There’s an interesting analysis from ESPN.com’s Brian Maisel today, in which he explains how USC’s Lane Kiffin has managed to escape the expected punitive smackdown of the NCAA sanctions levied in the Reggie Bush case.
Kiffin did it through a stroke of luck and some shrewd roster management. We touched on this subject right after signing day, dubbing Kiffin the Sith Lord of Roster Management.
Maisel describes the plan, just as this site did about seven months ago. It really was a masterful use of the system and the situation Kiffin found himself in, and it underscores why so many people are thinking that this punk kid of a coach might be smarter than we gave him credit for:
In 2010, the NCAA smacked USC with a loss of 10 scholarships per year for three years and an overall limit of 75, 10 below the FBS maximum. Kiffin laid out for university president Max Nikias and athletic director Pat Haden the difference between serving the penalties immediately and appealing them.
He created a chart showing the impact of the scholarship cuts if taken immediately. Years of undersigning by Kiffin's mentor and predecessor, Pete Carroll, combined with the departure of several players who transferred after the Trojans suffered a bowl ban, left USC with 67 scholarship players as it entered the 2010 season. If Kiffin could bring in only 15 players per year beginning in 2011, it would be difficult to climb back to full strength.
The administration might have decided to file an appeal for the same reason that anyone files an appeal -- to look for relief. But USC also filed an appeal to game the system. By delaying the scholarship penalties until the appeal had been heard -- and denied -- the Trojans could sign a full class of recruits in February 2011. In fact, because several players enrolled in January, the Trojans signed 31 players, well over the limit of 25 (early enrollees may be assigned to the previous year's allotment).
While gaming the calendar and taking advantage of Carroll’s drop-off in recruiting, Kiffin also took another masterful step—he promptly redshirted half of 2011 class. This buying forward approach is shrewd, but it likely only delays the inevitable. By redshirting half of the 2011 class and combining it with the 17 signed in the 2012 class, Kiffin enters the fall camp with a wealth of talent.
With arguably the 2013 Draft’s first pick in QB Matt Barkley, a tenacious defense and that much talent, there’s a very good chance that USC runs through a favorable schedule and makes a run at the BCS Championship.
But the fact remains that USC is still thin in several key units on the team. No need to go into specifics on that here, but the penalty phase of USC’s sanctions run through 2014, during which Kiffin may only carry 75 total players on scholarship and still faces a limit on initial counters for the 2014 signing class.
NCAA sanctions are carefully crafted and there’s about as much of a chance of totally escaping the damage as Johnny Favorite did of escaping his deal with the Devil in Angel Heart.
Kiffin can still minimize the damage, but a lot of things have to go his way. First, he has to have the successful 2012 season he’s expected to. Second, every one of his incoming players must be can’t-miss contributors and need to play right away. Third, he can’t take any academic at-risks or have kids kicked off the team. Fourth, he has to make sure that all of his players hold the rope and don’t transfer or skip early to the NFL Draft. Fifth, he has to escape serious injury that sidelines key players on both sides of the ball.
Last of all, he has to stay out of any further NCAA trouble, a prospect that many fans scoff at given his track record.
Even if he does all that as well as he managed the 2011-12 signing classes, the 2013-2015 seasons are likely to be nowhere near as sweet as the 2012 season is expected to be. NCAA sanctions are designed to be punitive. You can run, but sooner or later…