One thing to remember while this whole “deflategate” soap opera continues to evolve over the next few days: Just a few years ago, the powerhouse USC football program admitted that someone related to the team had purposefully deflated the team’s game balls in order to help USC gain an advantage over its opponent.
But it wasn’t the head coach who supposedly conspired to deflate the footballs. Or the assistant coaches. Or the quarterback. Or the running back. After an investigation by USC, the school determined it was, of course, one of the student managers?
NCAA game officials discovered before a Nov. 2012 game against the Oregon Ducks that three of USC’s footballs were significantly deflated. At halftime, they discovered two more. A slightly under-inflated football can be easier to throw and catch.
After being told by the Pac-12 Conference of the alleged deflation, USC -- not an outside body, but the school itself -- investigated who was behind the NCAA’s “deflategate.”
Soon after, the school came out with a statement saying the still-unknown student manager “immediately” admitted he deflated the footballs “without the knowledge of, or instruction from, any USC student-athlete, coach, staff member or administrator.”
In the school’s view, that settled it. The student manager had acted alone.
“The compliance department obviously did a very thorough check and research of everything involved to make sure that there was no knowledge of any coaches or players knowing anything about this,” then-head coach Lane Kiffin said at the time.
That’s right. The school said the student manager just randomly decided to deflate the team’s footballs without indication from anyone else that the team might prefer them that way. The student manager was promptly fired. The football program was handed a $25,000 fine.
Kiffin, who dealt with a number of controversies during his time at USC, couldn’t understand why a student manager would take it upon himself to deflate the footballs of one of the country’s premier college football programs. “I don't know why it was done,” Kiffin said at the time, according to ESPN.
“I don’t think if we were trying to deflate balls, we would be directing a student manager on the Oregon sideline, right in front of them, to be deflating balls, and then playing with some deflated and some nondeflated balls,” Kiffin told the AP shortly thereafter. “I’m sure if we knew that, our kickers wouldn’t have been happy with that either. No kicker is ever going to happy with a deflated ball.”
Kiffin also insisted then-quarterback Matt Barkley knew nothing either.
“He had no knowledge of this at all,” Kiffin said.
But even if the school could find no link between the student manager’s actions and others in the program, the idea that a lowly student manager would secretly take it upon himself to deflate footballs on behalf of his team raised eyebrows.
“[T]here was skepticism that Kiffin had no involvement,” Billy Witz wrote in The New York Times when Kiffin was fired less than a year later.
At a minimum, there were questions about the culture of a program in which a student manager felt he should put the team’s reputation in danger for a better chance at winning a regular season game.
“[A]fter USC's latest brush against propriety, even Kiffin [acknowledges] it's fair to wonder whether his staff has created a culture of moral relativism, where a student might deflate footballs on his own just to try to gain an advantage,” the AP’s Greg Beacham wrote at the time.
“Even if Kiffin wasn't aware of the under-inflated balls -- even if nobody but this one student knew about those under-inflated balls -- the very fact that an equipment manager felt the situation was desperate enough to cheat is disturbing,” Heisman voter Lisa Horne wrote on the Bleacher Report.
Ten months prior to the incident, the USC website posted a blog post entitled “Managers Needed.” The school described it as an opportunity for students to get as close to the action as possible.
"Being a Student Manager is the experience of a lifetime for any USC football fan," the blog post stated. "You will be given the chance to work directly with players and coaches as they prepare for the highly anticipated 2012 season."
It added: "There is no way to get closer to the program than this!"