Setting the Bar: Harshest NCAA precedents for 'unprecedented' move against Penn State

By Matt Hinton | Blogger

On Monday morning, the NCAA is prepared to announce "unprecedented, punitive" action in response to the unprecedented child sex scandal at Penn State, with no foreshadowing of what, exactly, that might mean. So far, we've been assured only that the verdict has been expedited outside of any recognizable process for levying sanctions, and will not include the dreaded "death penalty."

From such vague description, it's possible to imagine that the penalties will be "unprecedented" in form, unique to anything the NCAA has ever handed down before. It's also possible that the sanctions will be familiar, along the lines of a bowl ban and scholarship reductions, but unprecedented in their harshness. Industry sources told CBSSports.com's Brett McMurphy on Sunday afternoon that the NCAA will hit Penn State with a $30 million to $60 million fine. President Mark Emmert is leading the NCAA into uncharted territory.

To that end, the charted territory may be of limited use, even in the most extreme cases: If the death penalty is off the table, analyzing the precedent set by nuking SMU's rogue football program in 1987 is worthless. Some anonymous sources hinted Sunday that Emmert has cooked up a combination of penalties somehow worse than death. If so, he will be adding new protocols and lethal new weapons to an arsenal that has remained virtually unchanged for six decades. Until now, death penalty aside, this is the absolute worst the NCAA can do:

1952: Kentucky Basketball
Violation(s): Improper financial aid ... eligibility.
Sanctions: Postseason ban ... schedule boycott.

The first NCAA sanction ever handed down was a kind of informal "death penalty" against the most dominant basketball program in the country. But it started with another powerhouse 700 miles away, in Manhattan, where three starters for the defending NCAA and NIT tournament champion, the City College of New York, were arrested for their role in a mob-backed point-shaving scheme in 1951. The scandal eventually engulfed 32 players from seven schools, including four players from Kentucky, which had won NCAA titles under coach Adolph Rupp in 1948, 1949 and, after the scandal broke, 1951.

Rupp infamously challenged the sports' overseers when he told reporters, "They couldn't reach my boys with a 10-foot pole." As it turned out, the NCAA's pole went to 11: Kentucky was banned from the NCAA tournament in 1952-53, and pressure on other member schools to boycott games against the Wildcats forced them to cancel the entire season. But Rupp also had the last laugh, immediately restoring UK to the national spotlight for good with a 25-0 run to the top of the polls in 1954. Meanwhile, CCNY soon vanished into the humble ranks of Division III, and the other five schools involved -- Bradley University, Long Island University, Manhattan College and the University of Toledo -- have scarcely been heard of again.

1976: Minnesota Basketball
Violation(s): Improper employment ... extra benefits ... out-of-season practice ... improper tryouts; improper recruiting ... playing ineligible players ... unethical conduct.
Sanctions: Television ban; postseason ban; scholarship reductions; recruiting restrictions; show cause penalty; disassociation with an assistant coach and multiple boosters.

Twenty-five years before the fall of Clem Haskins, coach Bill Musselman left the Gophers in 1975 with 128 pending NCAA violations from his four-year tenure, including direct payment to players for rent and transportation. (Musselman also recruited more than one convicted felon and was accused of fostering a generally thuggish attitude that, among other things, led to an Ohio State player being placed in intensive care after a bench-clearing brawl in 1971.) The 1976-77 Gophers, featuring future pros Mychael Thompson, Kevin McHale and Phil "Flip" Saunders, may have been as good as any team in the country, but had no way to prove it: they were banned from television and postseason play for two years.

1985: Tulane Basketball
Violation(s): Improper financial aid ... extra benefits ... improper recruiting ... unethical conduct.
Sanctions: Program disbanded (self-imposed).

In April 1985, two Tulane basketball players were arrested and two others implicated in yet another point-shaving scandal, upping the ante with allegations that they had accepted cocaine as well as nearly $20,000 in cash in exchange for helping fix games, and accepted money from head coach Ned Fowler (who was not involved in the point-shaving scheme). University president Eamon Kelly was so appalled that he accepted the resignation of the entire coaching staff and shut the program down indefinitely before the NCAA could issue a verdict. The Green Wave finally took the court again in 1990, after a five-year hiatus.

1988: Oklahoma Football
Violation(s): Improper transportation ... extra benefits ... improper recruiting ... unethical conduct ... institutional control.
Sanctions: Postseason ban ... television ban ... reduced scholarships ... recruiting restrictions ... show cause penalty ... disassociation with booster.

The sordid details of Oklahoma's reign of terror in the late eighties roam far beyond the reach of NCAA infractions: In the span of a single month in 1989, three OU players were arraigned on rape charges, another player was shot by a teammate and the starting quarterback was busted for selling cocaine to an undercover FBI agent. That all came immediately after the Sooners were smacked with a two-year bowl ban and heavy scholarship losses for a litany of infractions under coach Barry Switzer, who would be out of a job himself before the start of the 1989 season. After two solid decades at the top of the polls under Switzer, OU didn't return to the penthouse again until 2000.

1991: Michigan Baseball
Violation(s): Extra benefits ... impermissible recruiting ... amateurism ... lack of institutional control.
Sanctions: Television ban ... postseason ban ... reduced scholarships ... recruiting restrictions ... return of postseason revenue ... reduction of coaching staff ... vacation of wins/championships.

Before the wildly-hyped largesse of the "Fab Five" in basketball, there was the slightly less publicized case of Michigan's baseball coach, Bud Middaugh, who was accused of funneling $82,000 to players "under the guise of employment," paying off a recruit's sister and negotiating a pro contract on behalf of a player, among other things. And unlike the notorious Ed Martin, Middaugh's infractions cost the Wolverines more than a few asterisks in the record books: In addition to vacating four years' worth of wins and championships from 1985-89, the baseball team was hit with two-year bans on television and postseason play and massive scholarship losses over the next three years. The 1990-91 team was not allowed to sign a single new recruit.

1993: Auburn Football
Violation(s): Extra benefits ... unethical conduct ... erroneous certification of compliance ... lack of institutional control.
Sanctions: Television ban ... postseason ban ... reduced scholarships ... show cause penalty ... disassociation with coach and booster.

Coming off arguably the most successful decade in school history under coach Pat Dye, the Tigers were rocked during the 1992 season by the emergence of secret tapes -- recorded by former defensive back Eric Ramsey and his wife over three-and-a-half years -- of coaches and boosters arranging thousands of dollars' worth of illicit payments and loans to players. Dye was forced out that November on the eve of the Iron Bowl; the program was slapped the following summer with a one-year ban on television and a two-year ban on the postseason, thereby costing the undefeated 1993 team a shot at the national championship. As part of its response, the NCAA took aim at the insular culture of the program by demanding the "separation of duties of head football coach and athletics director," both of which had been held by Dye.

1995: Miami Football
Violation(s): Improper financial aid ... extra benefits ... failure to follow drug-testing policy ... unethical conduct ... lack of institutional control.
Sanctions: Postseason ban ... scholarship restrictions.

Scofflaw reputation notwithstanding, Miami managed to survive its run of four national championships from 1983-91 without a notable scrape from the NCAA. But the Pell Grant scandal of 1994 was a virtual amputation: Charged with falsifying federal documents to the tune of $412,000 in excessive benefits and allowing cash payouts as part of a locker room bounty program, the 'Canes were hit with a one-year bowl ban and a reduction of 30 scholarships over the next three years. They didn't return to the championship circle again until 2001.

2002: Alabama Football
Violation(s): Impermissible recruiting ... extra benefits.
Sanctions: Postseason ban ... reduced scholarships ... recruiting restrictions ... disassociation with boosters.

The name "Albert Means" is still a punchline in SEC country, mostly as a symbol of the unabashed graft that defined his recruitment -- a player who was literally sold by his high school coach to the highest bidder. That winning bid came from a Alabama booster, Logan Young, who allegedly paid the coach $150,000 to steer Means to the Crimson Tide and spent the rest of his life attempting to avoid a prison sentence as result. (Young met a grisly end in 2006, though police said the bloody scene at his home was the result of an accidental fall.) Another recruit, Kenny Smith, was reportedly paid $20,000 by two other 'Bama boosters; an assistant coach, Ronnie Cottrell, received two loans from Young totaling $56,600. A repeat offender, Alabama narrowly escaped its own death from the NCAA, accepting a two-year bowl ban and major scholarship reductions instead.

2005: Baylor Basketball
Violation(s): Impermissible benefits ... failure to follow drug testing policy ... impermissible tryout ... impermissible contact ... unethical conduct ... academic fraud ... lack of institutional control.
Sanctions: Ban on non-conference games ... reduced scholarships ... recruiting restrictions ... show cause penalties.

Years later, former Baylor coach Dave Bliss will be the first to admit he resides among the lowest of the low for his response to the 2003 murder of one of his players, Patrick Dennehy, by another player, Carlton Dotson, and there's not much room for disagreement. "Unethical conduct" is a gross understatement: Before Dennehy's death, Bliss had quietly paid more than $20,000 in tuition to keep Dennehy, a walk-on, on the team without taking up a scholarship; when Dennehy's body was found, Bliss was caught on tape instructing several players to lie to investigators about Dennehy's finances, specifically by insinuating he had paid his tuition by selling drugs. (Bliss also flew to New York in an attempt to convince the mother of another non-scholarship he had been secretly floating, Corey Herring, to lie about more than $18,000 he had paid on behalf her son, who didn't realize he wasn't on scholarship. At one point, Bliss also pretended to be Herring's father on a phone call to Baylor's financial aid office.)

Combined with accusations of improper recruiting and indifference to rampant drug use on the team, Baylor was hit with five years' probation, scholarship and recruiting restrictions and a one-year ban on nonconference games for the 2005-06 season. Bliss and two assistants were slapped with show cause penalties, effectively ending their careers. Dotson pled guilty to Dennehy's murder and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

2010: USC Football
Violation(s): Amateurism ... failure to report knowledge of violations ... unethical conduct ... impermissible benefits ... impermissible recruiting contact by a booster ... impermissible inducements and extra benefits ... lack of institutional control.
Sanctions: Postseason ban ... reduced scholarships ... vacation of wins/championships ... show cause penalty ... fine.

All told, the $300,000 in cash, cars, travel and other assorted prizes lavished on Reggie Bush and his family by a pair of would-be agents in 2004 and 2005 may represent the largest illicit payout on record to an "amateur" athlete. Which, frankly, is commiserate with Bush's production at USC: He was a key part of national championship teams in 2003 and 2004 and the best player in college football en route to another BCS title shot in 2005. Failing to see the value in that transaction, or in USC's claim that no one associated with the university had any knowledge of it, the NCAA wiped out nearly all of the above with retroactive penalties that stripped the Trojans of the '04 title and Bush of the '05 Heisman Trophy -- a first on both counts -- and tossed on a two-year bowl ban and heavy scholarship losses for good measure.

- - -
Under the circumstances, scholarship reductions, bowl bans and vacated wins may seem petty in response to a culture that facilitated more than a decade of child rape. The legal system has spoken on Jerry Sandusky, and will speak again soon in judgment of two of his alleged enablers in the Penn State administration. The university has spoken by firing president Graham Spanier and head coach Joe Paterno and, this morning, by dragging Paterno's statue off the premises. The Department of Education is mulling a potentially devastating response of its own against the university. Of all of them, the NCAA's jurisdiction in an essentially criminal matter is the most suspect, and will be the most difficult to get right.

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