|Wednesday, November 28
Updated: November 30, 8:19 PM ET
NCAA's once-rabid watchdog loses its bite
By Tom Farrey
For the better part of his six years at the University of Memphis, Rip Scherer lived in a fog. One by one, some of the best local prospects left town without giving the Tigers even a chance to make the case for staying home. No one expected Scherer to sign most of the city's finest recruits, but still, this was embarrassing.
"We couldn't even get a lot of those guys to visit," Scherer said.
But it's too late to save Scherer. He was fired last December for failing to turn around the perennial second-tier program.
"It will be interesting to see what happens to them in terms of punishment," Scherer said of Alabama and Kentucky. "A statement needs to be made. If the NCAA keeps giving out minimal sanctions, the (rewards) of cheating will continue to outweigh the consequences."
Recent history suggests Scherer should temper his hopes. In contrast to its popular reputation as a monolithic, near-sighted organization prone to dispensing justice for even the slightest of rules offenses, the NCAA rarely issues stern sentences anymore to Division I-A football programs.
No bowl ban has been handed down in six years. No television ban in seven. No so-called "death penalty" in 14, since 1987 when Southern Methodist was shut down from competition temporarily in what was widely regarded then as a declaration of war on cheating by the powers-that-be in college sports. The trend represents a near-total retreat from the draconian sentences used to strike fear in cheaters since the NCAA got into the enforcement business in the 1950s.
NCAA officials, former investigators, infractions committee members and others who spoke to ESPN.com cite a multitude of factors behind the trend: Money. Greater awareness of the impact of certain penalties. Naïveté about the impact of others. Dread of lawsuits. High-powered defense teams. Due process reforms. Rising conference influence. Skepticism of the fairness of NCAA rules.
Some suspect there's less cheating to punish. Others say it's just more sophisticated and harder to prove.
The NCAA's lords of discipline insist they have not put down their mighty sword.
"I don't think there's any apprehension about applying significant penalties where warranted," said Tom Yeager, chairman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions, the eight-member body that dispenses penalties. "There are very serious issues that everyone appreciates."
Yet major violations haven't been met with major sanctions since the mid-1990s. Using the NCAA infractions database, ESPN.com analyzed the progression of penalties given to Division I-A football teams since SMU was whacked in 1987 for the use of a booster-financed slush fund for players. The findings:
Death penalty: Teams guilty of major violations within five years after the school was last involved in a major infractions case are considered "repeat violations" under NCAA legislation enacted in 1985, and thus eligible to be removed from competition for two years. Since the SMU sanctions, 10 football programs have been busted for what the NCAA considered major rules violations within that five-year window, most recently Wisconsin in August.
None of those 10 have been given the death penalty, from which SMU, a college power in the 1980s, has never recovered. Some programs got little more than a lecture from the infractions committee. In 1999, a Kansas State running back was found to have received $200 from a booster during his recruitment, then another $3,200 from boosters after enrolling -- the third violation in six years for one of the school's teams. The Wildcats received no penalties, just a one-year probation.
"SMU taught the committee that the death penalty is too much like the nuclear bomb," said John Lombardi, a University of Florida professor who was the school's president when the Gators went before the NCAA in 1990 for major violations. "It's like what happened after we dropped the (atom) bomb in World War II. The results were so catastrophic that now we'll do anything to avoid dropping another one."
But the NCAA has given no team a bowl ban of any duration since 1995, when Miami received a one-year ban for its part in a massive Pell Grant fraud scandal. Since then, 11 teams have have been cited for major violations but escaped that punishment.
The only team that's been held out of the postseason since then is Texas Tech, where school officials did so voluntarily in 1997 in an effort to encourage the NCAA to go easier on the team when its case came up for review the following year.
Television: Coaches consider playing in televised games an effective tool in reaching high school prospects, who in turn want to attend programs with media visibility. And like bowls, television bans once were common. But the last team to endure such a penalty was Ole Miss in 1994, for a recruiting scandal under then head coach Billy Brewer.
Although still on the books as an available option, Yeager said he doubts that penalty will ever be applied again. He cites the impact it has on the team's opponents, whose fans are prevented from watching their team's games against the sanctioned program.
Scholarships: To focus penalties more squarely on the guilty programs, infractions committee members say they now try to hit teams with scholarship reductions. Made up largely of professors, athletic directors and lawyers from outside the NCAA membership, the committee has come to believe that limiting the number of new recruits is the most effective way to limit a team's competitiveness.
"You should hear the pleading when we take some scholarships," said Jack Friedenthal, a George Washington University law professor who retired as committee chair in August after three years.
Roy Kramer, Southeastern Conference commissioner, was a chief proponent in the shift toward scholarship cuts when he was on the NCAA infractions committee for nine years, until 1997.
"If you want to impact programs, then seriously hit them on scholarships," Kramer said. "While the TV and bowl penalties go over big (in the media), they don't have as much impact as people think."
Scherer, the former Memphis coach, said scholarship cuts aren't nearly as painful as the committee has been led to believe.
"There's not a coach on that committee to direct them to what really impacts a program," he said. "When you go into a house now to sit down and talk to a young guy when recruiting, one of the first things they want to know is, 'How many times were you on TV last year? How many bowl games is your conference guaranteed?' An 18-year-old kid doesn't understand the significance of losing four or five scholarships for three or four years."
Others say the infractions committee is keenly aware of the penalties' impact.
"The NCAA is a de facto cartel" of member schools working in concert to protect their business interests, said J. Brent Clark, a former NCAA investigator who has studied the organization for three decades. "It has nothing to do with sports. It's all about money. The NCAA markets a product, fiercely protects that product, and will defend that product to the end. Once you understand that, everything begins to make sense."
Some note that the abrupt decline in bowl and television sanctions in the mid-1990s coincided with the creation of the lucrative Bowl Alliance -- now Bowl Championship Series -- and the rise of television contracts that are negotiated by conferences. Now, teams that qualify for one of the four BCS bowls can receive more than $13 million, much of which usually gets shared with other schools in its conference.
"Something really egregious must occur before they get back to the most serious sanctions," said Art McAfee, another former NCAA investigator. "There's such a better understanding now of the financial impact of some of these penalties."
But now comes Alabama, with one of the biggest cases to come before the infractions committee in a decade. On Sept. 5, the NCAA enforcement staff officially leveled more than a dozen charges against the legendary program. The most damaging charges include allegations of large cash payments from boosters in the recruitment of two players.
The money is staggering, if NCAA investigators are to be believed. They say one Alabama booster offered $115,000 to a Memphis high school coach to steer a highly recruited defensive tackle, Albert Means, to Tuscaloosa last year. The NCAA says another booster promised $118,000 to Stevenson, Ala., prospect Kenny Smith in the mid-1990s; the booster allegedly admits giving the player $20,000 but contends it was not an inducement to sign with Alabama.
The outrage is moral. By all accounts, Means had no idea he was being sold to Alabama and didn't receive any of the booster money -- the kind of act NCAA officials like to say you don't need a rule book to figure out if it's wrong. The NCAA says Means' high school coach allegedly kept $30,000 of the total that was delivered by the booster.
The history is damning. In 1995, the Tide was hit with a one-year bowl ban and a loss of 13 scholarships for using defensive back Antonio Langham, whom the school allegedly knew had signed with an agent, and running back Gene Jelks, who was cited for receiving $24,400 in loans based partly on his potential earnings as a pro. Then in 1999 came another major violation at Alabama -- an assistant men's basketball coach attempted to obtain cash from boosters to give to a prospect's high school coach.
Southern Methodist had been a national championship contender in the 1980s, noted for its "Pony Express" backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The death penalty decimated a program that has yet to return to national prominence, although getting back to the top has been made more difficult by self-imposed constraints. Shaken by the scandal, the school administration raised the academic entrance standards for athletes and insisted on a smaller-is-better role for sports on campus.
Since resurrecting the program, the Mustangs have been anything but a championship contender, going 36-94-3. Last week, SMU fired Mike Cavan, who had been the Mustangs' coach for the past five years, effective at the end of the season.
"Will we ever see the death penalty again? I don't see why not, if circumstances warrant," said Richard Dunn, a University of Washington professor whose term on the NCAA infractions committee expired in August. "We just haven't seen that case yet."
But that threat barely seems real anymore. In a sign of how unthinkable the death penalty has become since the SMU case, Alabama president Andrew Sorensen declared well before the NCAA charges even arrived that there's no chance the Tide will be kept from fielding a team.
Alabama appears to be betting the NCAA won't even use some of its lesser weapons, such as bowl or TV bans. The school hasn't made public its official response to the NCAA responding to the charges, but the Birmingham News, citing sources, has reported that the school's package of self-imposed sanctions is limited to scholarship cuts -- no more than 20 over three years -- and other recruiting restrictions, plus a possible fine.
Alabama officials are not commenting on the case. But the sanctions they reportedly have suggested to the NCAA indicate they are keenly aware of the penalties given other programs in recent years. "Other cases are all you have to compare any case to," said Rich Hilliard, one of the outside lawyers representing Alabama. Precedent matters.
So does firepower. Consider the resources on the Alabama side.
Hilliard is a former NCAA investigator and case manager. Joining him are university attorney Stan Murphy; athletics department rules compliance coordinator Marie Robbins; and Gene Marsh, the school's faculty athletics representative and a law school professor who happens to be one of the eight members of the NCAA infractions committee. Marsh is recused from the committee's deliberations on the Alabama case due to conflict of interest, although he is free to help the Crimson Tide prepare its defense.
Longtime booster Logan Young, a wealthy Memphis businessman cited in the Means allegation (which also has resulted in a federal criminal probe), claims to have spent more than $400,000 on a legal team that includes his own former NCAA investigator, Joe Buffington, and former Watergate prosecutor James Neal. Each of the coaches in the case is represented by lawyers. And just for good measure, Kramer, the NCAA infractions committee veteran, is advising Alabama.
All those big guns appear to be earning their keep. The NCAA enforcement staff declined to levy two of its most dreaded charges -- "lack of institutional control" or "failure to monitor" the program. Those charges typically trigger some of the strongest sanctions, as the NCAA expects member schools to take measures to know about potential rules violations involving its athletes, coaches and boosters.
The NCAA does not comment on pending cases.
"If the NCAA can't make that connection between coach and booster, it's hard to slam them," Lombardi said. "The NCAA can say that Alabama created an atmosphere (conducive to those acts), but it's hard to step on them for that."
Instead, he said, the best the NCAA could do is say, "The individuals are bad. So shape up the individuals."
By cleaning house, Alabama can argue for leniency in sanctions to the program. Increasingly, that appeal has been effective. NCAA rules say standard penalties for a major violation should include a combination of bowl ban, scholarship cuts and recruiting restrictions, although those sanctions can be waived or adjusted. Which they are, routinely.
"We agonize," Friedenthal said. "Schools will come in and say, 'All you're doing is hurting the current staff and players.' We're not immune. We understand that (sentiment)."
But others are convinced the limp sanctions in recent years have less to do with compassion for the kids than desperation for the dollar. Lombardi argues that the pressure to avoid serious penalties has been heightened by the stadium arms race. Football is the cash cow that pays off the 30-year loans on the stadium expansions and new arenas that have sprung up over the past decade.
"All of these programs are in terrible debt," Lombardi said. "If they're hit with bans on TV or bowl games, it undermines the program, and that carries over to hurt other sports."
Given those factors, Alabama's case may have come along at the right time -- for 'Bama.
Most constituencies are fine with that shift. Fans get to watch their teams on television. Athletics directors don't have to endure shocks to the budget. Fewer school presidents end up losing their jobs over angry trustees.
In 1996, upon finding that the team's academic advisor had submitted phony papers, pressured teachers and helped players acquire grade changes, Michigan State considered self-imposing a one-year bowl ban. The Spartans decided against it and took their chances before the NCAA infractions committee.
Michigan State received no bowl ban, and the scholarship loss was only nine spread over two recruiting years -- nothing that new coach Nick Saban couldn't navigate around. Michigan State president Peter McPherson announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the process worked."
But not for everyone, everywhere.
"From time to time you read about a coach who lost his job because of NCAA sanctions," said Dirk Taitt, an NCAA investigator and supervisor of infractions cases from 1987 to 1999. "But every year there are tons of coaches let go because they're not beating the guys who are cheating. Those coaches and their players are the victims."
Limp sanctions, Curry said, "drive the clean coaches crazy."
Scherer, now an assistant coach at Kansas, is one of those guys with such a reputation. He took the Memphis job in 1995 but wasn't able to elevate the perennial also-ran program, going 22-43 in six years. Still he improved graduation rates, infused the team with a family ethic and kept the school out of NCAA trouble. Eight of the team's 13 losses over the final two seasons were by three points or less -- the kind of margins that might have been erased with a few prospects the caliber of, say, Albert Means.
"Makes you wonder," Scherer said, "what could have been."
That's easy enough to imagine. After the NCAA swooped in, Memphis did well in local recruiting this year. And Means is now in a Memphis uniform, starting for new coach Tommy West after transferring from Alabama and talking with Scherer about his options.
Scherer's recruiting dream came true, just a little too late.
Coming Thursday: NCAA investigators have a tough job. Jerry Tarkanian made it tougher. Part 2 in an ESPN.com series on the NCAA's enforcement arm.
Tom Farrey is an ESPN.com senior writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.