The Ghost of Reggie Bush: Looking Back at a Tarnished Trojan Hero, 10 Years Later

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman campaign, and I’m happy to report that revisiting old footage of Bush at USC is every bit as satisfying as it was to watch him live. Ten years is more than enough time for the legend to begin to outrun the historical record. In Bush’s case, this process was arguably under way while he was still in school. Whenever you go searching for evidence to back up your memories of how a great athlete performed, there’s a chance the genuine article will feel smaller, slower, or less impressive than you remembered it. That feeling is hardly unique to sports — the more we learn about how our memories work, the less they can be trusted — but it’s especially true in the case of a supernova talent like Bush, whose legacy has been so thoroughly revised in the decade since he left USC’s Los Angeles campus.

The surprising thing about doing a deep dive on Reggie Bush’s Heisman season is how shallow the water is. There’s less readily available video from 2005 than one would hope. Bush was a massively hyped player from the moment he set foot on campus, a five-star recruit who became the face of the de facto NFL franchise in one of the media capitals of the world. But in retrospect his college career exists only in fragments.

He was one of the last larger-than-life college stars whose every on-field exploit was not instantaneously documented for posterity. Online video in the mid-aughts was primitive; YouTube went live for the first time only a few months before Bush’s final season. What little Bush footage does exist now was added well after the fact, and is decidedly amateur — mostly highlight reels of dubious origin and middling quality, backed by a lame soundtrack. The statistics are easy enough to find, and they speak volumes.1 But even Bush acknowledged that the box score never really did him justice: As he once told Sports Illustrated, after finishing fifth in the 2004 Heisman vote: “I’m sitting up there with Matt [Leinart] and Adrian [Peterson] and Jason White. They’ve got all these great numbers, and I’m there based on … athletic ability.” In other words, you kind of had to be there. But even if you were there, after a certain point, unearthing specific moments that weren’t mentally filed away at the time is like rummaging through a lost-and-found. Unless you are the proud owner of hours of classic Trojans game tape, many of the incremental details that made Bush the star he was have been lost.

So you have to rely on your memory. While I distinctly recall watching Bush haul in three touchdown receptions against Virginia Tech in 2004, for example, my memories of the scoring plays themselves are ghosts. If you’re in the mood to relive, say, the epic climax of the 2005 “Bush Push” game against Notre Dame, the final seconds live on in well-preserved infamy. But if you want to conjure up any of Bush’s three touchdowns in the same game, you’ll have to wade through the entire NBC broadcast. There are even fewer tangible artifacts of USC’s 66-19 shellacking of UCLA a few weeks later — the game that cemented Bush’s impending Heisman landslide — in which he incinerated the crosstown Bruins for 260 yards and two touchdowns on 10.8 yards per carry. What does remain from that afternoon is the iconic, poster-ready photo of Bush in mid-hurdle, arms and legs splayed, forever suspended above a lunging, would-be tackler who has made the humiliating error of abiding by the laws of gravity.

Fortunately, the real-time footage that exists of Bush from that 2005 season does nothing to diminish his legend. I almost said “lends itself to hyperbole,” but why embellish the facts? Bush stopping on a dime against Fresno State, then reversing field for a leisurely stroll into the end zone; Bush juking out half of Oregon’s defense on a sideline-to-sideline scoring trek; Bush engaging the afterburners against Texas, reducing three future first-round draft picks2 to grasping spectators as he turned the corner and tightroped down the sideline. It’s one thing to remember that Bush was fast; it’s a different experience altogether to stumble across a clip of his first touchdown run against UCLA as a sophomore, in 2004, and be reminded of how his combination of raw speed and body control, at full throttle, was (and remains) a visceral marvel.

We all know that the somersault at the end of that run landed Bush on the cover of SI (a big deal back in 2004) for the first time, presaging his penchant for photogenic flourishes. But the shorthand version always left out the vision and open-field burst that made it possible to begin with. It also left out that the play, Bush’s first touchdown run in that game, wasn’t even his most impressive play of the first half.

I had no specific recollection of either of those plays before I went looking for them — maybe I’d seen them in a highlight package back in the day, who can remember? — and maybe it’s for that reason that watching them now evokes the same kind of reaction I had watching Bush play then. (Specifically: “No way.”) But the unique, edge-of-your-seat feeling that I set out to deliberately recapture may be the most difficult aspect of Bush’s legacy to preserve. In fact, almost everything that’s happened in the ensuing years has contributed to an erosion of that legacy.

In Bush’s last college game, his performance in the 2006 Rose Bowl3 was eclipsed by the runner-up in that season’s Heisman vote, Vince Young. The Texas quarterback’s emergence as an unstoppable force of nature, with the national championship at stake, convinced most of the country that the order should have been reversed.4 Despite occasional flashes of brilliance, his NFL career has fallen well short of the expectations that came with his status as the second overall pick; he was not, as it turned out, the next Marshall Faulk, or even the next Warrick Dunn. In the meantime, to a huge segment of the population, Bush has never meant anything beyond his role as one of the many shirtless, six-pack-bearing satellites orbiting Kim Kardashian.

Then, of course, there’s his most enduring legacy: not as the guy whose transcendent skill carried him to the Heisman Trophy, but as the guy — the only guy, ever, in a fraternity that still includes members who have been convicted of fraud, accused of murder, and committed lord knows what other indignities that have never come to light — who managed to lose it.

71st Annual Heisman Memorial Trophy Award PresentationStephen Chernin/Getty Images

No aspect of college football has changed more in the past decade than the sheer volume of money coursing through the sport, and nowhere has that explosion been more apparent than in the Pac-12, whose most recent financial disclosures (for the 2013-14 fiscal year) claimed $374 million in total revenue — an incredible 286 percent increase over the $96.8 million the league reported to the IRS in 2008-09. In May, the SEC raised the bar into a new, previously uncharted stratosphere when it revealed it had generated $455 million in total revenue in 2014-15, up more than $145.4 million in a single year. Across the country, the unabashed, full-scale monetization of the sport since the turn of the century — via conference realignment, renegotiated television deals, and the creation of cable networks5 owned by the conferences themselves — has resulted in windfalls for almost everyone involved: Coaches’ salaries have soared at exponential rates, scholarship rules have been changed to allow schools to cover cost of living, and virtually every major program has undertaken a multimillion-dollar upgrade or expansion of its facilities just to keep pace with the competition. This all comes against the backdrop of drastic cutbacks at public universities at large. Among the top tier, these nonprofit, tax-exempt enterprises are raking in so much cash, at such an unprecedented rate, that they cannot spend it fast enough.

Predictably, one of the most direct consequences of that sudden largesse has been a rapid shift in the public disposition toward “amateurism,” a fundamental tenet of the NCAA model that tends to be met today with such ubiquitous howls of derision that it’s easy to lose sight of how much stronger that façade appeared to be as recently as 2006. That’s when the world first caught wind of the scandal that would lead to much of Bush’s college record being retroactively vacated by the NCAA.

At a distance, using the word scandal to describe a legal awarding of cash and gifts to an athlete who was worth millions to his university and assorted corporate partners seems to cry out for quotation marks. But that is very much what it was: At the time, Yahoo Sports consolidated its initial investigation into Bush’s income at USC under the headline “Cash and Carry,” and catalogued the evidence as if it were exposing a massive criminal conspiracy. The report led the NCAA to open its own investigation, and was generally regarded as such a success that it served as a model for future Yahoo probes6 into NCAA-related impropriety at North Carolina, Oregon, and, most spectacularly, Miami. A book followed in 2008, two years before the NCAA finally wrapped its sprawling investigation, called Tarnished Heisman, chronicling the efforts of Bush, his family, and a clique of hangers-on to “turn his final college season into a six-figure job.” Outside of USC fans and the occasional hot-take provocateur, this was the consensus view of Bush at the time and for several years after. He was a villain and a fraud who flouted the rules and richly deserved whatever he had coming.

That indignation has not aged well (I know — I was one of the people who contributed to it). This is due, in part, to the evidence the NCAA used to link Bush’s third-party dealings to assistant coach Todd McNair — and therefore to implicate USC’s entire program, rather than Bush alone — being on increasingly shaky ground.7 On a larger scale, though, everything about the NCAA is on shaky ground, up to and including the validity of its rules mandating amateurism and its capacity to enforce them.

The case against Miami, which began with murmurs of the “death penalty” for Hurricanes football, ended with an anticlimactic slap on the wrist after the NCAA botched the investigation on multiple fronts. The heavy-handed sanctions the NCAA levied against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal — a sordid affair that fully deserved the designation — were prematurely lifted last year, a tacit admission that the NCAA had drifted too far outside of its mandate in imposing the penalties in the first place. Last summer, a federal judge ruled against the NCAA in its attempts to preserve rules that prevent athletes from profiting from their image, even after they’ve graduated, describing the restrictions as a violation of antitrust laws; as soon as this fall, the same judge will preside over a class-action challenge that could conceivably deal a fatal blow to the concept of “amateurism” altogether.8

The thin veneer that has always separated athletic departments from businesses, and “student-athletes” from employees, is more precarious than ever, and regardless of when it happens to vanish for good, it’s already plain enough to just about everyone that the emperor has no clothes.

In that context, the notion that a college athlete might accept money being offered to him like any other American adult in any other walk of life doesn’t exactly qualify as the lurid tabloid fodder it once did when Bush was in school. When Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, a leading Heisman contender and a transcendent talent in his own right, was suspended for four games last fall for allegedly accepting cash in exchange for his autograph, it didn’t elicit any hand-wringing screeds decrying the corruption of the sport; on the contrary, the autograph dealer who apparently shopped the story to various news outlets found no takers until he took the evidence directly to Georgia’s compliance office, and the reaction when the news finally broke was decidedly pro-Gurley.

In fact, following the collective shrug that accompanied Gurley’s suspension, the backlash against the NCAA only intensified when Gurley was stricken with a career-threatening knee injury in his first game back. It turns out people would much rather watch great players continue to be great than hold them to a set of moldering Victorian guidelines that don’t apply to anyone else. As long as the rules still exist, that’s what progress looks like.

It off to the races as USC Trojans' Reggie Bush gets away from the defense for a long run against tWally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Compared to the way things ended for Gurley at Georgia, Bush’s campus life was charmed: In three years at USC, he never missed a game to injury or suspension, and he got to see his college career through to the end before the clouds began to gather during his rookie season with the New Orleans Saints. In the long run, though, that Bush was able to assemble a full record is part of what makes the asterisk that was eventually appended to it in 2010 so galling, for the simple reason that it refuses to let the record speak for itself.

Officially speaking, the effort to retroactively wipe Bush’s existence from the ledger means the Trojans never participated in the 2005 Orange Bowl, in which they annihilated Oklahoma to claim their first and only BCS championship, or in any of their dozen victories the following season, when they led the nation in total offense and finished second in scoring en route to the Rose Bowl collision with Texas. It means that Bush remains a nonentity at USC, which (in accordance with NCAA sanctions) has permanently barred one of its brightest stars from setting foot on campus and scrubbed its facilities and media guides of any trace of evidence that he ever did. It means that Bush’s name in the archives is often redacted or simply erased altogether. It means that every time I reference national champions or Heisman winners since the turn of the century as a group, I’m certain to be asked to insert a footnote that says, “Well, officially …”

Gradually, after enough time has passed, it’s possible for the asterisk to overtake the record, to become the record, which is, of course, the entire point. (Ask Joe Jackson about this, or Barry Bonds.) Eventually they’re inextricable. The asterisk is there as a reminder: Maybe it didn’t really happen the way you remember it. And if you didn’t see it, maybe it didn’t happen at all.

On the other hand, as the tide of public opinion continues to turn against the current NCAA regime, there’s still potential for the status quo that has left Bush frozen out of his alma mater to begin to thaw; earlier this year, athletic director Pat Haden felt confident enough to state on camera that Bush should “absolutely” be allowed back on campus, along with his forfeited Heisman and other mementos. That day may be a long time coming; it may never come. In the meantime, though, the least we can do is remember him as he really was. A full accounting in the official record is no replacement for the thrill of having watched Bush on the field at USC, or of watching him still through whatever means are available. And the attempts to qualify the record are no match for his real legacy: an absurd talent made all the more absurd by the asterisk.

Filed Under: College Football, Reggie Bush, USC Football, USC

Matt Hinton is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ MattRHinton