Syracuse announced a self-imposed postseason ban for its basketball team late Wednesday, a move that on its surface appears brilliant in its meaninglessness. The Orange are a flawed 15-7 club with no guarantee of earning an NCAA tournament invitation anyway, so might as well save the NCAA Committee on Infractions the trouble while protecting better seasons down the line. Including the ACC tournament in the ban adds a sting, for sure, because there is really nothing left for the Orange to play for now this season.
It’s the smart thing to do for the program, as contrived as it is. But it also unduly punishes players who have nothing to do with this, which is standard for just about every NCAA-related penalty imposed on programs. In the news release from chancellor Kent Syverud, Syracuse hurriedly established that fact, stating clearly: “No current student-athlete is involved.” All the potential problems predate 2012, even. There are mechanisms now in place, the statement says, to preempt whatever problems got the school here in the first place.
“I supported this decision,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said in the release of the news, “and I believe the University is doing the right thing by acknowledging that past mistakes occurred.”
And that is why the postseason ban is not so insignificant: This is the leading edge of the stain creeping down the wall, and much of the damage to this point is still hidden behind it. It is the confirmation that things are bad for Syracuse, with the potential to be very bad. Maybe that was made plain by the school simply appearing before the Infractions Committee, as such meetings generally don’t involve much small talk. But there’s clarity now that this issue is serious. And now there are questions about what’s next, and what it says about the legacy of the man who built the program from studs up.
We need much more than a calculated preemptive strike against an NCAA smackdown to indict Boeheim in this. We need the full details from the Infractions Committee to make any determination, in any direction. The specifics in that report very well could leave little of this directly at the loafers of the man with 963 career wins and counting.
Going by the information from the Syracuse Post-Standard’s reporting and Boeheim’s own book, this is about academic records and potentially drug policy and even the handling of a 2007 sexual assault case. It’s the sort of stuff that a coach, especially one like Boeheim, decades into his tenure, can miss. These are the day-to-day issues, at least with the grades and drugs, mostly delegated to others to monitor and deal with. Institutional failures aren’t necessarily a result of a personal failure by the head coach as well. Many will read this news as the operation's structure failing the coach.
“The University has taken this matter seriously and worked with the NCAA for nearly eight years to investigate and address potential rules violations,” Syverud said in the statement. “The process has been exhaustive. We have taken responsibility for past violations and worked hard to ensure they are not repeated.”
But when Syracuse says “much of the conduct involved in the case occurred long ago,” it’s not referring to the Edmund Dollard Era.
Boeheim has been at the helm of Syracuse for nearly 40 years. And the NCAA will not excuse a plea of ignorance from Boeheim, nor pass on penalizing him if Syracuse is found guilty of major infractions. In 2013, the Division I Board of Directors adopted a policy that stated, in part, “A head coach is presumed responsible for major/Level I and Level II violations (e.g. academic fraud, recruiting inducements) occurring within his or her program unless the coach can show that he or she promoted an atmosphere of compliance and monitored his or her staff." In other words, the head coach is presumed guilty unless proven innocent.
The school banned itself from the postseason based on things that happened under Boeheim’s watch. A major infractions case during his tenure resulted in significant penalties. This is a blotch. Maybe it’s one eventually faded by all the success and all the faith accumulated since 1976. And Boeheim undoubtedly will continue to give less than one percent of a whit about what most people think of him. But it’s there now, for certain and for good, deep in the fibers no matter how hard anyone scrubs.
That’s not a small matter, even if Syracuse marches to league or national championships again soon and thereby distracts everyone from this episode. Whatever sanctions the NCAA adds, if any, the program probably will recover and Boeheim will continue to march toward 1,000 career victories. But Wednesday's news brought about a profound unease. Blameless or not, Boeheim won't shake that for a while. No one at Syracuse will.