USC was officially sanctioned by the NCAA today, and it's now clear what their main issues were. Their report claims that running backs coach Todd McNair both knew about Reggie Bush's dealings with an agent, and then lied to NCAA investigators.
It appears to me that the ultimate sin was lying to investigators, because otherwise the sanctions against USC are considerably harsher than punishments for similar violations. In fact, these sanctions are probably the harshest since SMU received the "Death Penalty" in 1986, when one combines the 31 lost scholarships with a 2-year postseason ban. There are schools that have knowingly paid players and received less harsh punishments.
There were several other minor violations cited as well, but I think the NCAA is flexing its muscle and making a loud and clear statement to other programs: "Don't lie to us." Now whether Todd McNair lied on his own volition, or whether he was asked to by someone within the USC program is a question that may never be answered. But regardless, USC should fire McNair if he doesn't resign first. The sanctions included a one-year recruiting ban for McNair.
I've also said that Mike Garrett should resign too, and USC needs to completely rebuild its athletic department with competent administrators who understand NCAA rules. While the sanctions were exceedingly harsh, that doesn't excuse USC for being completely blindsided by them. For several years, USC has acted as if it's done nothing wrong, and continued business as usual. Better cooperation with the NCAA might have resulted in a lesser penalty, along with better awareness of its own misdeeds. Ultimately, Garrett allowed his own student athletes to be punished for what seems like a shoddy handling of the investigation.
In the meantime, I wrote last night that it could take years for USC to recover from this. I still believe that. With a sharp reduction in scholarships, Lane Kiffin will have no margin for error in recruiting, and fewer prospects will want to play for the school until it is able to move past this cloud. But it's also possible that USC could potentially have a good year on the field in 2010. Auburn football received a 2-year postseason ban and went 11-0 in 1993 and 9-1-1 in 1994 (they only lost 14 scholarships, but did get a TV ban). USC's current group of players is the most talented in the Pac-10, and they might play with an "us vs. the world" mentality. They might be ineligible for the Rose Bowl, but they can still win just about all their games. It's 2011-14 that USC will have to worry about, particularly as young players decide to transfer.
For now though, USC has to clean up its house, and reexamine the conduct of its athletic department