NCAA gets Oregon sanctions right, but major flaws remain
It speaks volumes about the current state of the NCAA that when one of the organization's tentacles actually makes the correct decision for once, everyone blasts the NCAA. The organization and its offshoots have made so many wrong choices that when the COI made the best choice in the Oregon case, it only served to remind everyone how royally the NCAA screwed up cases with USC, Penn State and a host of others.
The penalties against Oregon that the NCAA's Committee on Infractions announced on Wednesday were the correct ones. For once, the committee punished the people who actually violated the NCAA's rules instead of the 18- to 22-year-olds who had nothing to do with the violations. Former Oregon coach Chip Kelly, whose staff paid a Texas-based recruit wrangler named Will Lyles with a $25,000 check and claimed it was for a recruiting service, received an 18-month show-cause penalty that makes him unemployable in college football and would have caused Oregon to fire him had he not bolted for the Philadelphia Eagles. Josh Gibson, the former assistant director of football operations, received a one-year show-cause penalty. Under normal circumstances, a penalty that would force the firing of a head coach who has gone 46-7 in four seasons would be considered brutal. But Oregon and Kelly smartly set up a succession plan that allowed Kelly to hand off to former offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. Most coaches are not being actively pursued for NFL head-coaching jobs while they are being investigated by the NCAA. The NCAA is powerless to punish people who don't work for or play for a member school, and it's the COI's bad luck that Kelly was one of the few coaches in America with a multimillion-dollar escape hatch in place.
While that may have allowed Oregon to get off light, punishing the current players would not have been a better alternative. No one on Oregon's roster authorized a payment so Lyles might help deliver Temple, Texas, tailback Lache Seastrunk -- who has since transferred to Baylor -- to Eugene. Common sense would dictate that the players on Oregon's roster shouldn't have to suffer. Miraculously, the COI exercised common sense. But because a past COI punished a huge group of USC players for Reggie Bush's wrongdoing, and because NCAA president Mark Emmert circumvented the usual disciplinary process to punish a generation of Penn State players for the wrongdoing of Jerry Sandusky and those who enabled him, the populace wants blood. The inconsistency is the problem. Everyone thinks the NCAA and the schools make things up as the go along because they do make things up as they go along. Meanwhile, the violations themselves are usually byproducts of a flawed system created by the NCAA and the schools. That certainly was the case with Oregon.
The last time I spoke to Julie Roe Lach in person was at the 2012 Final Four. At the time, Lach was the director of the NCAA's enforcement division. She has since been fired, a sacrifice to save people further up the chain from consequences for the NCAA's bungling of the Miami/Nevin Shapiro case. Lach asked me how the NCAA might better enforce its rules. Knowing my typical response of "get rid of them entirely" would fall on deaf ears, I offered one suggestion that would work within the current framework to eliminate a healthy portion of recruiting violations. I told Lach the NCAA needs to allow recruits to take official visits beginning in January of their junior year of high school.
Why this suggestion? Currently, official visits -- the ones paid for by the school -- are not allowed until September of a recruit's senior year. That's too late. By September of the recruit's senior year, most major programs have filled their classes and moved on to the next year's class. Most coaching staffs want to see a player in camp before extending a scholarship offer. When are camps? June and July. That, not coincidentally, is also when the largest percentage of scholarship offers are made and accepted. It also is when many of the violations of NCAA's recruiting rules take place.
For a school such as Oregon, which has a tiny natural recruiting base, getting players to take unofficial -- paid for by the player and his family -- visits to Eugene is critical. The highest concentrations of good players live in California, Florida and Texas. If a school with a small recruiting base wants to recruit wisely, it will establish a beachhead in one or more of those states. It also will make contact with someone who can deliver those players to camps and unofficial visits.
These days, almost every school has a guy in each recruit-rich area who delivers players on unofficial visits. This might be a high school coach or assistant. Or it might be a "mentor" such as Lyles who isn't affiliated with any school. In the case of schools within a few hours drive of the players, the coaches may slip the handler some cash to drive a vanload to camp. Or the college coaches might hire the handler to work the camp and then slip him some additional cash. In the cases of more far-flung schools, the transportation has to be more creative, and the handler requires more money for the effort.
Entrepreneurs such as Lyles realized this and began marketing themselves to schools as people who could point players in a given direction. That's what makes it so funny that the COI report calls Lyles a representative of Oregon's interests. He was a representative of Will Lyles' interests. Case in point: Lyles took $1,500 from a Tennessee assistant to deliver Seastrunk and his mother on an unofficial visit to Knoxville in June 2009. Oregon probably was the school Seastrunk wanted to sign with anyway. The question is whether the Ducks would have been on his mind without a nudge from Lyles.
The idea behind my suggestion is that the NCAA could strip some of the influence from people such as Lyles by allowing schools to pay for visits earlier. If the school can simply buy a plane ticket for a player, it doesn't need to go through a handler. (Another idea is to allow recruits and players to have professional, regulated representation so that they don't feel the need to be represented by people such as Lyles, but that's another argument for another day.) But despite the fact that pretty much everyone who has followed recruiting at all over the past 10 years has suggested earlier official visits, the schools have not budged on their foolish rule. Coaches and athletic directors love to whine about everyone else breaking the rules, but they refuse to make more sensible rules that would result in fewer violations.
Until October 2012, the schools also failed to provide the COI with anything resembling sentencing guidelines. (The Oregon case fell under the old system.) That's how two cases involving players taking money from agents or wannabe agents (USC and North Carolina) can have such different outcomes. It's how the COI can take away more scholarships for Boise State freshmen couch-surfing than it does for Oregon paying a handler. Throw on top of that Emmert's hasty and heavy-handed punishment of Penn State, and it appears, as reader Jeremy Coleman points out, that "the penalty phase has been outsourced to a Magic 8 Ball."
It was high time the NCAA stopped punishing innocent players for rule-breaking committed by their well-paid coaches. The COI got that correct on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the entire system is so screwed up that even the right decision now looks like the wrong one.