Amid the cluster#%@ that is the college football coaching carousel exists a reality that paints a dire picture for the future of the sport. Pete Carroll—the proprietor of two National Championships and a number of suspected NCAA violations while at USC—just inked a five year, $35 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks. Lane Kiffin—owner of two National Championship rings at USC as a Carroll-assistant to go along with multiple suspected recruiting violations at USC and six secondary violations in just one year at Tennessee—just signed on for a hefty raise to coach USC. Yes, the same USC that is under investigation by the NCAA for committing major violations with Kiffin as a lead recruiter. Even if USC is found to have committed major violations, the eggs can’t be unscrambled so to speak. Carroll and Kiffin have already cashed in on whatever cheating they committed at USC. Clearly, the person who said, “cheaters never prosper” never watched a college football game. The NCAA is expected to publicly release the findings of its multi-year investigation of the Trojan football program in March or April. Expectations range anywhere from USC getting the hammer to simply getting the dreaded verbal scolding. Some suggest that Kiffin’s willingness to take the USC-job in the face of a nearly completed investigation proves that it’s not going to be hammertime for USC. Others point to the NCAA’s rejection of USC’s self-imposed sanctions as evidence that the NCAA is, in fact, going to make it rain in sunny California. Expectations aside, this might end up being the most influential decision the NCAA has ever made. Whatever the verdict, consequences will be far reaching.
Much is made in the world of college athletics of “cheating.” When major programs look to fill a head coaching vacancy, AD’s and fans put out a long list of prerequisites that often cites both “winning” and “doing it the right way” at the top of the list. Fans and administrators fear becoming the next SMU even though the NCAA has said in its own words and proven in practice many times over that the days of the “death penalty” are over. Nobody understands this more than big-time college coaches. The result has been a cavalier attitude toward NCAA infractions. Take John Calipari for example. He might be the dirtiest coach in college athletics. The last two schools that he coached were put on probation only after he bolted for more lucrative jobs. While the schools were punished, Calipari left not only unscathed but for an even bigger salary. He has been suspected of cheating at every stop and has nothing but bling to show for it. What incentive is there for Calipari not to cheat when the whole system is set up to reward coaches who do? Coaches don’t pay the price for their dishonesty—their former players and universities do. Look no further than the career of Lou Holtz to find the most egregious case of how much destruction a football coach can leave in his wake while still reaching the pinnacle of his profession. Holtz left his last three schools on probation following his departure.
Calipari’s transgressions (or the NCAA’s eyes—“unluckiness”) go all the way back to a time when coaches and programs were less obvious about their missteps. Now, it seems like major college athletics have become a contest to see who can be the most arrogant about cheating. Take Ohio State for example. The Ohio State football program has had 375 secondary violations since 2000. Why so many? Well, that’s part of the “game.” The NCAA has always held programs that self-police in good standing. Ohio State’s violations were self-reported. That’s why so many Michigan fans were in such an upheaval (and rightfully so) when Michigan’s AD—Bill Martin—invited the NCAA into its athletic department to investigate the allegations stemming from “practicegate.” If Ohio State has taught the college football world anything, it’s never, ever invite the NCAA to open an investigation because, as Martin found out, it will do just that. By understanding the system, Ohio State has become one of the top benefactors of the system. It would be quite the coincidence if Ohio State was not only the team that broke the most rules in the Big Ten (which it is) but also the team with the most on-field success in the Big Ten (which it is). As long as Ohio State has given the illusion that is takes rules violations seriously through self-reporting, the NCAA has been more than willing to let a litany of reckless violations go without scrutiny. You and I might inquire about the odds of a program with 375 self-reported secondary violations—an incredible amount for any school—not committing at least one major violation along the way. Apparently, that level of inquiry is beyond the NCAA’s scope of practice. Ohio State has proven that cheating with transparency is the best way to avoid detection by the NCAA. Other schools are following suit.
Ohio State isn’t the only program that openly cheats. Oklahoma—fresh off probation—has piled up 225 secondary violations since 2000. Alabama has been on probation four times since 1995 including right now. It was promptly rewarded with a National Championship this year. LSU—the 2007 National Champion—is currently under investigation and few expect anything meaningful to come of it. Auburn, Georgia, S. Carolina and a number of other schools have reported a slew of secondary violations without even the slightest fear that they will lead to any meaningful consequences from the NCAA.
Rules are made to be followed—not broken. However, Ohio State has broken 375 rules since 2000 and hasn’t even sniffed a meaningful consequence. That is an indictment of the NCAA’s ineptness and ineffectiveness. Imagine you’re Jim Tressel for a second. You’re in the recruiting dead period where you cannot initiate contact with a recruit. You suspect that a rival school has gotten into the ear of said recruit and you want your chance at a rebuttal. You’ve committed 375 violations in the past nine years and haven’t seen a single consequence. What could possibly keep you from picking up the phone and simply committing another violation? Some schools follow the rules and others don’t. It’s not a coincidence that, for the most part, the most successful schools on the field are the ones who do the most cheating off of it.
That’s why the impending USC-ruling is so important to the future of college football. Despite blatant cheating that has gone unpunished under its watch, the NCAA has still managed to hold up at least a veil of regulation by selectively targeting certain schools and cases. However, if USC walks away from this investigation with insignificant damage after committing major violations (and rehiring one of the coaches most responsible for the violations), then you can expect to see programs become bolder than ever. Ohio State will continue to snicker as it self-reports hundreds more secondary violations. Coaches looking to the NFL as their ultimate destination—a la Pete Carroll—will continue to do whatever it takes to win (and pad their resume in the process). Dirtbags like John Calipari will continue to commit major infractions knowing that in the rare event that he does get caught, it will be his institution that suffers leaving him eligible to simply move on to the next job for even more money.
On the heels of a middle school caliber investigation by the Detroit Free Press, Michigan has found itself facing an investigation by the NCAA. The NCAA is nearing the end of its findings leaving the “M” administration and its fans seemingly on pins and needles waiting for its findings. Considering how sophomoric the allegations against Michigan were, I do not expect the NCAA to find any wrongdoing. However, even if there was something to be worried about, what difference would it make? What are the consequences for committing virtually any violation short of paying athletes? Even then, considering that Ohio State boosters paid recruits thousands of dollars with no repercussions, a school would have to pay 10’s of thousands of dollars just to qualify for the NCAA’s attention. I realize that some schools take pride in doing things the “right way.” I understand that “not cheating” is honorable. However, when cheating has virtually become a requirement of winning while at the same time cheating has gone virtually unpunished by the NCAA, it’s becoming less and less worthwhile for schools not to cheat. Letting USC off with a warning would be akin to giving the green light to every dirty program out there and the yellow light to every other program that previously held “not cheating” in high regard.
*Except when they do.