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The Front Row with JIM LITKE June 11, 2010

| June 11, 2010 9:00 PM

USC was a great show while it lasted, always loaded with stars and led by a coach who oozed fun.

Like more than a few Hollywood productions, it was also out of control, over budget and conducting business under the table.

Even the NCAA's overworked cops and accountants had little trouble figuring that out once they got a look at the ledger. But keep in mind that Southern California is hardly the only offender; it's just the latest to get caught.

Most of the time, the bosses back at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis just slap some hands and flap their gums. This time, they bared their teeth. This time, they actually seemed to enjoy playing with the prey.

If you think the bite the NCAA took out of USC on the playing field was painful - forfeited wins, a postseason ban and lost scholarships - check out the fine print.

It says no more "non-university" personnel - a.k.a. "celebs" and "hangers-on" - at practice or on game-day sidelines. In LA, where being seen is everything, that's the really diabolical part.

Being told to hide the 2004-05 national championship banner, white out a few wins in the record book, maybe even give back Reggie Bush's Heisman trophy - those things might bother alumni, but not the talented kids who made it so glamorous to be around Football U. Yet this guarantees the Trojans will be seeing less and less of them, and possibly for a very long time.

The Trojans' vaunted recruiting machine took a big hit when Pete Carroll lit out for Seattle and the NFL a step ahead of the law.

Now Lane Kiffin, Carroll's successor and a promising fast-buck artist in his own right, has 30 fewer scholarships to hand out and no way to promise those kids they'll be on TV much, let alone sniff the postseason for at least two more years.

Trust me, you wouldn't want to be in the living room when he tries to explain to some 18-year-old kid why he won't get the chance to low-five Will Ferrell or Snoop Dogg coming up the sideline of the Coliseum after taking it to the house.

Yet fitting as the punishment was, the timing was almost as telling.

The ground beneath college football is shifting minute by minute, as conferences rush to cannibalize each other, breaking up alliances that in some cases stretch back decades. Their No. 1 goal is to make themselves more attractive as TV packages and command a bigger share of the revenue pie. But the likely No. 2 on the to-do list of those increasingly powerful conferences and the Bowl Championship Series, their already too-powerful ally, is to cut the NCAA out of the sport and keep more of the money it generates for themselves.

BCS executive director Bill Hancock said in a statement Thursday that the BCS was prepared to vacate USC's 2004-05 season title win, perhaps as soon as its presidential oversight committee meets.

"We take the integrity of NCAA rules seriously," Hancock said.

But you can't be in the business of punishing schools with one hand while dangling all that cash in front of them with the other. Cheating has gone on since college sports began, but the rewards have never been this good.

To be fair, some good may come out of all the conference shape-shifting that's going on at the moment. Chances of a real playoff will go up, the quality of the product will go up and the money paid out will go up, up, up. Plus, we won't have to hear athletic directors and even university presidents prattle on about how much they value "tradition" and why every decision is being made for "the good of the student-athletes."

It will be a cash grab, plain and simple. That's usually when you want more cops on the streets, not less. USC had to be plenty sloppy to get caught, but its biggest sin may turn out to be making a rush for the trough before the coast was clear.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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