The NCAA’s dawdling pace of processing infractions cases arising from the 2017 federal investigation into corruption in college basketball is, at last, picking up. Four major cases are approaching either closure or key milestones, sources tell Sports Illustrated.
Two of the cases were referred to the NCAA’s recently formed Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP), which has been heavily criticized for being an inefficient endeavor that is marred by duplicated effort, inexperienced personnel and bloated billable hours. The other two have gone through the traditional NCAA peer review route—itself a laborious and frustrating process. An update on the four:
North Carolina State, which was the first school implicated in the Southern District of New York’s probe to have its case referred to the IARP back in the first half of 2020, completed its infractions hearing Aug. 9 and 10. Per timelines for traditional infractions cases, a ruling is expected soon. The fate of the Wolfpack—and former head coach Mark Gottfried—will be closely watched by schools and coaches further down the pipeline, since there are commonalities in many of the cases and this could set a precedent.
LSU, which has been embroiled in one of the highest-profile (and most contentious) cases, is nearing delivery of a notice of allegations (NOA) from the IARP’s Complex Case Unit, sources say. However, there may still be additional interviews to be done, which could alter the timeline for delivery of that NOA and its contents. The case already has been mired in discussion of whether football violations should be considered separately from the men’s basketball allegations.
Oklahoma State’s appeal of a postseason ban is another instance where closure is anticipated soon, sources say. Coach Mike Boynton recently told The Oklahoman that it is “unfathomable” to still be waiting for a resolution when the appeal hearing transpired during the 2020–21 basketball season. A ruling on the school’s argument to be penalized at a lesser level than the Level I allegation lodged against former assistant Lamont Evans also could foreshadow what happens in other cases. In a case that went through the traditional NCAA peer review process rather than the IARP, the Cowboys were banned from the 2020–21 postseason, but their appeal allowed the team to participate. If their appeal is overturned, it is presumed that the ban would be enforced for this upcoming season.
And Auburn has completed its NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing, sources say, with a ruling expected this calendar year. The school has not formally acknowledged receipt of a notice of allegations or divulged its contents but voluntarily withheld its men’s basketball program from postseason play in 2020–21—an unmistakable indication that the NOA contained serious charges. Coach Bruce Pearl, who received a three-year show cause penalty for violations when he was at Tennessee and is now on his second journey through the major infractions process, participated in the hearing, sources say.
Other SDNY-related infractions cases that went to the IARP and are still winding their way through the system, with rulings that probably won’t come until after the 2021–22 season, include Kansas, Louisville and Arizona. SDNY-related cases involving Alabama, South Carolina, Creighton and USC were previously resolved with minor sanctions. The IARP also is working on a Memphis infractions case that is not tied to the federal corruption probe but could carry significant sanctions.
From early in this long process, which began when the FBI announced its investigation of the sport in September 2017, six cases distinguished themselves as having the highest risk of major sanctions for the involved schools: NC State, Kansas, Auburn, Louisville, Arizona and LSU. The first wave of those now are reaching a critical juncture.
After NCAA enforcement investigators had to sit on the sideline during the federal trials, the NC State case was first on deck and appeared to be on track for a relatively swift resolution. The NCAA issued its notice of allegations in July 2019, in a case centered on payments from Adidas bag man TJ Gassnola to the family of star Wolfpack recruit Dennis Smith Jr., with Gottfried and former assistant Orlando Early both being named in the allegations. But that case wound up being diverted to the IARP, to the dismay of several involved parties, due to contentious disagreements over the charges.
That, and the COVID-19 pandemic, slowed the case significantly. An amended notice of allegations from the Complex Case Unit wasn’t delivered to NC State until Feb. 1 of this year. Six months later, the hearing was held in front of the Independent Review Panel. Now a ruling is imminent.
The LSU case may be the most heated of them all, given the direct tie-in of coach Will Wade and the anger in basketball circles over Wade’s continued employment. Wade was caught on a federal wiretap in 2017 talking to aspiring agent Christian Dawkins about a “strong-ass offer” to land recruit Javonte Smart. Wade was suspended in March 2019 after refusing to meet with school officials, and his job appeared in jeopardy then. But Wade agreed to an amended contract that included language giving the school latitude to fire him for cause if he is charged with a major violation—not necessarily found guilty.
Those charges could be imminent, depending on what is included in the anticipated NCAA notice of allegations. But Wade has shown remarkable survival instincts. Several people within the college sports industry noted this week that national champion football coach Ed Orgeron was forced out of his job, while Wade continues on.
The LSU case was sent to the IARP nearly 13 months ago, on Sept. 23, 2020. There has been a flurry of communication between LSU and the investigative bodies over the last eight months. The details are unknown, but the case timeline provides hints: There are mentions of “discovery issues,” “disputes” and the delivery of documents. Beyond the continual back-and-forth with Wade’s lawyer, one of the primary points of contention is whether the case would proceed with both football and men’s basketball investigations combined, or in a “bifurcated” fashion with the two separated. A lack of institutional control allegation could be tied to the outcome of those deliberations.
It’s worth remembering that one facet of the IARP is the absence of an appeal process. Which means there should be less chance of the NC State and LSU cases lingering on the way Oklahoma State’s has for more than a year after the initial ruling was delivered in June 2020.
The Auburn case began with former assistant Chuck Person being charged with and convicted of accepting bribes to steer pro prospects to an agent and financial adviser. Person was fired, but the case clearly has not been as narrow in scope as those at two other schools where assistant coaches took bribes: USC and Oklahoma State. Where exactly the investigation has gone beyond Person remains unclear, since Auburn has refused to release its notice of allegations, but the full story should become known in the coming weeks or months.
Although resolutions are coming, dissatisfaction with the process is virtually unanimous across the breadth of involved parties—schools, coaches, the NCAA, lawyers, etc. The IARP concept, which came out of the Condoleezza Rice–led committee tasked with suggesting reforms for college basketball, has been such a disappointment that sources say there is a real chance that it is drastically downsized or scrapped altogether. And if an entity that delivers major sanctions is disassembled immediately thereafter, it could spur backlash (and even litigation) from universities or individuals who had their fates decided by what was deemed to be a flawed process.
Even within the NCAA’s own sphere of ill-fated reforms, this has been one of its biggest black eyes. As a source with knowledge of the process puts it, “[The IARP] was an experiment. And you never want to experiment with the biggest cases of the modern era.”
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