Commentary

Give us clean programs or give us death

Updated: May 18, 2011, 3:45 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

I was heartened by what I heard coming out of last week's annual gathering of athletic directors and rising star assistant coaches known as the Villa 7 conference at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. In an age when college sports is dissolving into a backwash of lies, cheating and other sordid scandals, the men and women who hope to be head coaches say they want no part of it and would like the NCAA to issue stiffer sanctions to those programs caught afoul of the rules.

[+] EnlargeShaka Smart
AP PhotoShaka Smart and other young coaches advocate NCAA penalties with teeth.

VCU coach Shaka Smart's vivid quote in The New York Times has been widely viewed as the kind of bold stance college sports' next generation of coaches seems willing to embrace in order to avoid falling into the same mud hole that is swallowing so many of their predecessors:

"To me, there's a way to dissuade people from violating the rules," he said. "It's to penalize more. In some cultures, if you steal, they cut your hand off. They probably have a lot less theft."

Allow me to Shaka-it-up even more: In order to truly begin cleansing college sports, the NCAA must revive the death penalty.

More correctly, the organization must be willing to use it again.

The death penalty is, of course, the NCAA's ultimate sanction: shutting down a program for at least an entire season. No more games. Cue the crickets.

It was most famously levied against SMU's football program in 1986 when, while already on probation for major recruiting violations, the Mustangs were found to be paying players through an elaborate subterfuge aided and abetted by athletic department officials and an arrogant booster. (That's redundant, I know.)

The NCAA shuttered the program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons. It was the first use of the new "repeat violator" rule, which allowed the NCAA to shut down a sport for one or two seasons if an institution committed a second major violation in five years.

Not surprisingly, the move devastated the Mustangs program, which had been widely respected and among the most successful in the nation. Hence the catchier "death penalty" moniker was born. Only just now, after nearly a quarter century, is SMU football beginning to hold its head high again.

[+] EnlargeEric Dickerson and Craig James
AP Photo/David BreslauerSMU has never reclaimed the national prominence it had when Eric Dickerson, left, and Craig James played there.

The deep and sobering impact the death penalty had on SMU has seemed to make the NCAA skittish about levying it ever since.

But it has done so -- sort of.

In 2003, the NCAA squashed historically black Morehouse College's soccer team and banned it until 2006 after discovering recruiting violations involving two Nigerian players and a "lack of institutional control." (Allegedly, some school officials didn't even know the school had a soccer team!) Today, soccer at Morehouse is an intramural sport. Division III MacMurray College lost its 2006 and 2007 seasons after the school was found to have provided scholarships to 10 international players. The violation? Division III schools are not allow to offer athletic scholarships.

So while the NCAA has swung its big stick, it hasn't come close to the big fat piņatas hanging in the middle the room -- the ones plastered with names such as Auburn, UConn, North Carolina, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee and myriad other major universities with recent or future appointments with the NCAA.

And in the meantime, many of those schools have thrived on the field. Added Smart: "I think it's pretty clear to a lot of people in this business that a lot of people who have broken the rules or bent the rules have prospered."

No school feels any threat that its money-printing and money-burning machines -- uh, programs, rather -- might be deleted for something as trivial as, say, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a street agent or family member for delivering a star player or "money handshake" or lying to NCAA investigators.

That's why, in part, we are where we are -- cringing at the daily headlines of impropriety run amok.

Until coaches, administrators and boosters do know their precious games can be eliminated, until they truly believe the NCAA will recast the hell of oblivion experienced by Mustangs football upon any institution that spits upon the rules, college sports will sink deeper and deeper into the mud hole.

And too, more and more coaches with stellar dossiers -- icons such as Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and the once-celebrated (now exiled) former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl -- will reek of the stench of impropriety. Or be out of a job.

[+] EnlargeEmpty Stands
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesClosing the gates is the only penalty that will truly curtail cheating.

It's no mystery why a few "new" schools were widely cheered over the last year for more than their success on the football field or basketball court. Stanford (disclosure: it's my alma mater), Butler and VCU were among those institutions lauded not only for winning but also for doing so "the right way."

Translation: They didn't cheat. At least not that we know.

Sure, we all root for our schools. And the more they win, the closer they get to a championship of any sort, the easier it is to cheer for them, no matter which "way" they got there.

But my tolerance is waning. Fast.

And, thankfully, the next generation of coaches doesn't seem to walk in the same muddy trails. Nor are they afraid to say so.

This fall, Ohio State and Auburn will be among the institutions that open their seasons beneath the cloud of an NCAA investigation that could affect their records in recent seasons.

Now is the time for the NCAA to let them, and all schools, know that their misdeeds will cost them, dearly. Perhaps for illegally texting a recruit ... off with their thumbs!

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com