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How did Reggie Bush lose his Heisman Trophy? Answering key questions with ex-USC star back among award winners

Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy has been reinstated by the Heisman Trust, closing a controversial saga nearly 20 years in the making for the former USC running back. The decision also means the Heisman has once again been awarded consistently since 1935. 

With all the changes in college football since Bush’s era, his “scandal” seems almost quaint. Bush allegedly accepted money and gifts from agents during the latter half of his collegiate career, which turned into a massive circus. After more than a decade, the Heisman Trophy Trust changed its tune. 

Bush put together one of the great seasons in college football history during his 2005 campaign, finishing with 2,218 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns. He had some of the greatest moments of the season for the reigning champion Trojans, headlined by 554 yards rushing in his final two games ahead of the Heisman ceremony. While Bush’s Heisman came under some scrutiny after Vince Young’s performance in the 2006 BCS National Championship, his year featured more first-place votes than any other winner at the time … other than O.J. Simpson. (More on that later.) 

Bush’s Heisman meant USC was the first program since Army in 1946 to have two active Heisman Trophy winners on the same roster (QB Matt Leinart). The Trojans ultimately fell to Young, the Heisman runner-up, and the Texas Longhorns in what is considered to be among the greatest college football games of all time. 

Here’s everything you need to know about why Bush’s Heisman was taken away, as well as its long path to reinstatement. 

Why was Bush’s Heisman stripped?

Following Bush’s Heisman run, reports of illegal cash and benefits from agents began to surface. Among them were allegations that Bush’s parents lived rent-free in a house paid for by an agent. 

In 2007, agent Lloyd Lake put a name to the allegations, suing Bush and his family for nearly $300,000. Lake claimed that the family accepted cash and living arrangements between November 2004 and January 2006. He agreed to cooperate with NCAA investigators regarding the matter. Lake settled with Bush in 2010. Notably, Bush did not sign with Lake’s agency. 

Ultimately, the matter grew into a full-blown NCAA probe into USC and Bush’s dealings with agents. While Bush was the biggest headliner, basketball star O.J. Mayo was also investigated. In 2010, USC was hit with a “lack of institutional control” citation regarding Mayo and Bush, resulting in massive punishments. Among them, USC was forced to vacate the final two wins of its 2004 national title season and all of its wins in 2005. USC also suffered major scholarship reductions and a two-year postseason ban. 

The 2004 Trojans were ultimately stripped of their national championship by the FWAA and BCS; the Associated Press still recognizes USC. Most relevant, the Heisman Trust ultimately decided to take the award back, marking the first time in the history of the award that the trophy was returned. 

Why did reinstatement take this long? 

Many efforts have been made over the years to get Bush’s Heisman reinstated. Multiple former Heisman winners have vocally advocated for it, including Leinart and Notre Dame’s Tim Brown. The Heisman Trust has also received widespread criticism. 

In 2012, a judge overseeing a case for ex-USC running backs coach Todd McNair wrote that the NCAA’s investigation into USC and Bush appeared “malicious.” Bush was forced to separate from USC as part of the NCAA’s punishment, but after a rule change, he was welcomed back with fanfare in June 2020, 10 years after punishment was handed down. Still, his award was not yet returned. 

In July 2021, name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation officially entered college football, completely transforming the landscape. Under new rules, college players are now allowed to sign with marketing agents, which would have eliminated almost all of the illegality from Bush’s case. Quickly, calls began again for Bush to have his Heisman returned, including from Bush himself. 

The NCAA has alleged that Bush partook in “pay-for-play” and was therefore not under consideration to get his award back. Bush ultimately filed a defamation lawsuit against the NCAA surrounding that allegation. 

The Heisman Trust was previously adamant that it would only award Bush his Heisman once his NCAA records were reinstated. 

Why was the trophy finally returned?

Pressure has continued to build since NIL rules were instituted in 2021. USC has publicly embraced Bush and softly pushed for the return of his award. Bush’s defamation lawsuit against the NCAA also added pressure. 

Perhaps the biggest pressure point came in recent months. Former Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel announced that he would boycott the Heisman Trophy ceremony until Bush got his trophy back. 

“Doesn’t sit right with my morals and values that he can’t be on that stage with us every year,” Manziel tweeted “Reggie IS the Heisman trophy. Do the RIGHT thing NCAA the ball is in your court.” 

Simpson’s recent death brought another layer of scrutiny. The Heisman Trust publicly mourned his passing, and his award has remained untouched despite his highly public double-murder trial, of which he was acquitted, in 1995. Simpson later served prison time for stealing sports memorabilia, much of which was seized after he was found civilly liable for Nicole Brown Simpson’s death. 

USC athletic director Jen Cohen said in January that she was happy to treat Bush as a Heisman winner regardless. Memorial Coliseum displays the jerseys of every USC Heisman winner in the stands — Simpson still among them — and a spot appeared to open up for Bush last August. However, Cohen said Bush wanted to wait until his Heisman was officially returned 

Ultimately, the Heisman Trophy Trust opted to listen to public criticism and return Bush’s award. Bush was amicable in a statement given to the Heisman Trophy Trust, saying that he looked forward to pursuing the mission of the organization. However, his statement through attorneys Levi McCathern and Ben Crump was more targeted. 

“I want to make it abundantly clear that I have always acted with integrity and in accordance with the rules and regulations set forth by the NCAA,” Bush said. “The allegations brought against me were unfounded and unsupported by evidence, and I am grateful that the truth is finally prevailing.” 

No matter the reason, the result is the same: Reggie Bush is officially recognized as Heisman Trophy winner once again. 

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