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USC Football: The Impact of Reggie Bush Could Never Be Erased

USC Football: The Impact of Reggie Bush Could Never Be Erased

USC Football: The Impact of Reggie Bush Could Never Be Erased

USC running back Markese Stepp barrelled into the end zone through the vaunted Utah defense last September, tacking on a fourth-quarter score that essentially slammed the door on the then-No. 10-ranked Utes. As the hard-running Stepp rumbled in for the score, he let his momentum carry him all the way to the FOX Sports mobile studio setup, coincidentally situated directly behind the Coliseum's West end zone.

Meeting Stepp at the TV stage, Reggie Bush exchanged a high-five that drew an eye-roll-worthy unsportsmanlike penalty flag. Fifteen yards for a symbolic gesture that bridged almost 15 years of turmoil, however? Easy trade.

From the cheers that erupted both for the Trojans and Bush all night to USC winning a marquee contest, that Friday night in Los Angeles emanated 2005 vibes.

Wednesday's news came 10 years to the day of the NCAA levying the heftiest sanctions against any football program since Auburn in 1993, which included a decade-long disassociation between USC and Bush.

That disassociation, combined with the litany of penalties, made for a paradox. Bush was the face of USC winning national championships in 2003 and '04 (coming up just a fourth-down stop shy of a three-peat). Bush later became the face of a decade that fell short of expectations. The NCAA hammered the program with a two-year bowl ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships over three years after concluding Bush accepted impermissible benefits from an agent.

The penalties were heavy-handed, particularly the forced disassociation of USC with Bush. The decision itself seems especially draconian in 2020 with college sports progressing toward athletes having more control over their name/image/likeness. His reinstatement hardly guarantees a return to dynastic form. Still, the program now having the ability to acknowledge Bush's many contributions provides a tangible bridge to past greatness and the Trojans' future.

Past successes don't guarantee success in the future, of course. Colgate won the 1932 national championship and only played for another title against 71 years later at the then-Div. I-AA level. Reggie Bush, however, resonates still today with this generation of players in an actionable way.

Consider Stepp, a kindergartener during Bush's Heisman Trophy-winning* 2005 campaign.

"Once-in-a-lifetime experience," Stepp said of being able to high-five Bush at the back of the end zone before a raucous Coliseum crowd. "I knew he was a great back. But for me, I'm from Indiana, and you've got Notre Dame and USC [as bitter rivals]. But where I come from, we respect greatness, and he's great."

For those who either were not around or not paying attention then, great only scratches the surface of Bush's USC tenure. His electricity was evident as a freshman when, backing up Hershel Dennis, Bush rushed for three touchdowns, caught four (with a staggering 20.9-yard per reception average), and ran back a kickoff for a score. By 2004 as the 1A running back — the lightning to LenDale White's thunder — Bush scored 15 touchdowns between rushing, receiving, and punt returns.

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But it was that 2005 season that solidified Bush as an enduring icon of college football. Bush was truly appointment television; despite attending and covering another Pac-10 program at the time, I made certain my schedule on Saturday either made time for USC's game each week, or my DVR was set.

Bush's star rising when it did was serendipitous. While Bush made college football history in the fall of 2005, a new video platform called YouTube launched. Reggie Bush was immediately the ideal YouTube football star, with play such as his unforgettable touchdown run against Fresno State.

His premier plays living on and being instantly accessible virtually worldwide has a greater impact than an asterisk or redaction on his Heisman win might — although the next logical step is to return the 2005 Trophy to Bush and his No. 5 to the Coliseum's East side.

Until that happens, technicalities cannot erase the moments. That he was so jaw-dropping made an impression not only on fans but on would-be rivals who lived in the footprint of a nemesis like Notre Dame, people like Stepp.

Not every future star who grew up either seeing Bush live or experiencing his greatness on YouTube followed him in becoming a Trojan, however, which may be most indicative of the program's struggles in the past decade. Christian McCaffrey became a Heisman finalist in 2015, exactly 10 years after Bush's Heisman win, solidifying his invite at USC's expense.

McCaffrey shined at Stanford with a game reminiscent of Bush's, all while sporting the No. 5. A few days prior to eviscerating Iowa at the 2016 Rose Bowl Game, I asked McCaffrey about his choice in jersey number, which he confirmed was a nod to the USC legend.

Then against the Hawkeyes, McCaffrey returned a punt for a touchdown to put him in an elite club with Bush as players who finished their college careers with scores via run, pass, reception, and kickoff and punt return.

Maybe having Bush as a part of the program for the past decade changes nothing, and the next Reggie Bush still signs elsewhere; we'll never know. But USC now being able to truly embrace one of the college game's most legendary personalities can only be a positive moving forward.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.