Sunday, May 30, 2010

USC's Day of Reckoning finally approaches

Remember when you were a kid and you did something really stupid that you knew was gonna get you in trouble? I'm talking about a no-questions-asked, you're-grounded-for-a-week kind of screw-up. You just sit there sulking over your eventual ass-whooping as the clock ticks and your heart moves up into your throat a little more and a little more and a little more, and eventually the wait becomes almost as unbearable as the punishment itself -- until you get punished, of course, and then you just wish the whole thing had never happened.

I'm guessing that's kinda how USC fans/players/coaches are feeling right now, because Dad is on his way up the stairs with belt in hand:
The NCAA committee on infractions will release its findings regarding the USC football and basketball programs on Friday, a source with knowledge of the situation told's Dana O'Neil on Sunday.
It's about freakin' time. It was way back in mid-February when the Committee on Infractions met for three days and pored over about 7 billion pages (approximately) of information turned up in the four-years-long investigation, and there's now just one question left unanswered: How bad will it be for USC?

First things first: USC isn't getting the death penalty (or anything close to it). If you've ever looked at the requirements for the NCAA to even consider handing down the death penalty, you'll see that USC doesn't come close. A school basically has to be on probation for an extended period of time and then commit multiple infractions while on probation. And, obviously, those violations have to be deemed so severe and intentional that the program deserves to be eliminated. It's only happened three times under the NCAA's current bylaws, which were adopted in 1985 (SMU football has been the only Division I program penalized), and none of those situations compare to this one. Two of the three involved actual payments being made to players by the school, while the other involved a soccer program -- one that the athletic department didn't even realize existed (!!!) -- using former professionals.

USC is a different but more complex case. The main allegations:

1. Reggie Bush received monetary benefits of over $100,000 and free use of a house paid for by agents Lloyd Lake and Michael Michaels during 2004 (USC's national championship season) and 2005 (Bush's Heisman Trophy season).
2. Running backs coach Todd McNair became aware of Bush's financial and housing arrangements at some point before the 2006 national title game against Texas.
3. Agents and representatives were allowed in the locker room, on the sidelines and in various other locations that would give them pretty much unlimited access to USC players.
4. Joe McKnight was regularly seen driving a Land Rover registered to a local businessman and wannabe marketer named Scott Schenter in the fall of 2009. USC ruled him ineligible for the Emerald Bowl after an internal investigation.

These are purely the problems relating to the football program, by the way. The basketball program had its own issues (specifically Tim Floyd making cash payments to O.J. Mayo), and that investigation was eventually clumped together with the football one, but it's not clear whether that will have any effect on the football-specific punishments.

The other factor that makes it kinda hard to figure out exactly how badly USC has screwed up is that nobody's quite sure how much anybody at USC knew or whether anyone at the school was actually involved with the arrangement of improper benefits. Was Pete Carroll setting up sweet vehicle deals for his players? Doubtful. But it's pretty clear that he (and everyone else) was intentionally turning a blind eye toward a lot of pretty obviously questionable activity. When your star running backs are regularly driving around high-end cars that are WAY above their means of living, that seems like something you should notice and maybe investigate. And if Todd McNair really did know about Bush's perks and didn't tell anybody, that'll obviously be a consideration (although maybe not much of one since he's no longer at USC).

It seems that USC's real problem (and only problem that we know of) was a SUPER-MEGA-EXTREME "failure to monitor." The coaches and administrators didn't really do anything inappropriate, but they ignored -- probably intentionally -- everything going on around them. This is a serious problem in the eyes of the NCAA.

What does that mean in terms of penalties? Well ... for the most comparable case I could think of, I went back to the Michigan basketball scandal. Refresher: Recruits and players (mostly the Fab Five and a few guys before and after) were accepting cars and a lot of money from a booster named Ed Martin. Martin wasn't really directly affiliated with the university, but he had made enough of the right donations that he landed some nice tickets and became involved with various UM basketball functions. Then he started getting buddy-buddy with recruits. He bought one kid a birthday cake, bought another some airplane tickets, etc., before it just turned into straight-up cash payments and vehicles. And Steve Fisher knew about it (most of it, anyway). Fisher was fired when everything came out.

That stuff sounds pretty familiar, right? Just replace "Ed Martin" with "Lloyd Lake," "Michael Michaels" or "Scott Schenter" and then replace "Steve Fisher" with "Pete Carroll." Carroll is already gone, of course, but a lot of people think it was no coincidence that he jumped ship when he did. Anyway, the penalties were severe: Four years of probation, two years of ineligibility for postseason play, one lost scholarship for a four-year period, the vacating of all wins and records that involved ineligible players and the return of all funds from conference/NCAA tournament appearances during that time.

I think USC's penalties will look similar, because even though there might not have been as many athletes involved as in the Michigan basketball case, there were more agents/leeches involved and it required an extended period of ignorant bliss on the part of USC. Here are my predictions:
  • Vacating of all wins from 2004 and 2005
  • Four years of probation
  • Two scholarships lost for a two-year period
  • Ineligible for postseason play for two years
Yes, that's right. I think the NCAA will drop the postseason hammer. Look at the other possible penalties and tell me how USC would suffer. Forcing them to vacate wins and go on probation does nothing other than scribble over history that's already been written. Docking a few scholarships is a real penalty, but is that alone enough to deter some other school from "looking the other way" and letting money/recruits/championships roll in? No way. There has to be some sort of serious punishment coming down -- I don't see how else to interpret the NCAA combining the football and basketball investigations and then refusing to allow USC football to penalize itself.

Some people are still expecting a slap on the wrist (I feel bad even linking to this) ...
Postseason ban? It ain't happening. Crippling scholarship cuts? No way. ... I'm not claiming to know how USC has wriggled free. I'm just telling you it has happened. That was part of Kiffin considering the job.
... but this column includes no logic whatsoever. Lane Kiffin accepted the USC job back in mid-January, about a month before USC had even met with the NCAA. He jumped at it because it was an elite job -- his "dream job" -- with a salary of about $4 million. How would he have known what the penalties would be? The school doesn't even know yet! But somehow, because of his incredible brilliance, Kiffin was able to determine that the punishment would be modest enough that it wouldn't significantly impact his career. Right.

There's also the classic argument about big schools not getting punished because it will hurt the NCAA's bottom line. First of all, the NCAA makes no money from football. That's right. All money from football goes to the schools (ticket sales), the conferences (TV rights/bowl deals) and the bowl games. The NCAA makes over 96% of its total revenue from the licensing and television rights to the NCAA basketball tournaments, so if there's any incentive to let people off easy, it'd be in basketball only. "But maybe the NCAA wants to preserve its major brands," you might say. The Bylaw Blog refutes that with, like, evidence:

There are 342 schools in Division I right now. Of those, 73 are in Power Six conferences for basketball. As a percentage, 21% of the schools are in these conferences.

There have been 114 major infractions cases since 2000. Interestingly, that’s almost half of the 235 total cases processed since 1953, validating this decade as a decade of drastically increased enforcement. Of the 114 cases, 42 involved Power Six conference schools. So while the big boys only make up less than one quarter of the Division I population, they account for over a third (37%) of the major infractions cases.

If you screw up badly (and publicly) enough, you will be punished. It doesn't really matter how big or how good you are. USC isn't "too big to fail" like the mortgage companies were.

Like I said earlier, the NCAA's refusal to allow USC to self-impose penalties on its football program is the most important indicator we have. The committee basically said, "Don't bother wasting our time with low-ball offers." Based on that and what we know about the investigation -- specifically Bush's ineligibility, McNair's knowledge of it and the frequency of agent-related problems -- USC has to be punished somewhat severely and docked scholarships, postseason eligibility or both (sorry, Class of 2014).

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Don't forget to bring a towel

In case you ever really wondered about the inanity of the NCAA's guidelines on everything, Maize and Brew brings us Exhibit 2 from the Michigan investigation (yes, this is a completely real interview transcript):

Good Lord. It's a miracle that every school in the country hasn't been penalized at some point for gray-area practice-time overages.

And if you're interested in this sort of thing, Mgoblog took an in-depth look at the Michigan documents and came to one clear-cut conclusion: Scott Draper (the assistant athletic director for football) and Brad Labadie (director of football operations, working directly underneath Draper) should be fired.

While the school's compliance office was sending out constant, nagging emails asking for practice-time forms, descriptions of quality-control staff duties, etc. -- in a proactive effort to avoid any potential violations -- these guys were apparently asking each other about TPS reports or something while responding with emails along the lines of "errrr yeah, I'm just getting the final signatures right now" but not ever submitting anything until the day before the Free Press report went public.*

It was a comedy of errors that revolved around the football administration refusing to respond to the compliance officers' demands for required forms. And the problems started in October 2007, when Lloyd Carr was still coach. It was first noticed that documentation was missing in April 2008. The compliance office started hounding people to the point that Labadie actually sent an email complaining about it, yet the problem dragged on and on and on until August 2009, when the school was notified of the Free Press story and somebody said "oh shit, what's everybody been doing for the last 18 months?"

This is why UM believes Rich Rodriguez should not be punished for a "failure to monitor": Associate athletic director Judy Van Horn and RichRod "agreed that Labadie and Draper would continue to be the administrators responsible for football compliance issues" at the time of his hiring. He was told about how things were done and that those guys handled it. They didn't handle it, and Rodriguez was never made aware of it (apparently because he's such an intimidating figure):
Labadie told the enforcement staff that he did not tell Rodriguez that he had failed to submit CARA forms because he did not want Rodriguez to look unfavorably upon him.
Huh? Rodriguez also stated in his official response to the NCAA that he had prepared and submitted descriptions of the quality-control staffers' job duties. These were never turned in to the compliance office by Draper/Labadie (if they had been, the compliance people likely would have recognized the problem with QC staffers being involved in voluntary workouts). Oh, and Labadie was the guy who told the coaching staff that the oh-so-controversial stretching time could be considered voluntary. Good work all around.

There's a lot more in the full post, but in summary, there was a shitload of communication that was never responded to (or was responded to with lies and procrastination). It's actually pretty embarrassing. I don't know what else Draper and Labadie do, but how you ignore important requests from your superiors for a year and a half without getting punched in the face (or fired) is beyond me. Unfortunately, nobody actually kicked these guys in the ass and forced them to do the things they were supposed to be doing, and it resulted in the penalties announced yesterday.

* This is not a joke. After one of the monthly email requests (in March 2009), this was the response:
Draper replies that Brad is acquiring the "last remaining signature[s]" from the seniors.
The forms weren't turned in until five months later. There were no player signatures on them. AAAAAARRRRGHGHGHGHGHGH. Why am I unemployed while these guys are making close to $100K?

The verdict is in

Man, this has been the loooooongest offseason ever. When expansion rumors and announcements of NCAA violations are the highlights of the month ... well, I guess you know it's May.

But anyway, after months (and months and months) of debate over the allegations at Michigan and how thoroughly the program would be destroyed and humiliated, the verdict is finally in: No scholarship losses. No postseason ban. No recruiting restrictions. No firings.

Here were the penalties announced Tuesday:

• Cut back practice and training time by 130 hours (twice the amount of the overage) over the next two years, starting this summer.
• Cut number of quality-control assistants from five to three and banned them from practices, games or coaching meetings for the rest of 2010.
• Two years of probation.
• Letters of reprimand issued to seven people, including head coach Rich Rodriguez.
• Announced that quality-control assistant Alex Herron was fired after his claim of not being present during some activities was discredited by players.

In other words, the meaninglessness of the punishment fit the meaninglessness of the crime. The results were even less severe than I (and an NCAA compliance guy) predicted a couple months ago, so yay.

And then came my favorite part of Michigan's response:
"The University is satisfied that the initial media reports are greatly exaggerated if not flatly incorrect."
It's funny how the story went "Michigan accused of major violations," then "Michigan being investigated by NCAA" and then "Michigan announces punishment for NCAA violations." At no point did most people bother to look at the details or realize that the actual penalties were mostly unrelated to the Detroit Free Press report claiming massive and blatant practice time overages that turned Michigan into the butt of terrible jokes for the past eight months. In fact, the investigation showed pretty much exactly the opposite: The only practice-time violation was 20 minutes a day of stretching that the school counted as voluntary but the NCAA classified as mandatory "preparation." The remainder of the punishments stemmed from quality-control staffers overseeing voluntary drills (a rules violation), which the school said was due to miscommunication between the compliance department, the football administration and Rodriguez:
In his response, Rodriguez argued that his quality-control assistants doubled as part-time strength coaches, something his filing says the NCAA allows and “Michigan’s chief compliance officer” -- associate athletic director Judy Van Horn -- “told the enforcement staff” may be “permissible.”
Athletic director Dave Brandon went out of his way repeatedly to clarify that the problem was a communication error between multiple levels of the athletic department and not a "failure to monitor" by Rodriguez. You can believe whatever you like, but it's worth noting that Michigan publicly released every document from its investigation (in PDF form for your viewing pleasure), so there doesn't appear to be any effort to hide or distort the facts. Also, Brandon knows what he's doing: He hired the former head of the NCAA Committee on Infractions to run the investigation/response. If he wanted to show he's serious about doing things right, I think he succeeded (he also pretty much guaranteed that the NCAA won't have anything to add in terms of punishment).

Rivals writer Jon Chait -- who's very good, although I don't always agree with him -- has an outstanding take on the overlooked aspect of the Free Press' debunking:
The football program turned out to have exceeded practice and training limits by a minuscule amount. ... Nothing remotely resembling the Free Press's Dickensian portrait of players working two or three times the prescribed time appears in the report. This is the equivalent of being accused of massive tax fraud, bringing in the IRS for a thorough audit, and then admitting you mistakenly expensed a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
He goes on to explain how stupid the entire investigation was and so on and so forth, but the conclusion is particularly relevant after you've perused ESPN and read all the "OMG Rodriguez is SOOOO on the hot seat now" columns. His parting shot:
The reality, of course, is that Free Press is highly unlikely to apologize for its bungling report. ... Ray Donovan, a Reagan-era Secretary of Labor, was indicted of a high-profile crime that commanded media attention. When he was acquitted, he famously asked, "Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?"

The university's report shows that, whatever small rules violations occurred, there's no evidence that Rich Rodriguez had any knowledge of or gained any substantial benefit from them. The charge that he has operated a football sweatshop has been totally debunked. Where does he go to get his reputation back? Not the Detroit Free Press.
The Free Press writes these stories because they sell, and they sell because the court of public opinion made its decision about Rich Rodriguez a long time ago: He's a hick who destroyed UM's reputation and tarnished its spotless legacy (who's Gary Moeller?) and should be fired as soon as possible to avoid any further damage.

Fortunately, Michigan isn't run by the court of public opinion (side note: is it a coincidence that "public" can easily be misspelled as "pubic"?). The athletic department is now headed by a guy who's defended Rodriguez from the get-go and clearly isn't stupid enough to think "Hey, our last coaching search was so much fun, let's do it again!"

The only thing that will determine RichRod's fate at Michigan is how many games he wins. To be specific, whether Michigan finishes over .500 and gets to a bowl game. There's no scenario in which UM goes to a respectable bowl game this year and Rodriguez gets fired -- it's just not happening, regardless of what Adam Rittenberg or Mark Schlabach or Bruce Feldman might tell you. There's too much support from the people in charge (Brandon and school president Mary Sue Coleman). And hell, the guy hasn't even had a senior class yet; I'd bet my left arm that seven wins would be good enough to ensure his return to what should be a loaded team in 2011.

And now that I've gotten all that out of the way, I'll get back to the original issue: Will there be any real effect from the aforementioned punishments? Once you get past the hand-wringing and the "THINK OF THE CHILDREN" articles, all that's left is 20 fewer minutes of practice each day. As Yahoo's Dr. Saturday notes, just moving things along at a Benny Hill-like pace should take care of that. The loss of quality-control staffers probably increases the workload a bit for the guys on salary, but they'll manage. Probation just means that the NCAA is watching you like a hawk -- there are no actual requirements.

And does this "permanently weaken Michigan's football brand name," as ESPN suggests? Meh. I just have a hard time getting up in arms about such minor issues or seeing any lasting, long-term effect. I don't think most people really even care (I don't), because everyone with even a cursory understanding of college football knows that this stuff happens everywhere and is WAY less severe than a lot of other recent scandals.

Did it permanently tarnish Ohio State's image when Troy Smith (remember, the guy who won the Heisman in 2006) took a cash payment from a booster in 2004 or when Maurice Clarett was suspended for the 2003 season for receiving inappropriate benefits? Have the 27 arrests at Florida under Urban Meyer permanently tarnished the image in Gainesville? Has Oklahoma's brand name been permanently ruined since the here's-some-money-for-doing-nothing scandal involving former uber-recruit QB Rhett Bomar? In hindsight, it's pretty amusing to go back and read guys like Stewart Mandel identifying the "irreparable stain" on Oklahoma football and talking about how things would fall apart without the starting QB and how the scandal would set the program back "for years to come" (yeah, OU played in the Fiesta Bowl that year and nearly won the national title two years later behind a Heisman-winning QB named Sam Bradford).

Everything is forgotten when you win. Fortunately, what's clear after today is that the important people at UM realize this and are trying to make it as easy as possible for RichRod to do so. The program is moving on from all this crap. The rest is up to him.

Final thought: While we're on the subject, when the hell are we gonna hear about a real infractions case (I'm looking at you, USC)? The NCAA finished its three-day hearing with USC about three months ago and still has yet to announce anything other than the committee rejecting the school's attempts at self-sanctioning (which has to point toward something serious, right?). I'm not sure what they're waiting for, but I wouldn't mind having the national media's knee-jerk overreactions shift from Michigan to USC.