Tuesday, May 25, 2010

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.

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