It’s worth highlighting that NCAA eligibility scandals are not uncommon among college’s most successful teams. Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Florida, amongst others, have all been involved in scandals of equal severity. The USC ruling, however, is the harshest to be handed down since Southern Methodist University’s program was forced to cancel their 1987 season and release many of their top players. Since then, SMU has won just 74 games.
It’s seems unlikely that USC will recover so poorly. So what does vacating the title really mean for the school, for the league, and to fans? After all, the Associated Press, generators of the all-important NCAA ranking system, announced that they would not be changing their polls to remove USC from 2004’s top spot. Steve Smith, who played for the Trojans that season and is now a wide receiver for the New York Giants, echoed the sentiments of many of his former USC teammates by refusing to give back his championship ring. They “can’t take my ring away,” he said, “can’t take my tape away, can’t take my memories away.”
Title or no, USC will continue to insist that they were the true champions of 2004, and, barring some bizarre ceremony transferring the trophy to runner-up Auburn—which is not expected to happen—their claim will go widely uncontested.
What happens next is based largely on USC’s ability to rebuild its program’s reputation, not for the sake of its unwavering fans, but to ensure that the 2004 scandal remains a single footnote in an otherwise accomplished legacy. In sports as in life, success covers a multitude of sins. If the Trojans are able to keep winning, well, they’ll keep on winning. If they don’t, the trophies they won in 2004 will be remembered more for being lost than for the victories themselves.