You will forgive USC fans today if they feel like the Andy Dufresne character in The Shawshank Redemption when he crawls through the tunnel and then basks in the air of freedom while the rain comes pouring down.
It has been a long four years for the Trojans while dealing with the NCAA sanctions from the Reggie Bush fallout, but June 10 marks the first day the university is officially done with the sanction and probation period. Though the football team is still restricted in roster size for the 2014 season, there is a sense that the worst of the dark period is over.
In order to understand the impact of the sanctions, it’s important to remember the state of the USC program when the probation was first announced. It was the end of the Pete Carroll era, a stretch that included seven straight BCS bowl appearances, three Heisman Trophies and a pair of national titles.
Then, all of a sudden, things changed. Carroll left for the NFL and was replaced by Lane Kiffin. That move was enough to have USC fans a little wary of the future, especially when considering the magical run that Carroll had just produced, but the NCAA penalties were then handed down with a stunning thud.
The loss of 30 scholarships over a three-year period along with limits on roster size. A two-year bowl ban. National championships and other wins vacated. A Heisman trophy returned.
The initial reaction from many USC fans was that somehow, some way, the Trojans would be able to overcome the obstacles, that the program which had seen so much success over the last decade would be able to rise above and maintain the current standard. As we all learned, however, that was not to be the case.
There were some bright moments -- victories over Oregon and UCLA (50-0) during a 10-2 season in 2011 and a thrilling win over Stanford in 2013 -- but there was also the collapse of the 2012 season that had started off with such promise, and the eventual firing of Kiffin last fall. Along the way there were issues with depth, dictated in large part by the scholarship limits, and a thin margin for error with injuries.
Now that the sanction period is in the rear-view mirror, the university can begin to focus on moving forward. There is a new coach in place -- Steve Sarkisian -- and an excitement level around the program about the possibility of being in the mix for the College Football Playoff with a full roster. USC athletic director Pat Haden has also been named as one of the selection committee members for the playoff, a sign of how USC will look to build more of a cooperative relationship with the NCAA.
There is one large question that remains, however, and that involves the reputation of the USC football program. The Trojans can get back to full strength with the roster to improve the on-field results and they can build one of the biggest compliance departments in the country in an attempt to prevent future similar situations from happening again, but none of that will help reclaim the damage that has been done to the program in the court of public opinion.
If you were to do a survey of college football fans across the country to ask their thoughts on what USC did to warrant the sanctions, there would be plenty of people saying that the Trojans paid Reggie Bush in an effort to keep him at USC. The truth of the situation often falls on deaf ears, the fact that it was a man with a rap sheet from San Diego who paired with Bush's stepfather in the hopes of cashing in as his agent when Bush left USC. It was a sloppy attempt by someone outside the university to get a piece of the pie.
The NCAA hammered USC, and the general public instantly branded the Trojans with The Scarlet Letter “C” for "Cheater."
As the program moves forward, it is doubtful that much will be done in terms of changing that perception. It’s a frustrating situation for USC fans, and they won’t be getting much sympathy from around the country either. Those who believe USC paid Bush will likely always believe that, and those who read the NCAA report to learn the facts will likely believe differently.
In the meantime, all the Trojans can do is get back to playing football and, as of today, they will be doing so free of NCAA sanctions for the first time in four years.