Friends went off the air in 2004, but a new brand of Must See TV emerged that same year.
For those who either were too young, weren’t paying attention to college football or simply overlooked Pac-10 football, any words I may write in this space will fail to do the Reggie Bush Experience justice. Perhaps this explains the recent revisionism when it comes to Bush’s USC career.
Some background: Athlon Sports (an outlet for which I freelance) released its ranking of the Top 50 college football players in the magazine’s 50-year history. Bush wasn’t excluded — hardly. In fact, he came in No. 14 overall.
Those of us who mapped their fall Saturdays around Reggie Bush’s schedule as best we could, or who religiously set the TiVo to avoid missing any of his exploits, know No. 5 was not No. 14 of this or any half-century of college football.
Likewise, 2017 Reggie might go for $4 in a hypothetical auction draft. In 2005? Buddies are leaving the draft party with hurt feelings following a bitter bidding war.
15 DAYS TIL COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON!
How would you spend your $15? pic.twitter.com/0ZHahkhn5r
— ESPNU (@ESPNU) August 10, 2017
It may seem as though I am exaggerating; rest assured, I am not. If anything, I am underselling Bush’s significance.
Few moments among the hundreds of college football games and thousands of plays I’ve watched stand out in such a way that I can telling you exactly where I was and what I was doing. Reggie Bush’s masterpiece against a No. 16-ranked Fresno State in November 2005 is an exception.
It was a bye week for the team I covered at the time, Arizona — thankfully — and thus my full attention was devoted to this game. Friends joined me at a campus pizza place as the second half unfolded, and Bush put on a show for the ages.
This cutback, on which Bush took the ball behind his back like Showtime-era Magic Johnson leading a fast break, remains one of the single most impressive plays I have ever seen.
One of the friends with me at Frog ‘n’ Firkin that night was an England native named Tom who — let’s see if I have the parlance right — slagged off American football.
Even he reacted when Reggie pulled the ol’ okie-doke on the Fresno State defender.
Though the Fresno State game stands out as the best of Bush’s career, he made the spectacular seem routine. Perhaps that’s somewhat to blame for the tempered reaction hindsight’s given his career.
Being persona non-grata at his alma mater probably doesn’t help. The NCAA investigation into allegations Bush’s family received gifts from an agent has come to be seen with skepticism and sometimes outright derision over the years. Nevertheless, his Heisman Trophy remains vacated and allusions to his greatness are conspicuous in their absence around USC football facilities — most notably, the omission of a No. 5 from the collection of jerseys under the Peristyle at the Coliseum.
Maybe you can find or even know USC fans who resent Bush for the NCAA sanctions delivered five years after his Trojan career ended. Doubtful they feel as passionate as the Bush supporters. To wit, an airplane flew over the Coliseum last October before the Trojans’ matchup with Colorado to show support for the 2005 Heisman winner.
My camera isn’t great but that’s an airplane banner that says FREE REGGIE #5 FIGHT ON flying over Coliseum pic.twitter.com/n2mgAN9apz
— Kyle Kensing (@kensing45) October 8, 2016
Regardless, the lack of presence at USC serves to obfuscate Bush’s impact. His career beyond SC might also contribute.
Reggie Bush never reached the lofty heights expected of him in the NFL, but he also didn’t flame out. He was a perfectly serviceable professional running back, which may well negatively effect perception of his college career.
Plenty of college standouts remain as highly regarded after busting in the NFL; sometimes, their star even rises. Vince Young ranked six spots ahead of Bush in Athlon’s Top 50, for example. Tim Tebow also cracked the Top 10. Both Young and Tebow were pretty much out of the game after brief flashes of brilliance in their second seasons.
But whether starring or going bust, it might be more favorable for perception’s sake to go big — one way or the other. Bush being a career role player gave us more time to take his amazing college play for granted.
And on the topic of Young, last impressions can go a long way. College football’s enduring memory of Young as a Longhorn is him covered in confetti after a fourth-down end-zone run lifted Texas past USC for the national championship.
It’s perhaps the greatest college football game ever played, and indisputably the greatest game Vince Young played. Bush’s performance is remembered much less favorably — though not necessarily through any fault of his own.
Bush rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown. He caught for 95 yards on just six receptions, as well. That he only carried the ball 13 times, and was inexplicably not on the field for USC’s field play, are factors out of Bush’s hands.
As we came to learn nine years later, Pete Carroll sometimes make confounding decisions when it comes to star running backs in championship games.
And still, the 2006 Rose Bowl Game may well detract from the perception of Bush’s USC tenure.
Whatever the reason, Reggie Bush’s career isn’t always celebrated today to a level befitting it. He was truly transcendent.
In 2015, I had the fortune of covering some of Christian McCaffrey’s historic season. McCaffrey’s performance in the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game approached the same jaw-dropping levels of Bush’s showing vs. Fresno State a decade prior.
At Rose Bowl media day later that month, I asked McCaffrey about comparisons he elicited to Bush. He said he wore the No. 5 partially as an homage to Bush. That same week against Iowa, McCaffrey returned a punt for a touchdown to become just the third player in college football history with scores via run, pass, reception, punt return and kickoff return over the course of a single season.
The first was Reggie Bush. The man was Must See TV.