Thursday, March 19, 2015

The alma mater

We're all used to seeing universities receive penalties and go on probation for some sort of violation with the NCAA. If we've learning anything over the years, it is that the rule book is incredibly large and difficult to comprehend, let alone follow to the letter. In addition, we all know that if some booster wants to give a $100 handshake with a player on the basketball team, well, it's a little tough to enforce.

We're also used to see some schools cut some corners when it comes to recruiting these days. The idea of a student-athlete is a romantic one. But realistically, being a college football or basketball player is essentially a full-time job these days, and that doesn't include study time. Not too many young people can balance the workload easily, and - as one coach once said - those people go to Duke or Stanford. When the rewards of success are considered, it's easy to understand why teams might take a chance to keep a talented quarterback enrolled and eligible.

Athletic programs have gotten so ridiculously big, and the amount of money involved has gotten so large, that it's difficult to wonder how our universities got so far away from their original mission statement of educators first and providing extra-curricular activities second. It's particularly true when it's remembered that most university athletic programs lose money; places like Texas and Alabama are the exceptions.

That brings us to Syracuse University's latest programs. Just for the record, that's of interest to me, a Class of 1977 graduate. That's so long ago that I still covered Jim Boeheim's introductory news conference from his hiring in 1976. Since I'm in the sports journalism business, I'm still something of a fan of the Syracuse sports teams; it's a good way to feel a connection to some good times and good people from my past. But I'm also a fan of the university itself, and have something of a stake in its reputation. When the athletic department breaks the rules, all graduates, students and staff members suffer consequences in a sense.

Syracuse doesn't exactly have a history of innocence here. The school has been on probation in the past. Still, this particular incident has a really odd feeling. Not only did it take forever to investigate, but a description of the offenses sounded worse than the actions themselves.

For example: it's never good when a booster is charged with paying players. In this case, a few football and basketball players and athletic staff members earned a few thousand dollars for so-called volunteer work. That's not a good idea, but I've heard of far worse.

For example: the director of basketball operations tapped into players' email accounts in order to check on academic progress, and may have even attached some revisions to course work that way. Of course, if you recruit student-athletes who have trouble with the student part, the pressures build all through the system.

For example: the athletic department didn't follow the written guidelines for a drug testing policy. Apparently some first violations (probably involving marijuana) was supposed to be reported to parents and weren't. Again, it's not a good idea to follow the guidelines, but players weren't exactly completing drug deals at halftime. 

Let's say you were the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation, and certain violations of a comparable nature popped up. Mr. or Ms. CEO would call someone into the office, and promptly suspend the culprit until he or she could be suitably fired. The regulations in college athletics might be different, but the goal should be similar. The coach has to set the tone for the entire program, and make sure everyone is on the same page. Based on the NCAA report, a few people weren't even reading out of the same book. It's tough to know how often Boeheim acted like a CEO and how often he acted like "just another employee" here, but the NCAA obviously believed there was too much of the latter.

Syracuse received some punishment for its actions from the NCAA. The basketball team will lose scholarships after the coming year. Even in a world when a team has something like 15 scholarships but only plays eight guys regularly, the cuts will make an impact on depth and make it difficult to compete on a national level. A five-year probation shouldn't matter, as long as things in the department get fixed. Boeheim will sit for nine conference games next season; well, potential coach-in-waiting Mike Hopkins will get some on-the-job training that way. And Boeheim and the university will have to vacate 108 wins, which always seemed like an odd penalty that only matters to the historians.

The other shoe dropped on Wednesday morning. It was announced that athletic director Daryl Gross has left that job in favor of moving on to other responsibilities at the university. I can't say how much Gross had to do with any of this, but he seems to be taking some blame - fairly or unfairly. Gross might be feeling like a bit of a scapegoat, although you probably won't get him to say that. Then the school announced that Boeheim would retire in three years at the latest. The longtime coach will be around through the scholarship limits and thus hand Hopkins a program with fewer worries and restrictions in 2018. Boeheim did reserve the right on Thursday to retire when he saw fit.

I'm just a long-distance observer here, but it's easy to guess that the Syracuse athletic department has pressure - pressure to win games, pressure to sell the 30,000+ tickets in the Carrier Dome. They've done rather well over the years, which might have led to some institutional arrogance on the basketball side. (I would guess that there might be even more pressure on the football side, because they've been mediocre at best for quite a while and could REALLY use wins and filled seats ... but that's for another time.) Considering the charges from the NCAA, it's a small stretch to think that a complete housecleaning was in order - although business as usual isn't going to cut it any more.

Still, Boeheim's reputation certainly feels a little tarnished. He's still the most important person in history of Syracuse basketball. He's still a respected voice on the sport. But Boeheim is still at times a bit on the prickly side, particularly in a public setting. That combination has made him easy to respect, but tough to love.

Well, he's got three years tops to complete the book on a legendary career of coaching. He doesn't seem too concerned with his legacy. He's certainly done a lot of good for the university and for the community. Still, you'd think he'd have an interest in righting the ship before he goes. It might make a disproportionate effect on how he's remembered.

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Stan said...

Some interesting insights. Thanks for your perspective.

Mark said...

Excellent perspective, Budd.