Commentary

Year of the scandal

As the 2010-11 academic year ends, controversies have mired every major NCAA conference.

Updated: May 22, 2011, 2:07 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the May 30, 2011 "Busted" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, Boom Herron, Terrelle Pryor, and Solomon ThomasAP Photo/Terry GilliamThe NCAA controversially reinstated five Ohio State players for postseason games. Coach Jim Tressel's fate in Columbus is still in the balance.

"THE NOISE NEVER STOPS." That was Bruce Pearl's beleaguered declaration to a small handful of friends and reporters as he stood in the tunnel of Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena on March 18, moments before Tennessee's NCAA Tourney opener against Michigan.

His season began with a tearful admission that he had lied to the NCAA about recruiting violations. University-imposed sanctions, a contract termination and an eight-game suspension soon followed, but the tar-and-feathering lasted for months. The buzz around his job security crescendoed two days before the Michigan game, when his athletic director, Mike Hamilton, told a Knoxville radio station that he was uncertain if Pearl would return as men's basketball coach. For 48 hours, those words permeated every space of Pearl's life, from press conferences to his hotel room TV to the Twitter account that he ultimately decided to ignore.

He trudged, bleary-eyed, onto the court, where his team was hammered by 30. It was the worst, and last, loss of his Tennessee career. When he left the floor two hours later, a dead coach walking, he actually looked relieved.

"Punishment for your transgressions is always hard," he said. "But now, it never stops. Even while you sleep, people are out there, digging. When you get up, you don't know what you'll read or hear about yourself or anyone."

Welcome to collegiate sports, stumbling into the summer after the most titillating and titan-toppling 12 months since a BMOC first buttoned up a varsity sweater. Over the past year, muck has been tracked around the infield of the College World Series by Arizona State, over midcourt at the Final Four by UConn, and across the 50 at the BCS national championship on the cleats of both Auburn's Heisman winner, Cam Newton, and the team charged with stopping him, Oregon. Even those who operated that game, the executives of the Fiesta Bowl, have been brought down for illegal political contributions, inspiring a 276-page investigation that includes a subsection titled "Strip club visits."

The problems now run so deep that they have damaged the reputation of programs and players in the eyes of NFL front offices, not a group that typically loses sleep over issues of morality. And the mire has spread beyond the revenue sports, seeping into every corner of once-proud athletic departments. In early May, Boise State was told it was being investigated for "lack of institutional control" by the NCAA, not so much because of its minor football infractions, but because of the school's inability to monitor rampant issues within & women's tennis. And while Bama's football squad will always dominate the headlines, the Tide's entire athletic department went on three years' probation in 2009 after the school self-reported that student-athletes from 16 different sports were given impermissible benefits.

This rampage of rule-bending has campus compliance officers scrambling, searching for answers within their stacks of three-ring binders marked with the NCAA's familiar blue-circle, block-letter logo. The volumes are ever-expanding, designed to cover everyone from USC to the tiniest Division III colleges. Their pages have been written, one reaction at a time, over a century. New problems lead to new solutions, which produce new stacks of pages to be mailed out to 1,281 member institutions. The result is a labyrinth of words that, while well-intentioned, have become as complicated to enforce as they are to interpret.

"There is an undeniable sense that we are in a constant game of catch-up," says Holden Thorp, chancellor of the University of North Carolina. Thorp found himself on the front lines last summer when the Tar Heels football squad faced charges of improper involvement with sports agents and academic misconduct. "Everything in college athletics has become so big so fast, and it never stops evolving," he says. "Our job as the policemen of college athletics, be it the NCAA or the schools, is to evolve with it. And quickly."

On May 9, the NCAA enforcement division launched a new website to educate the public and, more important, member institutions and student-athletes on how its processes work. The next day, 30 national-media members went to Indianapolis for the "NCAA Enforcement Experience," a daylong, step-by-step mock investigation of fictional, über-evil State University. By day's end, member schools following on a live chat were asking about doing an Experience in person. "We as a group have let it get to this point," says TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte. "Athletic administrators, coaches, university presidents. I think there's a real feeling across the board of, Okay, enough. How embarrassed do we need to be before we rein this in?"

Athletes are going to do whatever they can to win. Those who stand to profit most from those athletes -- coaches and agents -- will do even more. When they all push back against the rules together, it creates a critical mass of malfeasance that rolls in and out on waves. History has shown that such periods can be both destructive and cleansing. It happened in the 1980s with the SWC and SMU's Death Penalty. It happened again in the 1990s with Big Ten basketball, from Michigan paydays to Minnesota's term-paper-writing secretary. And it's happening now, seemingly everywhere. The earlier eras began with, and were ultimately toppled by, a certain tip or tool. This era is crashing 140 characters at a time.

Chancellor Thorp learned about UNC football's suspected ties to pro agents the same way that we all did, when defensive tackle (and New York Giants' 2011 second-round draft pick) Marvin Austin tweeted a few too many South Beach party updates. Back then, Thorp, who once fancied himself web-savvy because he posted a blog, was actually a social-media novice. But Dec. 5, 2010, marked a new step in the chancellor's evolution: @chanthorp officially joined Twitter.

And it's not just the big schools that have increased their vigilance. "There will always be something," says a compliance officer at one small Division II school. "It was letters, then cellphones, then texts and now Twitter. There's no way to get ahead of it. Rather, we all have to react." Like most of her colleagues, she is happy to talk, but only if assured anonymity, perhaps to protect her good name should the school find itself in trouble. Or perhaps it is because she is embarrassed about her undying love for the 1994 college basketball flick Blue Chips, currently playing on her office TV. "Oh, my god, this is the best scene," she says. Nick Nolte's character is Pete Bell, a Bob Knightish hoops coach who's been busted. Big time. He assembled an all-star squad via unsavory means, allowing a booster to lure recruits with cash, homes and, um, a tractor.

"Boys, the rules don't make much sense," Coach Bell growls from the TV, addressing his team in their moment of greatest triumph. "But I believe in the rules. Some of us broke them. I broke them. I can't do this. I can't win like this." Then, Coach Bell, in his powder blue sweater, walks into the press room, delivers an "I've become what I despise" tirade and quits.

The compliance officer claps her hands, laughs and then fantasizes aloud. "Just once I want someone to do that for real. Give that same speech. Call out the jerk that caused the whole problem, someone who more than likely never even went to the school. Call out the reporter who broke the story. And then point at all these three-ring binders and explain how ridiculous they might be, but how necessary they all are." Then, with a wink, she adds: "You know, there's a coach who could do that right now. It would rock the world. And he wears sweaters, too."

She is speaking of Jim Tressel. These days, everyone speaks of Tressel, the Ohio State coach who knew of the merchandise-for-benefits scandal some call Tattoogate a full eight months before it was revealed by chance, through an unrelated FBI investigation of a tattoo-parlor owner. In recent weeks, OSU's "improper benefit" problems have graduated from free arm ink to cut-rate Chryslers. As the school investigates a May 7 story in The Columbus Dispatch that alleges car dealers gave perks to OSU players and their families, Coach Tressel will be at a Tampa resort for a five-day NCAA compliance seminar in June as part of his school-imposed punishment.

"The part that none of us understands is pretty simple and profoundly confusing," says a compliance officer at a Big East school. "When Tressel had obviously been made aware of a potentially very large mess, why didn't he just walk down the hall and hand it off? Their compliance office is very good."

They are also battle-hardened. After a debilitating basketball recruiting scandal that landed Ohio State on probation and stripped them of their 1999 Final Four visit, they even chose a former NCAA enforcement officer to head up the department, which now has six full-time employees. But instead of taking the issue to the people hired to protect the program, Tressel chose to handle it himself. Among some coaches and players, his one-man circling of the wagons has been hailed as an act of loyalty. But among many college administrators it is viewed as a cover-up.

Tressel's initial assertion that he hadn't told anyone about the violations was proved false by his own e-mail conversations with a player's mentor. None of the messages, uncovered by The Dispatch, were cc'ed to Ohio State officials.Tressel, like most coaches, is a state employee. That means his e-mail and phone records are subject to open records requests by the media and public (see page 55). And that transparency makes covering up transgressions even harder.

When asked about Pearl, everyone from fellow coaches to compliance officers to athletic directors contend that his main violations (hosting a cookout for recruits, impermissible phone calls and incidental contact with a high school recruit) were far from heinous. But like Tressel, his concealment afterward exacerbated the situation. Also like Tressel, so did his naivete. Pearl's denials unraveled when a snapshot of the cookout surfaced, and the illegal calls were dug up by Comply & Verify technology, an algorithm that analyzes phone records to spot questionable patterns and frequencies in calls made and received.

"It wasn't so long ago that you would have handled that situation exactly like [Ohio State], and it would have been no big thing at all," says retired football coach Bill Dooley, whose 35-year career included stints at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. "Call the kids in your office, chew them out, call their mamas, bench 'em for a little while and it was over. An old-school-style coach is going to think he can still do it that way. But back then, just 10 years ago, the circle of people you had to control was tiny. A few players, coaches, the athletic director, maybe a reporter. Now that circle is, well, hell, it's the whole world."

It is players and wannabe players, boosters and wannabe boosters. It is 200 million users on Twitter, half a billion on Facebook, bloggers and message-board junkies. Voices and opinions, whether they are liars or Pulitzer winners, are no longer bound by the chains of regionalism. They've gone global in an age when keeping secrets is impossible and a volume knob stuck on 10 converts one-liners from the transaction page into headlines. For a high-profile coach like Pearl, the digital storm that his actions created contributed as much to his dismissal as the actions themselves. "Once it's out there, it's out there, true or false," says Debbie Yow, athletic director at NC State. "And I have yet to see someone get water to go back up into the faucet."

The question remains: Is the integrity of collegiate athletics actually at an all-time low, or does the Internet-fueled cyclone of news and bloviation just make it feel that way?

"Listen, this is not the wild, wild west that we had in the 1970s and '80s," says Mark Marquess, Stanford's head baseball coach since 1977. "But there is no doubt that everyone is under more scrutiny now. Even the smallest violations or investigations are reported like the big ones. If there's an upside, that scrutiny has forced schools to be more proactive with compliance than reactive."

So what's the downside of better policing? Depends on the coach. "It's no secret that head coaches at big programs are now more CEO than coach," says Bill Stewart, about to start his final football season patrolling West Virginia's sideline. "But you can't use that as an excuse. Some guys do. Do we have more to keep track of now? Sure. But if we're going to take the big paycheck we also have to take the big responsibility. What did they teach us all in kindergarten? If you decide to break the rules you have to be willing to live with the embarrassment of standing in the corner in front of everybody."

Thirty years ago, few, if any, schools had a staffer assigned to compliance. Now, it seems every member institution, no matter how large or small, has an office staffed with law-school graduates. Stadium skyboxes are stocked with NCAA literature, and team websites are loaded with pages to educate boosters, alums and staff on the do's and don'ts of compliance protocol.

Since 2000, the NCAA's enforcement division has added a dozen investigators. NCAA president Mark Emmert, a former college president (most recently at Washington), who began his job in the middle of this scandalous year, has pledged to hire more, saying during the Enforcement Experience: "I'm committed to adding as many as we need to maintain proper, even enforcement." Those investigators, many of whom have experience on the federal and state level, will quickly learn how to sift through all the noise, whether it be a football player tweeting too much information (UNC), a story broken by the media (Cam Newton's recruitment) or information uncovered by federal or police investigations (Ohio State). Without subpoena power, the NCAA must rely on its ability to use these bits of information overload as tools.

"Everyone has gotten better at what they do on all sides," says Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, a former NCAA director of enforcement who made his name during the most notorious scandal of them all: SMU football's Death Penalty. "The NCAA does better investigating. Journalists are better at reporting. And the schools are better at policing themselves."

So, might better awareness lead to a decrease in scandals? Not so fast, says Beebe. "The problem is the idiots out there, the ones from the outside who end up causing most of the problems," he says. "They are also better at being idiots than they used to be." And that means coaches have to be a lot smarter when forced to deal with them.

See you next year.

Ryan McGee | email

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