Major NCAA violations yield relatively minor consequences

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Third in a series.

By the NCAA's definition, major violations are those that "usually provide an extensive recruiting or competitive advantage" that "can lead to significant penalties against the school and involved individuals."

These penalties "are intended to deter schools from breaking the rules and to eliminate any competitive advantage."

In other words, schools that commit major infractions should suffer the consequences. The truth is: they usually don't.

A CBSSports.com study discovered during the past 25 years that the majority of college football programs that committed major violations actually had a higher winning percentage after being penalized.

Major (Infraction) Impact
Programs that saw their winning percentage decrease the most in the five-year period following a major infraction.
Team (Year) Win Decrease
Oklahoma State (1989) 46.2%
Washington (2004) 28.4%
Marshall (2001) 26.4%
Minnesota (1991) 22.7%
Virginia Tech (1987) 21.0%
Alabama (1995) 18.8%
Oklahoma (1988) 17.4%
Texas (1987) 14.6%
Washington (1992) 14.2%
Miami (1995) 13.1%

So crime does pay.

In Part III of CBSSports.com's series on cheating in college football, we examine the winning percentage for the five seasons before and after each major infraction was handed down in the past 25 years. There have been 72 major violations since 1987, when SMU received the so-called "Death Penalty." For the study, SMU's 1987 team was not included because the team lost two seasons. We also excluded the 13 most programs flagged for major infractions since 2007 because they have not completed five seasons since those infractions.

Of the schools who committed the remaining violations, more than half (30) actually had a better winning percentage for the five-year period after the infractions were levied compared with the previous five seasons.

How is this possible when the NCAA clearly states that its penalties are to "eliminate any competitive advantage?" Is the NCAA, or more specifically the NCAA's Committee on Infractions, not strict enough when administering punishment? Or is it a reality that the programs know the "Death Penalty" never will be used again unless a school decides to operate like a modern day Caligula?

Since 1987, nearly three dozen programs have been eligible for the Death Penalty -- programs that have committed two sets of major NCAA rules violations within a five-year period -- but the NCAA hasn't taken that action. And based on the severity of what happened to SMU, several current and former NCAA officials and investigators believe it never will.

Add to that the Committee on Infractions' reluctance to ban schools from television -- Ole Miss was the last school to receive a live TV ban back in 1994 -- and programs have discovered it's not that difficult to overcome some scholarship losses and/or other financial limitations for a year or two.

The reward -- winning seasons, bowl bids, higher paying contracts with extensions for the coaching staff, etc. -- clearly outweighs the risk of getting caught.

Five-Part Series: Cheating
Part I -- Dodd: Hard to win without cheating
Part II -- McMurphy: Teams that cheat the most
Part III -- McMurphy: Major equals minor consequences
Part IV -- Fischer: Accountable compliance officers needed
Part V -- July 15: What we have learned

That always wasn't the case. Around the same time SMU received the Death Penalty -- former coach Phil Bennett described the damage to the Mustangs' program as a "nuclear bomb" -- the NCAA rolled into Stillwater, Okla., to investigate Oklahoma State's football program.

When the NCAA got done with Oklahoma State, the Cowboys' program resembled scorched Earth.

Oklahoma State didn't get the Death Penalty, but a near-Death Penalty: four years probation, a three-year postseason ban, a two-year television ban, scholarship reductions, recruiting limitations, you name it. Basically every possible penalty except vacating the Cowboys' wins -- and the Cowboys won: their 44 victories from 1984-88 remains the most prolific five-year stretch in school history.

And also the most costly.

"What happened got our attention," said Mike Holder, who was Oklahoma State's golf coach for more than 30 years until becoming athletic director in 2005. "It set our football program back for years."

More than two decades later, Holder said Oklahoma State still feels the impact.

"In some ways we're still trying to recover," Holder said.

In the five seasons before the 1989 NCAA sanctions, Oklahoma State had a 74.5 winning percentage. In the five seasons after the penalties, OSU had a 28.3 winning percentage, and averaged six fewer wins a season.

Oklahoma State isn't the only school that has had a hard time rebounding from major violations. Washington went 16-44 in the five seasons after its major violations in 2004, after winning 33 games the previous five years.

Other schools that fared significantly worse in the five-year period after their infractions included Marshall (dropping from 54 to 34 wins after its 2001 violation), Oklahoma (from 51 to 38 wins after its 1988 violation), Virginia Tech (from 35 to 22 wins after its 1987 violation), Minnesota (from 26 to 14 wins after its 1991 violation) and Alabama (from 52 to 39 wins after its 1995 violation).

After Oklahoma State's NCAA penalties, the Cowboys had only one winning season over the next 13 and didn't have consecutive winning seasons until 2002 and 2003 under coach Les Miles.

When the penalties came down on the Cowboys in 1989, Holder was in the midst of building the school's golf program into a national power. Under Holder, the Cowboys won eight NCAA golf titles. He says he was not involved and did not have any knowledge about the infractions committed by the football program, but remembers the impact.

"We were abysmal," Holder said. "It crippled our ability to compete and affected everything negatively from attendance to recruiting. It's hard to recover. Football is a numbers game: it takes so many good players and coaches. You can't recover overnight.

"I love college football. I look forward to Saturdays in the fall. A big part of the fun is having a team that has a chance to win. Those Saturdays [after the infractions] went by the wayside for more years than I would like to count. There were too many of those.

"There was not too much joy in Stillwater back then."

Oklahoma State's penalties came during a period of unprecedented rules breaking in what resembled the Wild, Wild Southwest.

Between 1985-89, nine major infractions were committed by programs in Texas and Oklahoma -- TCU, Houston, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and SMU (twice). That's nine of the nation's 24 major infractions during that time frame committed by schools from the two states divided by the Red River.

And a big reason for all the illegal activity can be summed up in three words: Hart Lee Dykes.

Before his ninth birthday, Dykes became the only person to have his name enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and National Baseball Hall of Fame by winning the national Punt, Pass and Kick and Pitch, Hit and Run contests.

He later achieved another first: becoming the first person to put four college football programs on probation.

Illinois, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all were placed on probation for their "bidding war" to land the talented 6-foot-4, 218-pound wide receiver.

Oklahoma State won the Dykes Derby, but suffered the consequences.

Hart Lee Dykes Saga
SchoolNCAA allegation
IllinoisAn assistant gave Dykes $100 the week before National Signing Day so Dykes and a friend could stay in a motel for two nights away from his hometown of Bay City, Texas, to avoid rival recruiters.
Texas A&MAn assistant parked a Datsun 280-ZX in front of Dykes' home and told him the car could be his if he signed with the Aggies. Also the assistant told Dykes' brother the coach could arrange employment for the brother's wife, assured him Dykes' father would receive medical treatments and that Hart Lee would be well taken care of at A&M.
OklahomaAn assistant gave Dykes $1,000 cash in an envelope in a high school gymnasium so he would attend OU. Dykes didn't accept the money.
Oklahoma StateAn assistant gave Dykes a $5,000 payment for signing with the Cowboys and Dykes received cash payments during his OSU career. He also was provided a sports car, with the payments and insurance paid for by three representatives of the university's athletics interests.

"How long does it take going from the second-worst probation in the history of college football to enough years of integrity, good sportsmanship and graduating players to repair your reputation?" Holder asked. "I don’t think there is an answer to that question.

"Every day you move forward without a major violation is another step, but how many years does it take for us to forget what happened?"

It's hard to compare what's happening these days to two decades ago. The NCAA is investigating three teams ranked in last year's final AP poll -- Auburn, Oregon and Ohio State -- for a variety of allegations, including payments for players. It's impossible to make an apples to apples -- or rotten apples to rotten apples -- comparison when looking at the various violations during the past 25 years.

But the data suggests that committing a major infraction and going on probation has less of an impact in the past 10 years than it did back in the 1980s and 1990s.

One explanation why teams are winning more after the penalties: some of the recent major infractions, which the NCAA deems as providing "an extensive recruiting or competitive advantage," are really not that major. So the penalties, in turn, have been minimal.

Former Michigan and West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez believes the NCAA is too worried about enforcing the minor rules and not taking care of college football's larger issues.

"I also think [the NCAA] may be a little misguided," Rodriguez said. "I think sometimes, instead of going after the bank robbers, we're going after the parking violators."

With a 434-page NCAA rule book, it's nearly impossible not to break some rules. Not to mention that the NCAA classifies everything that earned SMU the Death Penalty as a "major infraction," the same way it considers excessive text messages sent by Texas Tech staff members the past few years as a "major infraction."

But, obviously, the penalties are vastly different.

Holder said he believes the worst punishment is what happens to a school's integrity.

"The No. 1 consequence [of NCAA major infractions] is the damage to your reputation, anything that questions your integrity," Holder said. "That's probably the most valuable thing you have -- your integrity."

One reason programs actually have a better winning percentage in the past 25 years after probation likely is a change at the top. In nearly every instance the coaching staff responsible for infractions was replaced. With a fresh start schools actually benefitted from the major infractions -- at least in the win-loss column.

At Florida, coach Galen Hall was forced to resign during the 1989 season because of an NCAA investigation that eventually saddled the Gators with a one-year bowl ban and two years' probation. The Gators rebounded quite nicely thanks to the hiring of Steve Spurrier.

In 1990, Spurrier took over and was an instant hit, leading the Gators to 12 consecutive nine-win seasons, including the 1996 national championship.

Another reason programs have succeeded despite of major infractions is because the NCAA has become reluctant to invoke a television ban.

In 1994, Ole Miss was banned from live television appearances for one year. Little did the Rebels know they would become the last FBS program to receive a TV ban. Of the programs that committed major infractions between 1987 and 1994, 14 of the 24 had a lower winning percentage following their penalties. However, since the last TV ban, 20 of 34 programs that committed major infractions were more successful after their major infractions.

More recent instances show that major infractions simply don't carry as much impact. Seven of the eight schools that received penalties in 2005 and 2006 had higher winning percentages for the five-year period after the infractions than before it.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said schools and the NCAA should work together as partners and not against each other.

"This should not be something that we have the NCAA over here and the institutions over here," Saban said. "We should be partners in trying to operate within the rules of what we all need to do so we can keep a competitive balance and have a respect both ways."

Since the 1989 infractions, Oklahoma State has not had any major violations. Holder, the school's AD since 2005, has stressed to the entire department he has no tolerance for cheating.

"There has to be a firm commitment to playing by the rules," Holder said. "There are so many athletes in an athletic department. If someone breaks a rule, when you find out about it, you deal with it in a proper manner with swift justice.

"All of our coaches understand it. At all of our coaches meetings -- I tell them there's one way to lose your job and that's by breaking the rules. You get everyone on the same page. It's not to say things won't happen -- there are a lot of moving parts -- but we're committed to playing by the rules.

"Some things are more important than winning: playing by the rules, good sportsmanship and graduating your players. That's our charge."

Former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman agrees.

"There has to be appropriate efforts on everybody to say: 'Look, you've got to define who you are as a university and who you stand for. Do we stand for honor or integrity?' The athletic department and coaching staff have to make that same commitment," Spielman said.

And if Oklahoma State's coaches needed any more motivation to avoid breaking NCAA rules, here's the biggest one. Following the 1989 penalties, Oklahoma State alum Boone Pickens was so embarrassed that he disassociated himself from the football program for about a decade, Holder said.

The Cowboys are now back in Pickens' good graces as the uber-booster has donated about $265 million to the school's athletic department and the football stadium is named after him.

"He [Pickens] has made it very clear to us," Holder said. "If we want to lose our No. 1 supporter, then start breaking the rules."

How ironic? The NCAA's greatest tool against teams committing violations is not fear of the NCAA, but fear of losing a booster. That pretty much sums up the state of college football today.

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