On the surface, Ohio State’s NCAA sanctions in football do not bode well for Carolina’s forthcoming verdict.
In almost every case, the NCAA extended the Buckeyes’ self-imposed penalties, adding four lost scholarships to the five Ohio State already sacrificed over the next three years and issuing a one-year bowl ban that came as a surprise to many in Columbus. The actions stem from a handful of players, including star quarterback Tyrelle Pryor, who played in all 12 games plus the Sugar Bowl last season when head coach Jim Tressel knew they had violated NCAA rules.
The Buckeyes had already vacated all 12 wins, including the Sugar Bowl championship, and will return more than $300,000 from the bowl game.
When you compare what Ohio State did, the penalties it self-imposed and the sanctions ultimately received, it’s hard to imagine UNC getting off any lighter. The Tar Heels self-imposed the loss of nine scholarships over three years, took an NCAA probation for two seasons, vacated all victories from 2008 and ’09 (because Marvin Austin, Greg Little and company played in those 16 wins), and said the school would pay a $50,000 fine. As with Ohio State, no bowl ban was offered.
There are subtleties supporting both sides of the argument that Carolina will get equally hammered or that, perhaps, it may escape with a shorter rap sheet.
First off, the NCAA is not the same as yesterday. New President Mark Emmert seems determined to clean up college athletics by making an example of marquee schools that break the rules. No one will care outside of Miami if the Hurricanes get probation for their sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll charges linked to convicted felon Nevin Shapiro. Miami was long ago branded as having a bandit football program.
But Ohio State and North Carolina are, respectively, a perennial national power and one of the so-called elite institutions that many who follow college athletics considered untouchable in the eyes of the NCAA. And since Emmert’s hound dogs can’t run down all the cheaters, slamming the Buckeyes and Tar Heels sends the message that if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone. So clean it up.
The Buckeyes and Tar Heels are also guilty of having gravely serious coaching violations.
Before the 2010 season, Tressel sat on an informant’s email that revealed memorabilia and trophies were being sold for money and tattoos. That Tressel lied by signing the mandated NCAA form that he knew of no NCAA rules broken inside his program not only got him fired but also a five-year show-cause penalty making it unlikely he will ever coach in college again.
Carolina, of course, has not refuted the allegation that former associate head coach John Blake accepted money from deceased agent Gary Wichard to steer players inside and outside the UNC program toward Wichard after they left college. That is an unprecedented charge, almost graver than Tressel’s lie, and will likely leave Blake un-hirable by any college, as well.
There is also an academic fraud element to the UNC charges that Ohio State did not have, which Emmert has said will carry more weight than ever because, heretofore, they have been handled internally by the schools. So that becomes a bit of a wild card in the NCAA’s final ruling.
But the subtle differences between the two cases fall in Carolina’s favor, since the UNC administration acted swiftly and in some cases “over” decisively when it came to suspending players who were under investigation. Whereas Tressel allowed Pryor and gang to play the entire regular season, and the NCAA allowed them to play in the Sugar Bowl after suspensions were handed out for the next season, those Tar Heels with even a hint of duplicity were sidelined until each of their cases was examined by the NCAA and/or the UNC Honor Court.
That is the so-called “time served” element that so many alumni and fans hope will be a mitigating circumstance. Unlike Ohio State, Carolina lost more than 100 “man games” to suspensions in 2010. So, the theory goes, since those violators have already been punished, why give Carolina a bowl ban for the 2012 season and penalize players who had absolutely nothing to do with any of the violations?
Another ironic subtly could also help Carolina’s case. While UNC had more players receiving more impermissible benefits than Ohio State, the NCAA later uncovered that paying players has gone on with the Buckeyes for at least the last 10 years. Those charges are not included, but the NCAA knows about a pattern that existed in Columbus that was not the case in Chapel Hill before the Butch Davis era.
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said his school used precedent in prior NCAA sanctions handed down and consultants to decide exactly what to self-impose. Dick Baddour, UNC’s athletic director at the time, did not say what methods were used but indicated much thought and research went into the decision of which penalties it would carry into the NCAA hearing last October.
If Carolina had any reason to believe a bowl ban was coming, taking it this season might have been a better choice. The Tar Heels were playing under an interim coach, went 2-5 over their last seven games and wound up in Shreveport the day after Christmas. That would have been one to miss, especially if it allowed new head coach Larry Fedora to start with a cleaner slate.
But one thing is guaranteed when schools are dealing with the NCAA – there are no guarantees. Self-imposing a bowl ban would not necessarily have precluded another bowl ban next season. All UNC can hope for at this point is that it did enough, and did it swiftly, so if any subtle differences exist between its case and that of Ohio State, the Tar Heels will wind up benefitting from them.
We’ll know whenever the jury ends its deliberation.