NCAA Investigation Into Saint Mary’s Shows Incentives the Same Regardless of Program SizePosted by Chris Johnson on September 24th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The list of power-conference athletic programs that have committed recruiting violations is long and wide-ranging. Just in the past five years, we’ve seen Connecticut men’s basketball, Ohio State football, Baylor men’s basketball, Oregon football, USC football and men’s basketball – among many other notable big-time programs – either accused or charged with breaking the NCAA’s strict recruiting codes. These brand-name programs are often hit with crippling sanctions that not only restrict competitive potential, but stain nationally-renowned schools with the stigma of cheat, deceit and fraud. Sometimes, as was the case with USC hoops, there are one or two rogue athletes responsible for their programs’ reckoning. For others it’s a problem embedded within the institution. SMU’s pay-for-play football setup, revealed to the masses more than a quarter century ago, underscores the latter. Still, there is a common denominator at play here. These scandals become national stories, all of them, because of the institutions at which they occur and the negative ripple effects the violations threaten to generate. When news broke of OSU’s “tattoos-for-swag” arrangement, it was the job status of former coach Jim Tressel and the speculation over his replacement that stole back-page headlines. The violations were compelling in and of themselves, but the national appeal stemmed from the long-term implications on the Buckeyes, a legendary, if iconic, football program.
The media attention these stories capture obscures the true breadth and reach of illicit recruiting behavior: NCAA violations, viewed by the layperson through a prism of high-major perpetration, extending to the mid-major ranks. We got the latest example over the weekend courtesy of ESPN.com’s Andy Katz, who reported that the Saint Mary’s men’s basketball program has been subject of an NCAA investigation over the past year for potential recruiting violations. The focus of the investigation remains a mystery, though sources confirmed to Katz that David Patrick, a former Saint Mary’s assistant who was instrumental in the recruitment of several Australian players to the program (most notably Patty Mills), has spoken with NCAA personnel. Program officials, including associate athletic director Richard Kilwein, athletic director Mike Orr and head coach Randy Bennett, have all declined to comment. The Gaels broke Gonzaga’s more than decade-long stranglehold over West Coast Conference hoops last season by claiming the league title outright, the first time since the 1999-2000 season that a team other than the Zags seized solitary ownership of the conference crown. For a program that during Bennett’s tenure has evolved into one of the nation’s premier mid-majors, any punitive measures would represent a major stain in an otherwise sparkling recent history.
The Gaels are not the only program from a non-power conference to draw the attention of the ever-watchful critical gaze of NCAA investigators. Other mid-major violators include Boise State, who was hit with the dreaded lack of institutional control charge last spring for a major violation in woman’s tennis and secondary violations in a host of other sports, including football. Central Florida was recently slapped with one-year postseason bans in both men’s basketball and football, along with a litany of other prohibitive sanctions, for an administrator’s impermissible relationship with a third-party agency who helped steer recruits to the program. Whereas similar scandals at larger programs have created lasting ripples, these charges barely blipped the national radar. It’s not at all difficult to figure out why. Aside from Boise and UCF fans, who no doubt are deeply concerned with the well-being of their respective programs, there are more compelling things – more compelling NCAA investigations, even, what with Duke and UNC currently under fan and media scrutiny for potential violations – on which to channel our collective sports consciousness. It’s not just their lack of history and tradition. It’s that these programs, with few exceptions, lack national intrigue. We’re not talking about Ohio State football, or UCLA basketball. These are mid-major programs, beset by NCAA troubles of similar (or nearly equal) severity, their situations dwarfed by their counterparts’ higher-profile cases.
The pressure to succeed at the highest level of athletic achievement is immense for high-major programs across the country. With massive financial and administrative support, rabid fan bases and community-sized resource bases to draw from, historic programs like Ohio State football and UCLA basketball are expected to compete for national championships on a regular basis. In this inherently competitive environment, cheating – which, in NCAA parlance, has become synonymous with recruiting violations – has gained gradual acceptance (and decreasing levels of public scorn) as a national byproduct of the elite recruiting landscape. The underlying suspicion of the practice has afflicted the AAU and grassroots basketball culture with an outwardly nefarious reputation. The dark tales of Sonny Vaccaro’s double-dealing and shoe companies engaging eighth grade prospects and third-party miscreants offering large sums as an extension of university directives have all tainted the recruiting process. These actions, whether true or fabricated, are typically associated with the very best college basketball programs. The same goes for football, with the differences lying not in the spirit of recruiting tactics – cheating in basketball is cheating in football – but in the way the two sports diverge in the functionality of their illegal methods of luring prospects to campus.
What the Saint Mary’s news (and the laundry list of other less-publicized mid-major violations cases) proves is that recruiting competition — and the extralegal procedures used to gain a leg up in that competition — exist even where you may not expect it. Yes, these programs are often shut out from the intense courtships of four- and five-star prospects, but the battles are waged for presumably lesser talents with equal ferocity. In a similarly competitive structure, these programs have many of the same incentives to bend NCAA protocol, just like their BCS conference brethren. To review: Saint Mary’s has not received notice of NCAA punishment, and there’s no reason to believe there will be any. At this point, all we know is that the NCAA has been looking into the program over the past year. Like we’ve seen time and again from its nationally-revered competitors in major conferences, Saint Mary’s is, based on our limited knowledge, at the very least flirting with the NCAA-mandated boundaries on recruiting powers. Even if the financial or competitive stakes do not measure up to the high-major heavyweights, mid-majors – even self-made programs like Saint Mary’s – are wired with the same insatiable competitive zeal. Any program, no matter the league or division, needs players. The process to acquire those players will vary in scale but many of the same pathways are available regardless of size. It remains to be seen whether Saint Mary’s took the path of least resistance on its way to conference and national relevance.