More lenient NCAA would benefit everyone except coaches | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

If college football coaches weren’t paid so handsomely, I’d almost be at the point of feeling a tad sorry for them.

Coaches enjoy a shrinking grace period before they’re faced with demanding expectations. As coaches' buyouts increase, so do contracted for-cause firing provisions, giving universities  more loopholes to avoid paying severance to losing coaches. Also, NCAA transfer rules now allow players to move among schools more freely, making roster retention a chore.

Now, a movement is afoot among athletics directors and administrators to alter NCAA rules enforcement so that the harshest punishment from NCAA infractions cases is placed the shoulders of the cheaters – coaches or support staffers, usually – while protecting the athletic programs that benefited from the cheating.

The NCAA, at its convention this week in Indianapolis, is expected to adopt a new constitution that would encourage protection from sanctions that punish athletes who are innocent of infractions. That would reduce the likelihood of postseason bans as penalties, which are the penalties ADs and administrators often dread the most.

Additionally, LEAD1, an association that represents all 130 FBS ADs, has petitioned the NCAA Division I Board of Directors to change its infractions approach so that schools that cooperate with NCAA investigations would enjoy stronger protections.

“Penalties levied from the (Committee on Infractions) should be more narrowly tailored, targeting bad actors, rather than punishing innocent student-athletes never involved in the egregious conduct,” reads one of LEAD1's several recommendations.

“Penalties such as scholarship reductions, financial aid penalties, postseason bans, and elimination of records undermine our mission.”

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On the surface, that sounds fair. NCAA infractions cases proceed at glacial speed. By the time sanctions are levied, the offenders often have been fired or moved on, meaning postseason bans usually affect coaches and athletes who weren’t around when the infractions occurred.

But here’s what’s left unsaid: LEAD1’s proposal doesn’t just protect athletes. The organization’s recommendations also protect ADs and administrators who should be responsible for monitoring their coaches’ conduct.

Their self-serving recommendations would allow universities that employ rulebreakers to steer clear of the stiffest penalties, as long as they throw overboard the “bad actors.”

In other words, gather evidence that a losing coach cheats, fire that coach, and start over.

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Easy, breezy.

Less pressure on ADs and universities to get it right the first time and to uphold guardrails against cheating in the first place.

If the harshest penalties fall on the shoulders of “bad actors," and if universities gain protections against postseason bans, what prevents universities from replacing one cheating coach with another?

NCAA enforcement needs addressed

Sanctioning bad actors is appropriate. If you do the crime, you do the time, right?

But what if you employ and fail to adequately monitor the bad actor until you want to fire that bad actor amid mounting losses, and then you suddenly become aware of cheating that allows for a for-causing firing?

An enforcement policy that is more lenient to universities doesn’t promote rule compliance. It just redirects punishment.

A better enforcement revision than shifting most of the punishment onto offending coaches would be to focus on speeding up the enforcement process so that any penalties are handed down within a year of an NCAA probe beginning.

Additionally, NCAA penalties should more consistently fit the level of transgression, and some leniency should be offered toward schools that cooperate with investigations.

In recent years, multiple Missouri athletics programs and Oklahoma State men’s basketball received one-year postseason bans despite cooperating in NCAA investigations. Elsewhere, North Carolina basketball and Baylor football faced harsher allegations but used clever defense tactics to slither past stiff punishment.

That speaks to a system that needs corrected, but simply redirecting the punishment doesn’t fix the problem. Rather, it protects universities that employed rulebreakers.

Tennessee pinned wrongdoing on Jeremy Pruitt, staff members

In 2019, Tennessee’s compliance department sniffed out a petty rules violation when a football player advertised on Facebook the third-party sale of his replica jersey.

Nothing gets past that compliance department, eh?

Until January 2021, when Tennessee announced the firings of football coach Jeremy Pruitt, two assistants and seven support staffers after an investigation uncovered a “stunning” amount of malfeasance, as UT Chancellor Donde Plowman described it, that the bad apples had concealed from the compliance department.

Because UT fired Pruitt, who went 16-19 in three seasons, for cause, he did not receive his $12.6 million buyout.

Then-AD Phillip Fulmer, who hired Pruitt, received his full $1.3 million severance package.

Fulmer, UT’s legendary former coach, was a fixture around the football program during his more than three years as AD, to the extent that he was penalized for coaching the offensive line during a practice, a violation of NCAA rules.

Tennessee athletic director Phillip Fulmer, center, watches the quarterbacks and wide receivers during Tennessee's afternoon football practice on Tuesday, April 9, 2019.

Nevertheless, Pruitt, who lost to 26-point underdog Georgia State and who once said he’d never heard of asparagus, apparently outfoxed Fulmer.

UT officials depicted Fulmer as being in the dark about the rule-breaking behavior.

“I really, really, really want to underscore that there’s nothing about this that indicated Phillip knew about anything,” Plowman said in January 2021. “None of this had anything to do with him.”

Asked last week whether Tennessee’s investigation, which concluded in November, uncovered any wrongdoing by Fulmer, Plowman said no.

UT's investigation began in November 2020 after Plowman’s office received allegations of rules violations within the football program.

Now, Tennessee hopes its cooperation with the NCAA investigation and its firing of bad actors will allow it to avoid a postseason ban.

The NCAA amending its constitution to reduce the use of postseason bans, or an NCAA embrace of LEAD1’s recommendations, might help UT’s cause.

That’s beneficial for Vols football players who had nothing to do with the previous coaching staff’s behavior. It’s also beneficial for a university that failed to round up the bad actors until losses had mounted under Pruitt.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.