Rose Bowl preview: How USC and Penn State foiled the NCAA's misguided attempts to kill them off

USC and Penn State face off Monday at the Pasadena Playhouse in Northwestern Mutual's thrilling presentation of “The Game the Authorities Did Not Want You to See!”


It’s not true the NCAA got a 24-hour injunction to postpone this year’s game to Jan. 2 as it considered its legal options to have the match up dissolved or, in the least, moved off shore. The Rose Bowl Parade’s “Never On Sunday” rule predates Teddy Roosevelt’s formation of the NCAA and was instituted in 1893 so that festivities would not spook the horses hitched outside church services.

The very fact USC and Penn State made it back, and will be allowed to play after having their baggage screened by security, is a minor miracle. So much has transpired since their last Rose Bowl meeting in 2009 it would take, to explain, a PBS serial drama longer than Downton Abbey.

“I think both teams went through the darkest times just to find the light,” USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster explained this week better than any Sunday school teacher reading straight from Revelations.

One of my favorite movies as a kid was Audie Murphy starring as himself in the telling of his harrowing World War II experiences: “To Hell and Back.”

College football wise, this is where USC and Penn State have been.

The rebound of these programs from punitive NCAA probation even overshadows the comeback each team made, on the field, this year. USC somehow graduated to Granddaddy after a 1-3 start in which Coach Clay Helton couldn’t sit comfortably at any diner in town because all seats were too hot. Penn State overcame a 2-2 start in which it suffered a 39-point defeat to Michigan. No one in the state, at that time, was comparing James Franklin to Ben.

Penn State has since won nine-straight games, while USC has won eight in succession. The Nits and Trojans take Monday’s field as the two hottest teams that didn’t make the four-team playoff. And based on the two national semifinal stinkers played on Dec. 31, the Rose Bowl now has a chance to reclaim its rightful showcase billing and steal the Nittany Lions' share of post-season glow.

In fact, since semi-losers Washington and Ohio State can’t play each other, USC vs. Penn State can become the de facto national championship consolation game. Remember when the NCAA Tournament used to play those in basketball?

In 1974, John Wooden’s mighty UCLA Bruins, after having their seven-year title-game streak snapped in the national semifinals, were forced to play Kansas for third place in Greensboro. Hey, not bad, even if Bill Walton would have rather attended a Pat Boone concert.

Yet, nothing USC and Penn State have endured this year can match their mutual returns from the abyss.

I have always hated the argument over which program got hosed worse by the NCAA and am still shocked USC fans would want, in any way, to compare their probation to one instigated by a convicted child molester.

Each, in retrospect, were completely different miscarriages of justice, perpetrated by two men who stepped beyond the bounds of their authority for motives that, to this day, leave smart people scratching their heads.

The co-conspirators in these cases are Paul Dee (now deceased) and Mark Emmert (still alive).

USC football got hammered in 2010 to the tune of 30 lost scholarships and a two-year bowl ban after it was determined Reggie Bush and his parents were improperly showered with free gifts and lodging.

Guilty as charged. USC deserved to be punished but, in retrospect, the sanctions handed down were ridiculously, and suspiciously, over-cooked. The NCAA’s case, led by Dee, chair of the committee on infractions, was predicated on the notion USC officials SHOULD have known Bush was doing something wrong. Dee claimed “high profile players demand high-profile compliance.”

This was laughable coming from a man who served as AD at Miami during an era of, arguably, unparalleled corruption. Dee seemed to have it in for USC and AD Mike Garrett, who was ornery, obstinate and uncooperative with the investigation.

The NCAA also tried to pin the bad-guy wrap on USC assistant Todd McNair, who so disapproved of the investigation’s methods leading to conclusion he is suing the organization. The bet here is McNair is going to win.

Here’s the biggest joke: the USC case was supposed to set a precedent for future cases—but didn’t. Ohio State got its tattoo caught in a ringer of a scandal but didn’t even have to miss a Sugar Bowl. It was then revealed that Miami had committed rules violations far worse than USC, some dating to Dee’s time as AD, yet got off with a relative wrist-slap.

The Penn State story was a completely different sort of over reach. It involved an NCAA President, Emmert, who decided to play God in the aftermath of horrific charges against Jerry Sandusky, a longtime former assistant coach.

Emmert bypassed due process and decided in 2011 to unilaterally impose his own punishing sanctions: those included a $60 million fine, the loss of 40 scholarships and a four-year bowl ban.

What Sandusky did was unthinkable, and he's rotting in jail for it, so you can understand Emmert wanting to react forcefully to one of college football’s biggest scandals. Except: due process was exactly what the Penn State case required.

One man’s czar-like ruling eventually led to many of Penn State’s sanctions being reduced, with scholarships returned.

USC fans remain angry that former AD Pat Haden didn’t fight harder to have his school’s sanctions reduced.

To reiterate: it would be best for USC to not associate itself, in any way, to Penn State and Sandusky.

The bottom line in both cases, however, is that the NCAA intended to deliver hay maker, death blows.

Monday’s Rose Bowl is living proof, though, that it didn’t work.

The proud, layered traditions at USC and Penn State simply would not allow it.

“Very few programs could survive what we’ve been able to work through and be able to be back so quickly,” Penn State Coach James Franklin said this week.

USC survived massive depth-chart depletion and chaos at the head-coaching position, while Penn State overcame crippling, institutional blows to its self-esteem, reputation and psyche.

I remember visiting Penn State the year after Sandusky had put the entire campus in duck-and-cover mode. I visited Joe Paterno’s grave site and couldn’t believe how quickly things had gone to hell.

I spoke to Penn State students on campus who felt wrongly robbed of their reputations by a scandal that had nothing to do with them.

They made compelling arguments.

The good news is Penn State football rebounded. Bill O’Brien, the school’s first post-scandal coach, deserves great credit for pulling the program back from the ledge. Franklin, who followed, also refused to succumb to “some of the more challenging situations in the history of college football.”

Penn State is back in roses for the first time since 2009, while USC seeks its 25th victory in college football’s most venerable bowl game.

The best part: there's not a damn thing the NCAA can do now to stop it.