BILL PLASCHKE

USC football incident further deflates Trojans' image

As Pac-12 fines USC because a student manager deflated footballs in the Oregon game, there's the perception that a cleaned-up program is sliding backward.

Three months ago, the USC Trojans had proudly survived NCAA probation to become the top-ranked team in college football.

On Thursday, after a litany of missteps and misdeeds had turned their season of rebirth into a spiral of regret, the program stumbled again.

One more time, the air was taken out of their football — only this time, literally.

And now, the Psssst Scandal.

The Trojans announced they had been reprimanded and fined by the Pac-12 Conference because one of their student managers had intentionally deflated several footballs below NCAA-regulated levels during the first half of the Trojans' 62-51 loss to Oregon on Saturday at the Coliseum.

The student manager is no longer with the team, but, despite USC's diligent efforts to clean up the program during its two years in NCAA purgatory, the flames of impropriety are again licking at its cleats.

"I think it's not positive," said Coach Lane Kiffin in a Thursday morning news conference held under a campus arch amid a spitting rain.

That's like saying the Trojans' tackling against the Ducks was not positive. It is hard to overstate the detrimental drama that has enveloped USC seemingly from the moment star quarterback Matt Barkley stood in front of a Christmas tree last winter and announced he would be returning to lead the probation-free Trojans to a glorious fall.

On the field, this team with unbeaten talent is 6-3 while gaining national recognition mostly for reckless penalties and questionable play-calling.

Off the field, Kiffin has dragged the team through an array of distractions and ethics dilemmas that have tarnished the athletic department's sterling post-probation image cultivated by Athletic Director Pat Haden.

Kiffin was not hired by Haden, and there is now real doubt about his ability to keep his job beyond this season as the department sinks deeper into embarrassment. Kiffin was a Mike Garrett guy, and there are indications that Haden is ready to rid the program of the last traces of that legacy. As always, winning solves everything, and it appears Kiffin is going to have to do plenty of it in these final three regular-season games.

Like, maybe, win all of them?

Kiffin, 37, who is still learning on the sidelines as the youngest coach of a Bowl Championship Series conference team, was the model leader for his first two seasons as he deftly steered the team through probation. But once the games counted, he has been driven to the sorts of distractions that have perhaps shown up on the scoreboard.

His program stopped allowing visiting teams to use the Coliseum the day before a game for traditional walk-throughs, a move viewed as petty. He tried to ban a reporter for writing about injuries, but the ban was quickly rescinded by Haden. He changed numbers during games to gain a competitive advantage, possibly breaking the NCAA ethics code.

The Psssst Scandal reinforces a national perception that, even after enduring one of the stiffest penalties in NCAA history, USC is dangerously slipping back toward a culture of cheating.

"I think that's a fair question, but I don't believe that at all," said Kiffin on Thursday. "I believe this is an isolated incident that had nothing to do with the coaches or players on this team."

Nothing to do with the coaches or players on this team? That's a tough one to swallow. Who among us can actually believe that, in a giant and glittery program like USC's, a student manager would illegally alter a piece of game equipment on his own? If there truly existed a student manager with that kind of guts, shouldn't he be playing defense?

It is not only fair, but reasonable, to guess that if the student manager wasn't ordered to deflate the balls, he felt empowered to do so by the existence of a culture that increasingly seems to cut corners and rationalize ethics.

One theory could have been that Barkley asked the manager to deflate the balls because it presumably makes them easier to pass and catch, but Barkley denied any knowledge of the incident. Another theory is that the manager, acting on USC offensive players' recommendations during practice, thought deflating the balls was legal.

But because of Kiffin's history, until further notice, the blame for this will affix itself to him, which once again puts his boss in a sticky situation.

"We regret this incident occurred," said Haden on Thursday in a statement. "It was unacceptable and we apologize for it. I can assure you this will not happen again."

If it was indeed a rogue manager, how can they guarantee it will not happen again? If it was not a rogue manager, there are no more guarantees, not for the immediate future of this program, and certainly not for its head coach.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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