|Smith claims the NCAA's bowl ban on Ohio State sets a bad precedent. (US Presswire)|
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A few days before Christmas, Ohio State AD Gene Smith met with his new $4-million-a-year coach of less than a month. Even today, Urban Meyer's richly appointed office bookshelves aren't quite filled. Back then the Buckeyes' fortunes looked especially empty and bleak.
"He got up from the table and paced around," Smith said, recounting how he told Meyer that his team would not be eligible for postseason play in 2012. "It was amazing. He came right back to, 'OK, let's figure out how to make it this year.'
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In the span of a couple of minutes, Meyer, the ultimate competitor, had absorbed some of the worst football news of his career. Twenty-two days into the job, he found out there would be no bowl in his first year on the job. It caused upheaval in recruiting to the point that Meyer had to re-recruit players who had been led to believe a bowl ban wasn't in place.
"Everyone," he said, "was taken aback."
To say the bowl ban was unexpected at Ohio State would be an understatement. Ohio State didn't plan for it in 2012 or consider taking it proactively in 2011 during a season of upheaval when Luke Fickell was interim coach. When the ban was announced as part of the overall penalties on Dec. 20, Smith says now, it set precedent.
Smith told CBSSports.com recently that the NCAA infractions "rationalized" the bowl ban and that his program was the first example of a new get-tough policy by the NCAA in major infractions cases.
"I think so," Smith said last week from his office on the 10th floor of the Fawcett Center, which overlooks some of the athletic facilities related to the nation's second-largest athletic budget. "I think the [infractions] committee deliberated and said, 'You know what, we've got to do something more ... heavy?' They felt they could justify that. I could be totally wrong."
He doesn't think so, especially after Ohio State research obtained by CBSSports.com. Smith now points to numbers compiled by the school and its "defense" team in the case -- The Compliance Group out of Lenexa, Kan. The company, headed by former NCAA enforcement staffer Chuck Smrt, guides schools through NCAA investigations.
Their research shows that there have been 61 major infraction cases since 2007. Thirty-one of those cases schools have been slapped with the "failure to monitor" a program designation. Ohio State was hit with both that designation as well a being named a repeat violator because of previous major violations in 2006 in basketball, within the allowed five-year window.
Failure to monitor is considered a serious violation. In the NCAA eyes it is perhaps second only to the dreaded "lack of institutional control" designation. NCAA bylaws state penalties for major violations can include "prohibition against ... postseason competition."
Twelve of those 31 cases were in football. Three of the 12 BCS conference schools were slapped with failure to monitor and repeat violator status, same as Ohio State. They were Colorado and Oklahoma in 2007 and West Virginia in 2011. None of the three got a postseason ban.
Oklahoma's case involved former quarterback Rhett Bomar and other players being paid by a local car dealer for work they didn't do. West Virginia was penalized for non-coaching personnel conducting duties allowed only by countable coaches. Colorado was tagged for training table violations.
"When I heard [about the bowl ban] I was like, 'How did they get there? ...' Smith said. "I go back and reflect on it. They rationalized their way into that. If not, there is no precedent and that's OK."
While Ohio State would argue that precedent had been set, the NCAA would argue that each case is different. Example: The case Ohio State has most frequently been compared to -- the USC case involving Reggie Bush. In that one, USC was hit with a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over three years.
However, buried inside Ohio State's public report is what seems to be a reference to the USC case. The committee chose not to impose a multi-year postseason ban and take away more scholarships from Ohio State after weighing "the overall seriousness of the case in light of other recent major infractions cases."
Throughout the case, Ohio State maintained it thought it had hit the "sweet spot" with the NCAA, self-imposing penalties ($338,000 in returned bowl money, reduction of five scholarships over three years, vacating the 2010 season, etc.). The NCAA determined that eight players were found to have taken more than $14,000 in cash and/or benefits from tattoo parlor owner Eddie Rife. Former coach Jim Tressel was charged with unethical conduct for suppressing emails that chronicled that conduct.
When the penalties were announced, infractions committee member Greg Sankey said: "I would not suggest, necessarily, this is a new day but these penalties are significant ..."
A few days later, NCAA president Mark Emmert expressed a desire to clean up college athletics in light of a depressing 2011. That was at his state of the association address last month in Indianapolis.
CBSSports.com's Bryan Fischer broke news last month obtaining a proposed new penalty matrix. It showed that under a possible new penalty structure USC would have been penalized more harshly in the Bush case. The NCAA Enforcement Working Group continues to work on a tiered violation structure as part of the association's reform movement.
"Is that where we're headed? I think so, I do ..." Smith said. "Obviously moving into the violations penalty structure, it's going to be stiffer."
Ohio State officials are most disturbed by what they say is a third rationale for the bowl ban discussed on the December media teleconference by Sankey. He said that Jim Tressel's "failure to divulge" the preferential treatment given his players was also a factor. Sankey said that led to a competitive advantage that allowed Ohio State to play in the Sugar Bowl.
"The combination of those factors, in the committee's judgment, justifies the postseason ban," Sankey said on the call.
Ohio State officials say that third rationale did not appear in the public report, and it was only discussed by Sankey on the call. There is also the incongruity of the so-called "Buckeye Five" being allowed by the NCAA Student-Athlete Reinstatement Subcommittee to play in the Sugar Bowl. They were also among those suspended for first five games of the 2011 season.
Quarterback Terrelle Pryor was declared for the supplemental draft last year rather than face the NCAA. Tailback Dan Herron and receiver DeVier Posey were suspended further in 2011 for their involvement with booster Bobby DiGeronimo.
"What was not known at that time," Sankey said in December, "is that the head football coach had knowledge of those [Rife] violations."
When asked about these new assertions by Ohio State, an NCAA spokesperson emailed: "The Committee stands by the report and comments during the call; it does not have any further comment." Ohio State did not appeal the case.
In the aftermath of the case, there has been speculation about Smith's job security. But the man does know his way around NCAA regulations. He is a former member of the infractions committee himself who also was once chair of the powerful NCAA men's basketball committee.
Ohio State probably won't find much sympathy nationwide. It is one of the richest, most powerful programs in the country. For his actions, Tressel was essentially banned from coaching in the NCAA for five years. Under Tressel, the Buckeyes enjoyed one of their most successful periods, winning a national championship and a share of at least a share of seven Big Ten titles.
Inside the program, they are digging out. The message going forward is already being formulated with no bowl on the horizon. The Buckeyes' future in 2012 is similar to that of USC's past. Ohio State could have the best record in the Big Ten -- be undefeated -- and not so much as be able to play in the Big Ten title game.
"Win every game for the seniors," Smith said. "Who knows what we're capable of doing? Say you get lucky and you run the table. It's a huge accomplishment even if you don't have the bowl game or the [conference] championship ...
"There's a lot within the regular season. The end game is to help them understand that they can still walk out of here proud, and establish an unbelievable legacy to get through the adversity they've gone through and are getting ready to go through."