makeup.

USC’s issues with success are not confined to the playing field. The school is still reeling over the case of Puliafito, the former USC medical school dean and star fundraiser who, in the spring of 2015, engaged in drug-filled parties with convicted criminals and drug addicts. Puliafito was such a star, his exploits seem to have been missed by university officials for months before his transgressions were exposed in The Times this summer. After Puliafito had resigned as dean, he was allowed to teach and see patients for more than a year before The Times’ report finally led to his departure.

Though the case of a cheating basketball coach is not even remotely in the neighborhood of the dean’s doings, it further epitomizes the failure of the Trojans family to monitor itself in its rise to the top of the academic and sports worlds.

In file photos that accompanied the story following his arrest Tuesday, Tony Bland was at practice wearing a T-shirt that reads, “USC Basketball Never Stops.”

It turns out, USC didn’t know when to stop. Again.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke

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