NCAA Cracks Down as First Domino Falls in Punishments for Hoops Scandal

Oklahoma State's one-year postseason ban shows the NCAA means business as it begins sanctioning programs tied to the FBI's college basketball investigation.
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From the day the college basketball corruption scandal broke open, Sept. 26, 2017, one cynical refrain was heard over and over and over:

The NCAA won’t do anything. Nothing will happen.

It has taken more than 2 1/2 years, but the first returns are in and the cynics are wrong. The NCAA has acted. Something has happened. And it was substantial.

Oklahoma State has been hit with a one-year postseason ban plus recruiting sanctions—a penalty that may make the No. 1 incoming freshman in the nation, guard Cade Cunningham, try to get out of his signed letter to play for the Cowboys. In addition, former assistant coach Lamont Evans was slammed with a 10-year show-cause order that most likely ends his days as a college basketball coach.

And while it’s unwise to interpret one case as indicative of how others may play out, every other basketball program implicated in the federal probe and now churning through the NCAA crime-and-punishment process had to look at this ruling and swallow hard, thinking they might be hammered next.

Kansas, North Carolina State, Louisville, USC, South Carolina and TCU all have been charged via Notices of Allegations. Creighton and Auburn certainly have been, but will not acknowledge it. Alabama, LSU and Arizona are on the NOA clock.

And here’s the thing: most of those cases look far more severe than the Oklahoma State case. In fact, many casual fans might have forgotten (or never noticed) that the school was pulled into the quagmire. Which is why the Cowboys are now yelping like a dog that got hit by a rock and vowing to appeal the ruling.

Oklahoma State basketball court

“The university is stunned by the severity of the penalties and strongly disagrees with them,” Oklahoma State said in a release. “The penalties do not align with the facts and are unfair and unjust. … The NCAA appears to have made an arbitrary decision in the sanctions applied to the institution for the egregious actions committed by a former coach that did not result in any benefit for the university.”

We’ll see where the appeal goes. But if this ruling stands, with one case down and likely 11 to go, the NCAA is 1/12th of the way to restoring some of its credibility as an enforcer of its own rules.

The NCAA’s Condoleezza Rice-led Commission on College Basketball made clear in its report two years ago that strong penalties are wanted and needed. That commission was formed in reaction to the corruption scandal, and this initial ruling on a scandal-related case was a strong penalty. Yet it could have been stronger, given the NCAA’s own penalty matrix.

The penalty matrix, which was referenced by committee hearing officer Larry Parkinson in a teleconference Thursday, calls for a standard case involving a Level I violation to carry a postseason ban of one or two years. In that respect, Oklahoma State only got half of what could have been coming at it.

“In a way, Oklahoma State got out of it, penalty-wise, for about as little as could be expected,” said Atlanta-based attorney Stu Brown, an expert on NCAA infractions cases. “It’s still severe, but from what you could see and predict, they got the least of it.”

The school undoubtedly was hoping for a mitigated penalty application, which calls for no postseason ban on the low end and a one-year ban on the high end. Oklahoma State was credited for cooperating with the NCAA investigation—“a significant mitigating factor,” per Parkinson—and argued that it received no competitive advantage from Evans accepting somewhere between $18,000-$22,000 in bribes from two financial advisors.

But that mitigating factor clearly only kept the Cowboys from getting a two-year ban, and was not enough to avoid a ban. So here is the thing for all programs caught up in the scandal: if your NOA included a Level I allegation and that allegation is upheld (most of them figure to be), prepare yourselves for the possibility of missing at least one NCAA tournament, starting in either 2021 or ’22.

Evans was one of the coaches directly implicated as being bribed by Christian Dawkins and his crew of financial advisors. If all of those coaches are given Level I violations, that could be big-time trouble for:

• South Carolina, where Evans also worked. Sports Illustrated reported in late January that the NCAA charged the school with a single Level I violation for Evans allegedly accepting at least $5,865 in bribes in 2015–16 from Dawkins.

• Arizona. Former assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson pleaded guilty to taking bribes and was in deep with Dawkins. (A Notice of Allegations has not yet been delivered to Arizona, to anyone’s knowledge, so that’s still a wait-and-see case.)

• USC. Former assistant Tony Bland pleaded guilty to taking bribes as well.

• Auburn. Former assistant Chuck Person pleaded guilty, too.

TCU, which fired assistant coach Corey Barker.

• Creighton, which fired assistant coach Preston Murphy.

• Alabama, which fired program staffer Kobie Baker.

Are there enough mitigating circumstances in any of those cases to prevent a postseason ban? We’ll find out in the coming months.

North Carolina State, Louisville and Kansas also are facing Level I allegations in high-stakes cases that could bring major penalties. The Wolfpack case already has been diverted to the NCAA’s new infractions “off ramp,” the Independent Adjudication Review Process. The Kansas case has been recommended for IARP referral, with no notice yet on whether it will be accepted. Louisville could go down that route as well.

In fact, that might now seem like a more attractive option if the Oklahoma State case is going to be any kind of precedent. Fear of the unknown was believed to be a deterrent to schools seeking that path—but if the known now represents a harsher penalty than the charged university saw coming, it could change some mindsets.

Potential charges facing LSU would also seem to be of the Mushroom Cloud variety, if you remember the Will Wade “strong-ass offer” wiretap. But NCAA Enforcement is believed to still be working on that case and not to the point of delivering a Notice of Allegations.

For many, the resolution of these cases will produce a referendum on the NCAA as an investigative and sanctioning body. Its crime and punishment role has eternally been messy and imperfect, opening up the association to criticism from all sides. And in no sport has NCAA Enforcement appeared more impotent over the last two decades than college basketball.

This time, the federal government handed the association the goods on a dozen programs. The only question, in the eyes of the cynics, was whether the NCAA would fail to act and let the perps walk.

One case into a long and defining docket, the NCAA has acted. With force.

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