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Feckless NCAA Misses Latest Enforcement Opportunity by Letting Auburn Off Easy

Bruce Pearl and the Tigers men's program were found guilty of the highest level violation, but you wouldn’t know it based on the ineffective penalties they received.

As the texts trickled in Friday afternoon from disillusioned men’s college basketball coaches and administrators after another botched NCAA infractions ruling, this one stood out: “Whoever the lawyers were that handled the case for Auburn and Bruce [Pearl] are the ones that actually have the playbook the Southern District [of New York] were talking about it 2017.”

Bingo. The lawyers kicked the NCAA’s ineffectual a--. Again.

The SDNY’s famous “We’ve got your playbook” statement became a hollow boast at the federal criminal level, and thus far it is equally empty in the college justice system. The first of the six major infractions cases to come out of the FBI investigation of corruption in college hoops has now ended with a whimper of a penalty from the NCAA. (The other five—North Carolina State, Kansas, Louisville, Arizona and LSU—are wallowing in the Independent Accountability Review Process, which thus far has closed zero cases and might be the greatest of all exemplars of NCAA ineptitude.)

Bruce Pearl received a two-game suspension for his involvement in Auburn's NCAA violations.

Despite finding Auburn guilty of the highest-level violation—a Level I-aggravated designation for its part in the bribery scandal four years ago—the Committee on Infractions accepted the school’s 2021 postseason ban and applied no additional postseason sanctions. Despite having a head coach involved in his second major infractions case in his last two jobs, Pearl is suspended a mere two games. The charges (which were hidden by the school for nearly two years when it refused to release the Notice of Allegations) were serious; the punishment was not.

This might not have been on par with the all-time bamboozling by North Carolina, when the Tar Heels maneuvered their way to a great escape after decades of academic fraud. But Auburn’s ability to emerge with relatively minor sanctions is a notable outflanking of the governing body of college sports. If the texts I got from those in the industry are any indication, it only deepens the distrust in the NCAA’s ability to create and enforce a level playing field.

Some 3 1/2 years ago, an NCAA panel commissioned by president Mark Emmert and led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice produced a report calling for an overhaul of some areas of men’s college basketball. The panel was created in response to the very scandal in which Auburn was ensnared, when former associate coach Chuck Person took $91,500 in bribes in return for connecting players with an aspiring agent and financial adviser. There was an urgency in the air then.

“Bad behavior is too often ignored and inadequately punished,” Rice said, calling for penalties up to a five-year postseason ban for major rules violations. The NCAA membership was in near-unanimous agreement that stronger penalties were a necessity.

Here came a major NCAA opportunity to deliver on that mandate. It whiffed completely. Instead of enforcing a tougher penalty, it went the other way. The Committee on Infractions bought what Auburn was selling like someone falling for an email scam asking for bank account numbers.

This is from the NCAA’s infractions ruling: “The panel classified Auburn's case as Level I-Aggravated. The range of postseason ban(s) for Level I-Aggravated cases is one to five years. Considering the severe violations in this case, the panel considered whether an additional postseason ban was warranted. In past cases, the COI has considered the timing and circumstances around when institutions decide to self-impose a postseason ban to ensure that the self-imposed penalty is a meaningful penalty. Here, Auburn self-imposed the postseason ban prior to the 2020-21 men's basketball season. In doing so, the penalty was significant and not in response to a poor record. Auburn's decision to self-impose a postseason ban prior to the season reflects the actions of an institution intentionally taking responsibility for severe Level I conduct in its men's basketball program. Although a second year of postseason ban is an appropriate penalty in that it falls within the available ranges for Level I-Aggravated cases, the panel declines to do so largely in response to the timing and circumstances around Auburn's decision to self-impose the ban.”

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Amazing work by Auburn to sell the COI on that 2020–21 self-imposed ban as “significant.” Let’s recap the circumstances at the time the school made this courageous decision: The Tigers returned zero starters and none of their top-six scorers from the previous season; their leading returning scorer averaged 4.2 points per game; they were picked to finish eighth in the Southeastern Conference; and their top recruit, guard Sharife Cooper, was ineligible as part of the NCAA investigation—at the time there was no telling whether he would play at all, and his first game wound up being in late February.

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Auburn announced its self-imposed ban on Nov. 22, 2020, four days before its first game. You think Pearl might have had a pretty good idea his team wasn’t any good by that point? Especially with Cooper out indefinitely? Sure enough, the Tigers went 13–14, 7–11 in the SEC. The school kept a team home that was going nowhere and got “significant” credit for it.

Another element of the Rice Commission recommendations: “Increase the penalties for a show-cause order to allow life-time bans; increase the penalties for head coach restrictions to allow bans of more than one season.”

Welp. The COI couldn’t even get around to a lifetime ban for Person, who was the most guilty of anyone pinched by the feds back in 2017. He got a 10-year show-cause penalty. Another Auburn assistant got a one-year penalty after failing to fully cooperate with investigators who pursued allegations about that coach’s involvement in paying the tuition of a walk-on player.

Chuck Person was found guilty of bribery in FBI's college basketball corruption investigation.

Chuck Person (right) was Pearl’s assistant for several years at Auburn.

And then there’s Pearl: the dime dropper on violations by Illinois back in 1989; named in a violation when he was at Milwaukee in 2004 for inviting a prospect to his daughter’s graduation party; named in a violation at Tennessee for inviting a prospect to a backyard cookout in ’08 (and then lying about it); and now being the guy who hired wheeler-dealer Person and was shocked to find out what was going on.

From the infractions report: “To be clear, the COI does not involve itself in hiring decisions. However, the head coach's immediate decision to fill his staff with an individual who had no NCAA compliance experience and an individual who recently committed a major NCAA violation undermines the head coach's statements that compliance was his top priority. Despite his words and representations, his actions demonstrated that compliance was not a priority, and that tone appears to have continued in the months that followed.

“Within a few months of being hired, the associate head coach began committing known violations when he informed student-athlete 1's mother that Auburn had interest in recruiting her son and shortly thereafter provided her with cash payments. Those payments and other benefits continued undisturbed for nearly three years. Even if the associate head coach believed such payments were permissible, he expanded his provision of cash payments and benefits to student-athlete 2 and his family in December 2016. The impermissible payments and benefits occurred uninterrupted for approximately 10 months. The impermissible payments and benefits to both student-athletes and their families stopped only because the associate head coach was arrested in September 2017. Although the head coach and Auburn claimed that the associate head coach often asked compliance-related questions, he felt comfortable within the head coach's program with providing impermissible cash and other benefits to student-athletes and their families. Moreover, he felt comfortable providing student-athlete 2 with cash payments from his desk in the basketball office.”

(To preemptively answer a question: what Person was doing then is still a violation now in the new NIL world. Coaches aren’t allowed to take bribes on behalf of agents, and coaches aren’t allowed to pay players directly.)

In response to Pearl having Person on staff doing business under the table, the COI decided to drop the hammer on the head coach with a two-game suspension. What a blow. Hope he and the program can soldier on.

Auburn can appeal the NCAA penalties, which it assuredly will not. Instead it probably will throw a party—maybe even a backyard cookout, no prospects allowed. Whatever its attorneys charged them throughout this process, it was money well spent.

Oh, and keep this in mind: Steve Thompson is Pearl’s extremely effective, highly aggressive attorney. He’s also LSU coach Will Wade’s counsel. And Sean Miller’s, who was fired by Arizona earlier this year.

Buckle up, because there could be more a-- kickings ahead for those tasked with pinning sanctions on coaches caught up in major men’s basketball investigations.

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