Senior Writer

Cleanup of college football needs to start in Columbus


Fifth in a series.

We've spent the past nine days analyzing a quarter-century of history to determine where college football is headed in the near future.

Big picture. Big undertaking. A big deal, really. No one expected the answer to our original question -- is it possible to win big these days without cheating? -- to become so clear so quickly.

Ohio State.

Specifically, the answer lies within the school's football infractions issue, which is quickly becoming a landmark case. This is the moment when risk finally has to outweigh reward. This is what NCAA president Mark Emmert has been advocating, a way to make the cheaters and liars think twice about cheating and lying.

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

Is it possible to win the right way? It's complicated, almost impossible, but doable. It's going to take fundamental changes in how some schools do business. It's also going to take sweeping reforms in how the NCAA investigates its members. It's going to take those members to be indignant and proactive enough to pass legislation to clean up the process. If not, then the likes of Gene Chizik have no business calling out the NCAA's vice president for enforcement at a coaches meeting.

Try picking up a phone, coach, or asking your compliance officer if an investigation into your Heisman-winning quarterback is completed.

A good place to start is open hearings so the public can see what's going on inside infractions committee hearings. That highly charged confrontational setting has been referred to as a "Star Chamber" by more than one critic.

BCS leaders have to cede enough power to allow the naming of a college football commissioner. The sport is fractured and essentially out of the control of the NCAA because the BCS commissioners run the show. Most important, meaningful penalties have to be applied to willful and intentional wrongdoers. You can read the full list of recommendations here.

These days it seems that no one is thinking twice. Since this series has started, two more programs have been penalized for major football violations (West Virginia, Georgia Tech). Colleague Brett McMurphy found that since 1992, no conference has committed more major infractions than the SEC.

Should we be surprised? Bryan Fischer pointed out this week that from April 2010 to April 2011, there were 14 major infractions cases in Division I. In nine of those, schools were accused of lack of institutional control or failure to monitor.

The cleanup then has to begin in Columbus, because so many people are watching. The outrage, beyond message boards and Twitter, is palpable. The NCAA would never admit that, which is part of the problem. Ohio State is in full spin mode, trying to isolate one of the most significant cheating cases in decades to a rogue coach and a small group of players. More laughable, is the self-imposed penalties -- two years' probation and vacating the 2010 season.

There is an example to made here. Like an alcoholic, the NCAA first has to admit there is a problem. An image problem. There is eroding faith in the system.

"The NCAA has at least the perception of a fairness problem."

That statement was made seven years ago by Steve Chabot, then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee hearing on the Constitution titled "Due Process and the NCAA."


The good news is that we are seeing a small opening, a chance to apply the brakes in an age when wrongdoing has found new, different and insidious ways to stain the amateur ideal. Twenty-four years after the SMU death penalty nuclear bomb, there is a chance to show the world that college athletics can be reformed.

"There is change in the wind," said Mike Moran, a United States Olympic Committee member for 25 years. Moran spent a large part of those years in the camps of both the NCAA and the USOC as a spokesman.

"You can feel it like a humid day in Louisiana. It's going to come."

The NCAA continually warns us not to compare cases, but the public can't help it in this situation. It sees one player burning USC to the ground (Reggie Bush = 30 scholarships, two-year bowl ban) and wonders about the fallout from the actions of one coach at Ohio State.

It wonders how the school, a repeat violator (two major infractions cases within five years) cannot end up with similar, crippling penalties as USC. It is stunned when the school's AD, a former infractions committee member, basically dares the NCAA to penalize it beyond vacation of the 2010 season.

"I'll be shocked and disappointed and on the offensive," Gene Smith said last week. "Unless something new arises from where we are today, it'll be behavior [from me] you haven't witnessed."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany summed up in late April the indignation everyone should be feeling these days. We cornered him near an elevator at the BCS meetings in New Orleans. What standard of honesty, he was asked, should coaches be held to in comparison to players.

"Higher," Delany said.


"Just because they're adults. They're the teachers. They're very different than kids."

Did Jim Tressel pay for his wrongdoing with his job? The former OSU coach is officially retired, given a golden parachute. (Getty Images)  
Did Jim Tressel pay for his wrongdoing with his job? The former OSU coach is officially retired, given a golden parachute. (Getty Images)  
It might be too simplistic to say Tressel knew better, but that phrase should be somewhere in the first line of the infractions report. The coach knowingly allowed some of his best players to compete while ineligible. He used them to qualify for, and win, a multimillion-dollar bowl. He violated the main tenet of the NCAA Manual (Bylaw 10.1, ethical conduct) to gain a competitive advantage.

Bush at least had the "excuse" that he was young and dumb. A case can easily be made that Tressel's inaction allowed Ohio State to gain a $20 million profit, at least. That's the worth of a BCS bowl berth.

There is no way to soft-peddle the wrongdoing: Tressel used the system to its advantage perhaps more than any program since SMU a quarter-century ago. The school's response has been lacking: Initially a two-game suspension for Tressel that turned into a five-game suspension that turned into a resignation that turned into a retirement with full benefits.

And Smith contends the school should be left alone? No way. This has to be where the U-turn begins. Everything can't change with one case, but at least the NCAA can show us the enforcement process can be a deterrent, not a secret, inconsistent, maddening proceeding.

"I think this is the perfect opportunity to make this statement," said noted native Ohioan Urban Meyer.


That's the issue as we wrap out our five-part series on the current rash of wrongdoing in college football. We kicked it off telling you that only two national champions in the history of the sport have never had a major violation in football (Penn State, BYU). McMurphy told us that, basically, crime pays. Big time. Fischer took us inside the convoluted world of compliance.

Now it's time to offer some answers and draw conclusions. There are still those who say the only way to get the NCAA's attention is through the courts or Congress. The docket of cases piling up has seldom been more compelling. Former USC running backs coach Todd McNair is suing the association because he felt he was scapegoated in the Reggie Bush case. Sonny Vaccaro, of all people, is leading a formidable antitrust challenge against the NCAA. Former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill's suit against the NCAA is 6½ years old.

That's a significant case load for an organization that should be grateful it operates a multibillion not-for-profit profit enterprise without further scrutiny. The NCAA basically exists because of a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in 1988. The Court ruled in the famous Jerry Tarkanian case that the NCAA was not a "state actor" subject to having its power challenged because of due process violations. The NCAA continually tells us that the association is the membership, but that membership is becoming more fractured. The BCS has proven that major-college college commissioners clearly control FBS football. The cost-of-attendance issue could be the leverage the game's biggest schools need to break away and form their own organization, and perhaps start a playoff.

The turnaround has to start Aug. 12 when Ohio State goes before the infractions committee. Prove that an uneven, complicated system can be improved.

"I don't think the objective is to catch everyone," Meyer said of the NCAA enforcement process. "I think it is to deter behavior. There's only one way to deter behavior and that's to have a risk/reward situation in place where the risk is so great people will quit doing it."

What's the current message, then? Tressel paid with his job -- officially that "retirement" -- but was rewarded handsomely with a golden parachute. As mentioned, Ohio State is trying to cap the wrongdoing at a rogue coach. If only that was the case.

Chris Spielman heard things on the street, things the loyal Buckeye and former linebacker can't believe that Ohio State administrators weren't hearing too.

When fans would tell him he was crazy, he'd reply, "If you didn't have your head buried in the sand and start listening to people and open your eyes and see ..."

Local and national outlets heard the same things and wrote about them. Like Meyer, Spielman is advocating that all coaches who knowingly committed major violations lose their jobs. He says that assistants would lose 20 percent of their salary in such cases.

"My humble opinion is you make the consequences so severe for major infractions, that's the only way you're going to clean it up," Spielman said. "The people who are taking advantage are always two steps ahead of us."

Spielman has legions of followers who agree. Winning can be achieved with honor.

"Yes," said Meyer, winner of national championships in 2006 and 2008, "We did it."


But are the Meyers and Spielmans in the distinct minority? The problem has always been fitting a capitalistic, profit-motivated system into a not-for-profit, amateur model. Throw in the windfall of BCS payouts, record TV deals and the lure of the pros, and the game off the field has become unhealthy.

On the field it has never been more popular. That's why some powerful commissioners are suggesting that to ease the pressures, it might be wise to simply allow agents more access to players.

The Olympics faced similar strictures. Officials eventually threw up their hands and allowed stipends for their athletes and for professionals to compete.

"It's something that simply has to be addressed," Moran said. "The amount of money pouring into NCAA coffers, it's really going to have to change or they're going to become irrelevant. ... If the NCAA isn't careful, will be as irrelevant as the NAIA."

Emmert doggedly wants to protect that amateur ideal within a reform movement, but is it possible? The NCAA is restructuring its enforcement department. Emmert is conducting a two-day retreat with 50 top presidents to discuss issues in August. Problem is, they are still presidents, responsible primarily for billion-dollar budgets at their schools. Athletic departments are tiny parts of that budget.

One BCS-level AD explained it this way: If an AD is at 10,000 feet above the earth on the issue of wrongdoing, a president is 30,000 feet up.

So what we're hearing is more of the same -- committees, restructuring, press releases. There has been precious little meaningful action. Ohio State has come to this special point in history to be an example for future generations.

Its initial response has been lacking -- a self-imposed penalty that promises nothing more than to take a couple of lines out of the media guide. A football factory of significant athletic and political power has offered a rap on the knuckles when a lengthy jail sentence is more deserving. Whether the NCAA agrees will likely become a tipping point in the sport's reform.

Smith, that Ohio State AD, basically said so himself last year during an interview with long before the scandal broke. Smith was once a member of the infractions committee so he knows the drill. One of the NCAA's biggest conundrums remains how to penalize a school when the wrongdoers -- coach, players -- have departed. What, in essence, is fair?

"It's still an institutional issue," Smith said. "At the end of the day, the institution has to suffer."

Smith's program is a good place to start.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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