On Tuesday, University of Michigan administrators held a press conference to discuss the NCAA's formal notice of allegations that the football program violated certain restrictions in the way it conducts practices.
We're talking about practice, man. How silly is that?
The NCAA's findings essentially confirmed what the Detroit Free Press originally reported last August: that during the first 20 months of coach Rich Rodriguez's tenure, Michigan's players were often required to exceed the NCAA's permissible hours for offseason workouts (as many as 10 per week, when eight is allowable) and in-season activities (five per day, when four are allowed). In addition, five supposed support staffers engaged in "coaching activities" by monitoring workouts and watching film with players.
On the surface, these findings hardly seem as salacious as the tales of cash and houses allegedly afforded to Reggie Bush while at USC, or the booster payouts that brought down Alabama a few years back. Truth be told, you would probably find some variation of these same transgressions if you happened to wander into the football complex of nearly any major program on a given day. Unfortunately for Michigan, it got caught.
But after reading the NCAA's Notice of Allegations -- which, to the school's credit, it released in its entirety to the public -- Michigan fans' greatest cause for concern isn't the impermissible practices themselves; it's the NCAA's rather blunt assessment of Rodriguez and other school officials' handling of the matter.
There are five allegations of major violations contained in the letter, only two of which address the actual practice-time violations. In one, graduate assistant Alex Herron is accused of providing misleading information to investigators. Ask Dez Bryant how the NCAA feels about misleading investigators.
Of more import, the NCAA says Rodriguez "failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the football program." That's not exactly a cap in the feather for a guy already saddled with an 8-16 record. On top of that, Michigan's athletic department allegedly "failed to adequately monitor its football program." The school avoided the dreaded "lack of institutional control" tag, but "failure to monitor" is the next step down.
At the Tuesday press conference, university president Sue Coleman, incoming athletic director David Brandon and Rodriguez showed no intent to fight the allegations. They've accepted them, they regret them and they're eager to show they're already on top of it.
"We clearly made mistakes," said Brandon, the former Domino's CEO and Wolverines player who will succeed the retiring Bill Martin as athletic director next month. "...We will dedicate ourselves to learning from this and doing everything we can to prevent it from happening again in the future."
Added Rodriguez: "Our philosophy has always been to be very transparent with our programs and to have an open relationship with our compliance office. I need to monitor more closely in the two areas of concern -- and I will."
Both statements express a similar theme, one that was reiterated over and over: that the violations were "not trivial," but also not malicious. Brandon spoke in detail about an apparent breakdown in the system the compliance department uses to document athletes' "countable activities."
"My reading of the situation is we had a breakdown of communication," said Brandon. "We found we were not being vigilant in the way those [time records] were being filled and managed."
Some may be skeptical of that assessment. Surely, Rodriguez and his staff knew exactly what they were doing when they, as was accused, disciplined players who missed class in the offseason by doing extra conditioning, or made them stay longer on Sundays after a bad loss. And even if they didn't -- shouldn't they have? Shouldn't a guy who's been a Division I-A coach for nine years know the ins and outs of the NCAA handbook?
Which brings us to this: Whether or not you believe Michigan's infractions to be trivial -- compared with some other rules-breakers out there, I'd contend that they are -- they certainly won't help the cause of an already embattled coach.
Michigan has 90 days to respond to the allegations, after which it is expected to appear before the NCAA Committee on Infractions at its Aug. 13-14 meeting in Seattle. Based on the NCAA's stated timeline, the school will likely learn of its sanctions roughly two months later, around the same time we'll find out whether Rodriguez will finally produce a winning Big Ten football team in this, his third season.
Brandon was clear Tuesday that, "Rich Rodriguez is our football coach, and he will be our football coach [this fall]," but that was never really in question. Even if the school wanted to ax him today over these allegations, it would still need to wait until the NCAA process plays itself out or risk a wrongful termination suit like those of former Washington coach Rick Neuheisel and former Ohio State basketball coach Jim O'Brien.
What remains to be seen is whether Rodriguez will still be the Wolverines' coach in 2011, a decision that figured to rest largely on how much progress his team demonstrates this fall but may now be made easier if the Committee on Infractions upholds these allegations. As per his contract, the school -- which already spent $2.5 million to help Rodriguez pay his infamous West Virginia buyout and is on the hook for another $2.5 million in annual salary through 2013 -- could fire him with cause for violating NCAA rules. There would be no buyout necessary this time.
Michigan will likely endure notable but modest sanctions when all is said and done. There will likely be probation, docked scholarships and possibly some added staff restrictions. There's a stigma, but otherwise nothing a program like Michigan's can't withstand.
The party with the most to lose is clearly Rodriguez, whose 26-month stint in Ann Arbor must seem like an eternity at this point both to him and the school's followers. As if the indignity of overseeing the Wolverines' first losing seasons since 1967 wasn't enough, he now stands accused of allowing the first major violations in the program's history.
That's really the crux of the matter here. No, there are no seedy agents or rogue boosters involved in this case. These alleged violations, while seemingly minor, were the direct work of Rodriguez's own staff.
The spread-offense guru has spent two years preaching patience while he attempts to rebuild the Wolverines' roster. That was asking a lot of one of the nation's proudest fan bases without also breaking NCAA rules. Suffice to say, no coach in the country will be working with a shorter leash this fall.