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Reggie’s return

Former USC running back Reggie Bush is on his way back to USC, and it’s about time.

Today marks 10 years since USC was hammered with some of the most severe NCAA sanctions in history, stemming mainly from the finding that Bush and his family received improper benefits from two would-be sports marketers. It’s also the final day of the 10-year disassociation period between the Trojans and Bush, and USC is reportedly set to welcome him back to campus and the program.

For 10 years, USC has been forced to treat Bush as if he never existed. There is no mention of him inside the John McKay Center. He isn’t included in the mural on the practice field wall. And the newly-built Scholarship Tower in the Coliseum doesn’t have a single reference to the player who sits among the top 10 Trojans in career rushing yards and rushing touchdowns and is arguably as responsible as anybody for many of the recruits who have signed with USC over the past 15 years. And all of this as player after player at other Pac-12 programs and around the country have worn No. 5 as a direct tribute to Bush.

While the conversation about whether Bush should be brought back into the USC campus should be nuanced–and there are valid reasons people have for not wanting him back–ultimately, landing on the side of welcoming him back into the USC football program and Trojan community is the right decision.

It’s disingenuous to say that Bush “did nothing wrong,” as some former players and fans have said. Clearly, he did do something wrong. The issue, however, is that based on what we know now, his biggest crime was probably bad timing.

Had Bush’s transgressions happened now–in the midst of college basketball’s Adidas scandal–or even following NCAA-related issues at Auburn, Connecticut, Miami, Ohio State, Oregon and Penn State in the almost-immediate aftermath of USC’s penalties being announced, it’s unthinkable that USC’s penalties would have been so far out of line with what other programs received subsequently.

But most of all, Bush and USC had the misfortune of being saddled by former Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee serving as the head of the NCAA Committee on Infractions for the USC hearings. Dee, of course, couldn’t be bothered to stop an operation at his own school that eventually led to accusations that at least 72 Hurricanes players and coaches received improper benefits. Dee did, however, find time to push for severe penalties against USC, and deliver the line that cemented him as a massive hypocrite: “High-profile athletes demand high-profile compliance.” For all of that, Miami wound up losing nine scholarships total over three seasons and 12 players were forced to sit out a combined 19 games.

Could Reggie Bush stand up and say the words, “I’m sorry” to the USC community? Yes. Would it help a lot of hesitant Trojan fans fully jump on board with him coming back into the picture? Probably. Does he need to say it? No.

If someone is driving 85 miles an hour on a highway I need to use and the punishment is a speeding ticket and also complete implosion of the highway, I’d have a hard time demanding an apology from the guy who was speeding –especially when we find out that the guy who flipped the switch on the dynamite is driving 95 on some highway across town with 72 passengers stuffed into his two-seater.

In fact, one of the first times we heard that Bush hadn’t or wouldn’t apologize for his role came from then-USC Athletic Director Pat Haden. At this point, I think most USC fans might rather hear an apology from Haden than Bush, who didn’t make any of the decisions that have led USC to four or more losses in six of the past eight seasons.

There is an irrefutable truth that Bush was the major factor in USC losing 30 scholarships over three years. That meant 30 student-athletes over those years couldn’t experience USC, couldn’t receive a USC degree and couldn’t develop the relationships or resources that Bush was able to lean on having attended USC. It’s telling that the most remorse Bush has stated is directly tied to this. He recently told Bruce Feldman of The Athletic, “It felt like I died when I had to hear that there weren’t gonna be scholarships for kids because of me or because of something connected to me.”

But there’s a flip side to this as well, in that Bush added so much value to the USC experience for so many of the student-athletes who were at USC with him and in the years following. With that, along with the videos and memories that are sure to be pushed non-stop by USC in the near future, it’s not hard to say that Bush gave more than he took.

No player in the last few decades has more plays and games that are easier to rattle off or elicit more vivid memories–the Fresno State cutback, the hurdle touchdown run and Bush Push in the grass at Notre Dame, the punt return in the Corvallis fog, the two long touchdown runs against UCLA in 2004, the leaping touchdown over a Bruin defender in 2005, the three-touchdown game against Virginia Tech and every other somersault-dive into the endzone.

When USC ultimately announces Bush’s return and embraces the former player and his accomplishments in cardinal and gold, there will be a massive and genuine celebration within the program, from coaches, staffers and, most importantly, players. What they know from him and know of him is how much he means to them, the history of the program and how much he can mean to its future. While programs go all out to promote former players on the recruiting trail and as connections for current students, Bush has been an untapped goldmine for a decade. If he wants back in, USC should be fully willing to use him as a major resource.

This isn’t the side that I sat on during much of this disassociation period. I felt strongly that Bush should have apologized 10 years ago and probably again at some point between then and now. There are no excuses to relieve him of his role in this entire situation, but I feel he’s said enough and done enough, and enough time has passed, to welcome Bush home with those familiar chants of “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” when USC decides to make the reconciliation official.

Not everything related to Bush will return. The NCAA will still consider him an ineligible player during part of the 2004 and all of the 2005 season. The Heisman Trophy is unlikely to be returned (though it will be interesting to see how USC approaches that topic now that they’ll be able to speak specifically about and promote Bush again).

It’s fair for some fans to hold off on celebrating Bush until he officially apologizes (or maybe not even then). It’s also fair to fully relive the joy you felt watching Bush spin, hurdle or stiff-arm past defenders, corral a punt in the open field, or simply take a handoff up the middle and turn it into a run you’ll never forget. Few players and programs are as synonymous with each other as Reggie Bush and USC. I’m not 100% sure how I’ll feel when the announcement is finally made–perhaps a mix of joy, nostalgia and maybe still the slightest lingering feeling of “What if?” in his potential to have handled things differently.

But it’s time to find out.

Erik McKinney
Erik McKinney

Erik McKinney began writing for WeAreSC in 2004, during his junior year at USC, covering the Trojans football team and recruiting. He then moved on to ESPN.com in 2011, where he served as the West Region recruiting reporter and then the Pac-12 recruiting reporter. He took over as publisher of WeAreSC in January, 2019.

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