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"It's just like the CEOs who ran the big banks and the mortgage companies. They were completely irresponsible, but they all got paid."

The NCAA cites USC for a loss of institutional control, and once again you’re reminded that there’s no segment of American life in which crime pays quite as well as big-time amateur athletics.

Second, if you think it’s bad now, wait until you have a Pac-16 and a Big 16, when the profit margins and the incentives to cheat increase proportionally.

Third, USC is lucky that hubris isn’t an NCAA violation, else the Trojans would be facing the death penalty.

In a Wednesday afternoon press release, the university announced it would appeal the “excessive” punishment of its precious football team.

I guess, at least by ’SC standards, this is progress. For years now — an era during which Trojans football players could be seen living like the cast of “Entourage” — the university and its coaches have been denying that anything at all was amiss.

Back in January, Pete Carroll took great offense at the suggestion that he would take a job with the Seattle Seahawks to avoid the prospect of NCAA punishment.

What sanctions? Why should he be worried? The story about Heisman winner Reggie Bush and his family receiving illicit benefits broke in 2006, and Carroll spent the rest of his tenure talking about how he and his staff had always done the right thing.

Just last month, he told Dan Patrick “it would surprise me” if the program received any sanctions or probation.

How’s four years of probation, a two-year bowl ban and losing 30 scholarships sound, Pete?

It should come as no surprise that Carroll’s replacement – another guy who was front and center for the glory years – has inherited his mentor’s sense of outrageous optimism, (not to mention a good bit of his outrageous salary). After walking out on Tennessee after a single season, Lane Kiffin appeared at a Heritage Hall press conference and proclaimed the NCAA investigation to be much ado about nothing.

“I feel very confident that it will not affect us in recruiting,” he said. “It will get resolved and we will move forward.”

How do you know this, he was asked.

“Conversations with people I’ve had here.”

Maybe it was Carroll who debriefed him. Whatever the case, he had to know the ’SC job represented a huge score. Carroll had been making about $4.4 million and ended up getting about $7 million per from the Seahawks. Kiffin — with an aggregate record of 12-21 as a head coach in college and the NFL — is getting “just under $4 million,” according to HBO’s RealSports.

 His 70-year-old father, Monte, will make approximately $2 million as the Trojans’ defensive coordinator. Ed Orgeron, who once again assumes the title of “recruiting coordinator” he had under Carroll, had to get a big bump from the piddling $650,000 he was making back in the day. Orgeron, it’s worth mentioning, was named National Recruiter of the Year in 2004, not long after Bush was voted a Freshman All-American.

“High profile players demand high profile compliance,” Paul Dee, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, said on a conference call Thursday afternoon.

Oh, cut it out. High profile players demand compensation. Bush and O.J. Mayo, who stayed at ’SC just long enough to play in the 2007-08 basketball season, are what they are. They got paid by would-be agents and hustlers. Just the same, what they earned was a fraction of their market value.

That’s the real story here, and it’s not likely to change. Actually, it should only get worse.

Consider all those who reaped huge benefits from the Bush/Mayo era, beginning with Bush and Mayo themselves.

There’s Carroll, Kiffin and Orgeron. Norm Chow, USC’s former offensive coordinator, went on to the Tennessee Titans and UCLA, where, last I looked, he makes $640,000. Steve Sarkisian, another of Carroll’s former offensive coordinators, is guaranteed $1.85 million a year as the head coach at Washington. Even Tim Floyd, who spent a season in the NBA after resigning from USC, didn’t have much trouble getting a new job. He’s the head man at UTEP.

 Apparently, head coaches aren’t held responsible for institutional control, or in this case, lack thereof.

“The penalties aren’t directed at an individual,” Dee noted.

Of course not. Coaches are held accountable only for winning or losing.

“Based on the penalties, I don’t think there is any incentive not to cheat,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. “The system makes cheating” — or at least, less than vigilant compliance — “profitable for the individuals running the programs. It’s just like the CEOs who ran the big banks and the mortgage companies. They were completely irresponsible, but they all got paid.”

And it will only get worse once these conferences become mega-conferences.

“It’s economics 101,” said Huma, a former UCLA linebacker. “Players’ salaries are effectively capped. But the revenue they generate just gets bigger and bigger. So the coaches and the administrators, their incentive to cheat just got stronger.”

The difference between what guys like Bush and Mayo are worth, and what they make in scholarship and book fees, results in a black market economy. The would-be agents and runners become illicit paymasters. And only the least corrupt coaches turn a blind eye.

Huma says the system would be relatively clean if players could be paid something approximating their market values. Then again, a system like that also would have to treat student-athletes as men and women.

And that would cause the NCAA a loss of institutional control.