Saturday night’s Ohio State-Miami game brings the direct consequences of an ongoing investigation into the sharpest possible focus. Both teams have key players whom the NCAA suspended for taking impermissible benefits. In addition, Jim Tressel, a national championship head coach at Ohio State, was forced to resign May 30 in a wave of self-imposed penalties designed to soften the NCAA’s final judgment.
If there’s good news for the Buckeyes, ripped apart by a scandal centered around players trading memorabilia for tattoos, it’s that they’ve already had their hearing before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions and expect by November to hear the last word on the case.
Miami, on the other hand, is just getting started on an infractions process that must scour through eight years of alleged violations, a painstaking process for NCAA investigators who can be on the job, building a case and fostering doubt in the program’s overall viability, for an indefinite amount of time.
That leaves Miami with a difficult choice. One strategy is to agree to the veracity of some allegations without absolute proof from NCAA investigators, who lack subpoena power in the request for corroborating information from agents and former players and, in this case, even strip-club operators.
Another strategy, far less used these days, is to fight to the finish, courtroom style, on every last fact and technicality.
“There’s nothing wrong with fighting if you believe that’s appropriate,” said Chuck Smrt, a former head of NCAA enforcement who after 17 years with the organization switched to the growing business of advising scandal-ridden schools on how to limit their losses. “If you believe the NCAA enforcement staff is overly aggressive in its analysis of information, then you fight it.
“If you’re close, you have to decide, ‘Is it worth it?’ About 80 or 90 percent of the findings are acknowledged by an institution before the (NCAA) infractions committee.”
The Hurricanes might well try to streamline the process, cutting to the chase on NCAA punishment in recognition that the broad and blistering scope of booster Nevin Shapiro’s self-proclaimed violations have turned this into something of a test case.
Do the math on the NCAA’s compliance machinery, however, and it figures that Miami coach Al Golden, at the least, will have to plow through next February’s national signing day for new recruits with the certainty of sanctions still hanging over the program.
That’s because the average NCAA investigation takes 11 months to complete and this one, centered around cash and other improper benefits given to current and former Miami players, didn’t bring NCAA staffers to campus until sometime in April.
The Shapiro allegations – brought to public light by Yahoo! Sports, whose documentation of his claims included receipts and cell-phone records – are widely perceived as nastier than the norm, which means the investigation could go on much longer than the average. Reggie Bush’s investigation took five years to resolve from the initial allegation of improper benefits to the final rejection of Southern Cal’s appeals. The appeals process alone lasted nearly a year.
“On this Miami deal, I think there’s a lot of energy to move more quickly,” said sports agent Lynn Lashbrook, a former compliance director at Missouri. “Before it was always, ‘He said, she said.’ There’s so much overwhelming evidence than ever before, and I’m talking about the electronic part.
“I think the NCAA has new energy to be more aggressive on accountability, because the information is more factual and more documented.”
Throughout the process it’s common for schools to run joint investigations with NCAA staffers, sharing information and working together to find and interview sources. On campus, NCAA investigators are given priority, with the athletic director providing a room for the questioning and then hustling to round up players and coaches whose presence is requested.
Off campus the rules are different. Former players, for instance, have no obligation to speak to investigators, or to tell the truth if they do.
It’s a complicated job handled by a staff of 39 at the NCAA enforcement division. The general profile of an NCAA investigator, Smrt said, consists of “individuals who have some type of athletic background in coaching or playing or some involvement on campus, and then the ability to write. Probably the majority … have a law degree.”