Deck is cleared: Tennessee gets its trial
Mark Emmert was speaking in the hypothetical, addressing a gathering of media types at his Indianapolis home office during a mock enforcement exercise.
But the NCAA president's words certainly are ringing in the ears of Tennessee administrators and their faithful as the Volunteers head to Indy this weekend to appear before the Committee on Infractions.
"We need to make sure our penalty structure and enforcement process imposes a thoughtful level of concern and even fear that the cost of violating the rules exceeds the benefits," Emmert said last month.
In other words, the punishment needs to fit the crime.
On the lengthy laundry list of complaints about the NCAA, that one ranks at or near the top, that the punishment rarely fits the crime. Critics and naysayers argue that the world of college athletics is a big-money, big-business enterprise, but one ruled by an organization that metes out kindergarten penalties for professional crimes.
As Ohio State unravels, only four months after the NCAA cleared Terrelle Pryor to play in the Sugar Bowl (because playing in a bowl game offered the quarterback a "unique opportunity"), football champion Auburn remains in the NCAA's crosshairs and basketball champion Connecticut readies for probation, the hot-button issue of NCAA rules festers like never before.
And it's directly into that cauldron that Tennessee walks this weekend. The NCAA insists that it never sets out to make an example out of anyone, that for the COI, each case is unique and treated that way.
But there is no denying that UT is not the only institution about to be judged.
The NCAA is as well.
Here, then, is a primer of what will, won't and could happen in a critical weekend for both the Vols and the folks in Indy:
What will happen this weekend
This is the NCAA equivalent of being called to the principal's office. You've been caught doing something wrong. Your parents have been told about it. Now it's time to face the music.
Though the NCAA has no real legal rights, this is set up like a hearing. The enforcement staff will explain each item in the letter of allegations and the university then will respond with its defense.
It can be a pretty combative process. At the mock enforcement process, former COI chairs said that coaches often are reduced to tears during questioning.
The committee could really put Tennessee officials' feet to the flames, with tough questions that require answers.
Among those expected to attend are former athletic director Mike Hamilton, former men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl, former football coach Lane Kiffin, current men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and current football coach Derek Dooley.
What won't happen this weekend
Contrary to popular belief and the consensus of the Twittersphere, which is convinced the COI will "drop the hammer" on Tennessee this weekend, there won't be any punishment meted out anytime soon.
The Volunteers won't know their fate for at least six to eight weeks, when the COI announces its findings and penalties. And that six to eight weeks has lots of wiggle room. It took the COI more than four months to rule on Southern California.
So this is merely another step in the painstaking process.
In Tennessee's favor
With the NCAA, you are guilty unless proved innocent and a university that has received a notice of allegations is expected to fall on its sword.
A swan dive into a bellyflop from the top of a skyscraper onto a sword would be even better.
The more "proactive" a school is in punishing itself, the happier the committee is.
Three years ago in an interview with ESPN.com, Mike Glazier, an attorney who represents universities in NCAA investigations and who is representing Tennessee, put it best:
"If you go in and annoy the group that's going to decide your fate and they don't think you're being diligent at getting at the truth, they're going to penalize you on the heavy end of the range," Glazier said. "They don't feel so good about you.
"On the other end, if you've taken some measures and they feel good about you, they may come out on the lesser end."
Plenty of people believe that hubris, arrogance and unwillingness to do anything in advance was USC's fatal undoing. Athletic director Mike Garrett thumbed his nose at the NCAA's allegations and his university paid dearly for it, with a two-year postseason ban in football, major scholarship reductions, the vacating of a season and most recently, stripping of its BCS title.
Tennessee, on the other hand, already has slapped itself pretty hard. As part of its response, the university reduced off-campus recruiting opportunities for its basketball staff, reduced the number of official visits and prohibited coaches from making phone calls for a one-week period.
Also there is no indication that the university used any ineligible players, which means that vacating records likely won't come into play.
Most important, the questionable parties are already gone -- Pearl and his staff were fired in March, Hamilton resigned this week and Kiffin moved on to USC in January 2010.
Hamilton's resignation certainly seemed curiously timed, coming just four days before the COI hearing, so it will be interesting to see how the committee interprets it. Technically it's proactive, but coming in the 11th hour -- months after plenty of people screamed for his dismissal -- Hamilton's departure also could be construed as an 11th hour attempt at saving face.
What could happen next
Just because UT stuck itself in the corner with a dunce gap doesn't guarantee the COI is through with it.
Plenty still is in play here and could be on paper when the committee rules down the road.
Recruiting restrictions and scholarship reductions are almost a given. A possible postseason ban, though used rarely, isn't out of the question. Typically the NCAA tries to avoid punishing the people left behind for the sins of their predecessors, but sometimes it's unavoidable. Ask USC.
One thing for certain: Pearl's immediate future in college coaching certainly is on the line. The former coach's biggest sin wasn't inviting three players to his house for a barbecue.
No, Pearl's mistake was lying to the NCAA about it. That fib, an unnecessary attempt to cover up what essentially was a minor violation, could mean Pearl eventually emerges with a show-cause ban. In the last two years, 20 people have been charged with unethical conduct, as Pearl has been. Only one -- a graduate assistant who had already gotten out of coaching -- avoided at least a two-year show cause ban.
The lie already cost Pearl $1.5 million, eight conference games last season and ultimately his job, so there is a chance that the NCAA will decide instead on a lighter penalty -- another game suspension should he land future employment -- but it would be surprising.
Pearl ultimately came clean to the NCAA, but he also broke another rule -- impermissible contact, or a violation of the so-called bump rule -- just four days after he publicly apologized.
He didn't tell his bosses about that violation immediately either.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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