Tuesday, September 21, 2010

NCAA Needs Program Wrecking Sanctions I & II

Reggie Bush returned his Heisman this week. A sad, symbolic, meaningless gesture that does nothing to take away the besmirching of a great heritage award.  At the same time new NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that he expects the NCAA to continue pursing major violators. More centrally he  agreed with the program crippling sanctions imposed upon USC for ignoring Bush's relationships with agents.

Soon the NCAA will pass judgment upon Michigan's football program for excessive coaches and  practice time. Soon they will dismantle North Carolina's program for cheating athletes & tutors  and a passel of players who consorted with agents. Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia etc etc. are all under investigations for agent related charges. Calipari's Kentucky is bound to give them an opening soon, he can't help himself. It is vital for the health of college sports that the NCAA not lose courage and continue with aggressive program wrecking sanctions.

I said program wrecking, not program destroying. The NCAA has been hamstrung for years by its obsession with the A-bomb of sanctions, the dreaded "death penalty" that it once applied to SMU. The point of the game is this obsession made the decisions too stark, all or nothing. Better to simply wreck a program, not destroy it.

What do I mean by wreck a program? The violations must strike at the program's ability to sustain a level of competitive excellence in the highly competitive environment. The USC sanctions demonstrate this in a way. They stripped titles and awards; but this is palliative. They took away bowl games; this matters; they cut a lot of scholarships; this matters profoundly. What they did not do but the NCAA needs to do more of is cut the TV money.

The reason the bowls, scholarships and TV matter is how it impacts recruiting. Programs and great coaches attract kids; but there are a fair number of good programs and a number of great coaches. Students will want to play for bowls, titles and TV exposure. The key impact  lies in the competitive recruiting disadvantages that sanctions generate. It becomes much harder for even great coaches to recruit top players if other great coaches can offer them bowls, TV exposure and scholarships. I know, I watched the Washington program stumble and stagger for years after its major probations.

Emmert can build upon the USC decision. The NCAA needs decisions that wreck programs; only wrecking programs will finally get coaches' attention. He has met with the barons of college football coaching to remind them that their own programs now lie at risk of carpet bombing just like USC. Finally the coaches, who are often more powerful than their putative bosses, college Presidents, now are vulnerable. When Nick Saban correctly calls agents pimps, he does so from self interest and outrage. Now  Emmert can harness that coaches' self interest as well as outrage to take on the agent and other issues.

It's time to act consistently, aggressive and massively against the programs; nothing else will change behavior. I will discuss this in the next post.

For years the NCAA enforcement lay supine; every now and it roused itself to  to take action, but never systematic and patterned. The enforcement staff remained a well intentioned backwater and with remarkably indifferent leadership and mediocre competence. My own experience arises from watching them botch a sure case against Washington coach Rick Neuheisel by not following their own rules. They turned a strong case into a multimillion dollar settlement with a corrupt coach on the basis of slipshod work. Programs worried about investigations but seldom feared them.

The new NCAA President Emmert can  change this by building on the USC success. He is radically altering the enforcement leadership structures. The number of investigators has risen to 23 from 12 in five years. The NCAA SWAT team to investigate the cesspool of college basketball recruiting and AAU teams has doubled; however that can be just a down payment given the magnitude of the problem. Emmert has made clear that he will continue to beef up the staff. More importantly he has removed the leadership obstacles to hiring a higher quality and more aggressive staff and legal counsel. The NCAA has been hamstrung by mediocre legal quality of its own staff and its outside representation for years.

Increasing staff quality, quantity and competence is critical. Emmert has made clear that even if he cuts the NCAA's staff, he will not touch enforcement. But that is only half the equation. The NCAA must create serious program wrecking penalties.

USC is the harbinger. The penalties put superstar coaches on notice that no one is immune. More importantly it let them know that not only will the NCAA "vacate" titles and games, but will aggressively chop scholarships. The vacated games did not matter to Florida State; the vacated games and title did not matter to Pete Carroll after he left USC. The vacated games and titles certainly have not stopped John Calipari.  No the vacated games are only a start. Take away  bowls, deny championships and above all reduce scholarships and reduce TV money and exposure; these strike at the heart of a program's ability to sustain itself against other ferocious competitors.

Another key for the new NCAA approach will be absolute accountability for head coaches. They all claim it for themselves to garner high salaries and adulation for their successes. But when something bad happens, suddenly the all-knowing coaches fall into denial mode. These "who me?" "I didn't know" attitudes pervade college sports. Just watch the comments of Rich Rodriquez at Michigan; Pete Carroll of USC  or Butch Davis at North Carolina.

The NCAA must demand absolute accountability from coaches. Creating a portfolio of a coach's history of academics and violations just dips into the water. It will be good to have a public record of academic and compliance success or failure. But no penalties attach to coaches. And no penalties follow them. To be blunt, if coaches win, they will be hired again regardless of the portfolio.

This new accountability that puts whole programs at risk will force coaches to follow up their own rhetoric. This kind of program future accountability will also force ADs and presidents to be more prudent when they hire coaches who can walk away but leave a program in shambles for years.

Enforcing higher standards and program crippling penalties will demand coaches match their rhetoric and power by taking responsibility for the athletes they recruit and build their reputations on. It will force them to protect the institutions they claim to be loyal to. It takes immense self deception and denial to ignore the problems around cheating tutors, agent money or excessive coaches. The program wrecking approaches will force the coaches to do what they should do. They would not accept from players the excuses they offer for themselves. 

Coaches are often beyond the effective control of Presidents and Boards. They usually have their own supporters on Boards limiting Presidents who try to control them. The NCAA has always had the potential to take high profile coaches on but been cowered by its own lack of competence and the need to preserve the TV deals that lionize and make marketable stars of coaches.

Cripple a few more programs. Not the death penalty, just wound them seriously, so the other programs can smell blood and circle around and tear them apart. A few more and the NCAA might once again be taken seriously as the guardian of the games.

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