The NCAA’s decision to lay the hammer on SMU basketball and its Hall of Fame coach, Larry Brown, was seismic but hardly surprising. The case of the player, the assistant, the secretary and the online course has been percolating since 2012, when a Dallas television station first reported possible irregularities regarding a local high school forward named Keith Frazier. More than three years later, the results are in: Frazier was declared ineligible last season, the assistant and the secretary were fired, SMU’s men’s basketball team has been banned from the 2016 postseason, and Larry Brown has added yet another mar—his third, if you’re scoring at home—to a lifetime spent running afoul of NCAA rules.
There is much to sift through here, both in terms of what this means for Brown and what it means for the rest of college basketball moving forward. Here are four primary takeaways from the case:
1. Larry Brown is very fortunate to keep his job.
The NCAA does not have the authority to hire and fire coaches. Only the schools can do that. But most of the time, when a coach is hit with a show-cause penalty, he is out of a job ... for a while. It is especially difficult for a coach who is unemployed to get another gig in college if he is serving a show-cause, but Brown has been spared. The NCAA also has considerable latitude as to what penalties it affixes to a show-cause. In Brown’s case, the main penalty was a nine-game suspension this coming season. If anything, that seems light.
Given that the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (COI) found Brown to be in noncompliance about a serious issue like academic fraud, and that he initially misled investigators about what he had heard, it is stunning that SMU did not cut him loose. I cannot think of another example where a coach conducted himself in this fashion and continued to draw a paycheck.
As harsh as these penalties were, SMU and Brown did dodge a couple of bullets. The school was not found to lack institutional control, and Brown was not slapped with an unethical conduct conviction. Either finding would have led the COI to be even harsher.
Brown may still have a job, but he does not have much of a reputation. Though the NCAA did not technically have the ability to consider his past transgressions at UCLA and Kansas, the public is under no such restrictions. Brown can give you chapter and verse about what went down at UCLA and Kansas, and how it wasn’t really all his fault, but the bottom line is, the man has coached at three different universities, and all three have felt the impact of the NCAA’s wrath. That will forever be entwined in his legacy.
2. We are firmly in the era of coach responsibility. Get used to it.
You’re going to be hearing a lot about NCAA Bylaw 220.127.116.11 from now on. It was referenced numerous times in the infractions report. The rule went into effect on Oct. 30, 2012, and this is the first major case where we can see its full ramifications. Though it was frequently referenced during coverage of the penalties imposed on Jim Boeheim last winter, most of the violations in that case occurred before the rule went into effect.
This is a critical distinction because the COI never found that Brown had any direct, advance knowledge that his administrative assistant had completed an online course (with the possible help of assistant coach Ulric Maligi) that Frazier needed to be eligible to play as a freshman. It only found that Brown failed to report that information in a timely manner, and that he lied to investigators when he was initially asked about it. In the past, that might have enabled Brown to absolve himself of responsibility the way former UConn coach Jim Calhoun did in 2011 when his assistants were found to have had improper contact with a former student manager turned agent. In that case, Calhoun claimed no knowledge and fired two of his assistants. While Calhoun was found generally to have failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance (and thus served a three-game suspension), he was not held directly accountable for those improper activities. Brown was, and so too will any future coach who finds himself in similar circumstances.
3. Academic fraud is the hottest issue in enforcement.
Most of the time, the infractions cases which draw the most attention center around agents, improper benefits, or both. Those will always be areas of concern, but there is no doubt that academic fraud has ascended to the top tier.
This is a direct result of the advent of online classes. These courses might seem like they are easy places to cheat, but they are also easy places to get caught. If an investigator knows where to look, he or she can access IP addresses and other computerized data to trace the origin of the work. It’s a lot easier than nailing someone for turning in a falsified term paper or having someone take a written test in his place.
With rising academic standards continuing to go into effect, the incentive for cheating is on the rise, so the NCAA is trying to meet that head on. The NCAA’s enforcement chief, John Duncan, has established a separate academic fraud unit inside the enforcement division. In February, Duncan told me that his unit was investigating upwards of two dozen cases and anticipating many more to come.
And yes, that includes the case at North Carolina, which has yet to reach the stage of an infractions committee hearing. The decision handed down against SMU on Tuesday should send shivers down the spines of North Carolina fans, as well as the fans of any other programs who find themselves in these particular crosshairs. The NCAA’s enforcement division was low on effectiveness and morale a few years ago in the wake of the Miami football debacle, but there is no doubt that these folks are back in business.
4. The NCAA needs to revisit how it implements postseason bans.
When a judgement like this gets handed down, there is bound to be some unfortunate collateral damage. By definition, a penalty is meant to hurt an entire program, and in most cases the people who perpetrated the crimes are no longer there. That means that folks who bear no responsibility feel the worst effects. That is unfair, but there is also no way around it. The only way to deter schools from cheating is for them to fear getting caught, and that means stiff penalties.
Still, there is nothing that says a postseason ban has to go into effect right away. In this case, as in the Syracuse case last winter, the fair thing to do would have been issuing a ban for the following season. Not only would that allow players the opportunity to transfer if they want to, but it would hit a program where it hurts the most: recruiting. Larry Brown might be a great recruiter, but even he would have a hard time convincing elite high school seniors to sign with SMU if they knew they would not be able to play in the postseason as freshmen. Here’s hoping the powers that be inside college sports push its enforcement committees to move in this direction.