|Wednesday, November 28
Updated: November 29, 12:57 PM ET
How to take punishment like a champ
By Tom Farrey
Just a few years ago, no penalty on the NCAA books elicited more fear from coaches than severe scholarship cuts. Butch Davis led the chorus at the University of Miami in 1997 when, two years after learning that the Hurricanes had lost 31 initial scholarships, he likened the sanction to "half of the death penalty" in a reference to the shutdown of SMU's program a decade earlier.
Unranked after a dismal '97 season, the Hurricanes climbed back into college football's top 20 the next year and have not stopped moving upward since. They are national championship contenders for the second year in a row, despite three smaller-than-usual recruiting classes in the late '90s -- the last of which include members of the current No. 1-ranked team.
"It can pay off down the road," Miami athletics director Paul Dee now says of scholarship cuts. "You have to play a lot of freshman at first, but three years down the road they've got a lot of experience."
The Miami example provides hope for Alabama and Kentucky as they await decisions on their penalties -- and a challenge for an NCAA Committee on Infractions that says it hasn't given up on meaningful sanctions. In lieu of TV and bowl bans, scholarship cuts have become the favored punishment. But the Hurricanes and other programs have become savvy at countering the impact of even the largest cuts.
In its proposal to the NCAA, Kentucky suggested that its program lose 19 scholarships. Alabama, which has not made public what it has proposed to the NCAA as a penalty, reportedly has proposed no more than 20 scholarship cuts.
"Cutting scholarships really is just a small rap on the wrist," said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst. "If you really want to get a school for cheating, ban them from bowls for a couple years. Then kids won't want to come."
Dee defends scholarship cuts as "a good penalty." But, he said, "you can work through it and minimize the impact."
Avoid large reduction in total scholarship level: Ordinarily, schools are allowed to sign as many as 25 players each year as long as they don't exceed the cap of 85 total team scholarships. The NCAA sanctions on Miami meant that its recruiting classes over a three-year period were reduced by a potential of 31 scholarships -- a loss of seven in 1995, 13 the following year, and 11 the year after that.
But the NCAA did not place a low ceiling on the number of total scholarships the team could offer to all players. The infractions committee set a cap of 80 total scholarships, just five below the NCAA maximum.
The smaller recruiting classes ended up having the effect of reducing the overall number of total scholarship players for a while. At one point, the team had as few as 70 players on scholarship, Dee said. But without an onerous cap on total scholarships, Miami was able to use a variety of creative strategies to build their total numbers back up and make the team competitive again.
So far, the NCAA has been reluctant to set significant restrictions in total scholarships. The lowest that it has set the cap for any team in the past decade is 79 scholarships.
Bolster recruiting: Already blessed with being located in one of the richest recruiting areas in the country, Miami increased its budget for recruiting. The new money allowed coaches to recruit in more distant locales, and evaluate and impress prospects with more intensity.
"When recruiting, you have to make sure the quality is superb," Dee said. "If you usually bring in 23 or 24 people a year and hope that yields 12 starters, now (a higher percentage) of the players you do recruit have to end up as starters. There's no room for error. Butch and his staff did a great job at that."
Alabama lost 13 scholarships in a 1995 case and never fully recovered, going 34-26 over the next five seasons. But Tide watchers say it's up for debate whether the falloff was due primarily to scholarship cuts or the coaching of Mike DuBose, who was unable to turn well-regarded recruiting classes into national champions.
Cultivate walk-ons: They aren't all as athletically challenged as Rudy, of Hollywood lore. Joaquin Gonzalez, an offensive lineman for Miami, was Big East rookie of the year in 1998. Last season, about a dozen walk-ons saw playing time for the Hurricanes, who have a relatively small walk-on program due to the high cost of private-school tuition.
At some public schools, walk-ons are almost as plentiful as scholarship players. Kentucky last year claimed a total of 163 football players in filings with the federal government. The extra bodies keep practices from being affected by scholarship cuts.
Walk-ons also have more incentive to play in those programs, due to a quirk in the rules. After two years, coaches can give them scholarships without having those scholarships count against the annual recruiting-class limits set by NCAA sanctions.
The size of the recruiting classes at Ole Miss in 1995 and '96 were cut in half by sanctions. But the Rebels were still able to improve their team by treating walk-ons the same as scholarship players in many respects, announcing their "signing" at the same time as the scholarship recruits -- without telling the media who was on scholarship -- and then loading up some of them with Pell Grants and other financial aid.
"We lost (recruits) at Memphis who we offered scholarships to because they went to Ole Miss as, 'walk-ons,' " said Rip Scherer, former head coach at Memphis. "A couple years later, those guys were starters for them."
Preventing attrition is key. Washington suffered in the mid-'90s after longtime coach Don James resigned in protest over sanctions, but the Huskies were able to blunt the impact of 20 initial scholarship cuts with a strong appeal for players not to transfer, promising to give freshmen an extra year of eligibility -- by red-shirting them -- to help them wait out a bowl ban.
Seek quick resolution of case: In 1998 when the NCAA announced sanctions against Texas Tech that included the loss of 18 initial scholarships, then-coach Spike Dykes expressed relief. He noted that much of the damage already had been done, as uncertainty about impending sanctions had bedeviled the Red Raiders on the recruiting trail during the 2½-year investigation.
Alabama already has scored a key victory in that respect. The school pushed to get its case heard on Nov. 17 by the infractions committee, which is expected to announce its decision on penalties sometime in the next month or so -- before February's signing day and barely a year after the NCAA began its probe.
Due to their recent history before the NCAA, the Crimson Tide should know all the secrets of managing scholarship cuts. But so, too, now should the committee, which has been criticized for not having any coaches on its body to identify the best ways to punish a program.
One of the committee's new members happens to be Dee, who isn't a coach but whose program stared down the biggest scholarship cuts since the SMU death penalty case.
"The NCAA knows what it needs to do," Lemming said. "It's just a matter of whether it's going to do it."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.