We’re now a day clear of the NCAA’s infractions report on West Virginia and its “significant breaches of conduct,” and it doesn’t look any better. There are people who will say, “There’s no postseason ban. There was one scholarship loss, one one-match suspension and one show-cause penalty. It’s all in the past. What are we really talking about here?”
And to them, I will steeple my fingers and nod. Because they’re right. There were and will be more egregious cases than this. I trust you don’t think I don’t think that. These are light offenses made heavy by the volume in which they occurred, and these are mostly imperceptible punishments.
Who knew Ryan Dorchester was barred from campus for a weekend in December? Who knew an assistant gymnastics coach (Aside: Three people have told Travis Doak he got railroaded on this deal.) was suspended for a match? Who knew Nikki Izzo-Brown was suspended from off-campus recruiting for 11 weeks? Who knew about the two- or three-week phone call or text bans in the 14 guilty sports?
But there are also people who will say, “These text and phone call rules are dumb.”
And to them, I will do something different with my fingers. This is not solely, or even largely, about texts and phone calls.
The rules are rules. That sounds so rigid and righteous, I know, but that’s the truth. Schools go to great lengths to make sure the rules are understood and observed, and the simplest way I can summarize all of this is to say WVU suffered a failure to understand and observe.
It also happened while WVU was on probation, and I can’t think of a worse look for a compliance department.
Sure, this is small-scale stuff. Yes, WVU caught it. And the Mountaineers probably even did a good job with suggested self-imposed penalties … but the NCAA also didn’t think they went far enough on some punishments.
That’s not good.
Self-imposed penalties are not formulaic, but there are guiding principles. Schools look for precedent. They study similar cases and try to closely construct their cases. There are even some generally accepted ideas to help, like a two-for-one application.
On May 22, 2013, the eve of the Big 12 tournament, someone called a “local media outlet” and suggested coach Randy Mazey’s first team scheduled more regular-season games than the NCAA allowed. The news outlet contacted WVU and the compliance staff decided the Mountaineers scheduled 57 games, one more than the maximum allowed. The compliance office previously approved a 56-game schedule Mazey built and submitted on Oct. 5, 2013.
The difference came from a game played Oct. 21 against Potomac State College, one the baseball program considered to be an exhibition. PSC, though, is a member of the National Junior College Athletic Association, meaning the game counted toward the 56 allowed. The compliance office reported it had “no knowledge of the competition” because it was not listed on the schedule Mazey submitted. “As a result,” WVU wrote to the NCAA, “the need to cancel a game was not identified.”
WVU followed the general two-for-one principle for self-imposed penalties for secondary violations and allowed Mazey to schedule 54 games for the 2014 season. WVU ended up playing 51 because of cancellations as a result of inclement weather. The Mountaineers narrowly missed their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996.
I’ve repeatedly been told from outsiders WVU has really good compliance people. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure, but I’ll bet Keli Cunningham didn’t put together a shoddy package of suggested punishments that would insult the NCAA. It probably fit just fine. It was probably even more biting than it had to be. More often than not, the NCAA would take a look and go, “Yeah, we can do that.” But the NCAA wanted more here.
WVU was previously on probation for major NCAA violations from July 8, 2011 to July 7, 2013. A NCAA panel considered that as it reviewed this case and said its concern with the timing caused it to double the one-year period WVU proposed. The new probation ends Feb. 17, 2017.
“The panel noted that text and telephone violations occurred in multiple sports programs both before and after the institution’s 2011 infractions hearing and that these violations continued during the probationary period prescribed by the committee in that case,” the NCAA report read.
“Therefore, numerous significant breaches of conduct occurred when the institution should have been in a heightened state of vigilance with regard to compliance with NCAA legislation. The panel emphasized the importance of probation as a time for the institution to make enhancements in its compliance culture and operations.”
That’s harsh, man. There are various other parts of the Casazza-recommended official report that, to me, seem to suggest the NCAA was exasperated by much of this.
On the gymnastics coach: “The panel was troubled by the coach’s claim that he was ignorant of how NCAA legislation applied to certain aspects of text messaging and does not believe that his claimed ignorance of NCAA bylaws constitutes a defense to his violations.”
On WVU’s explanations and defenses: “With regard to impermissible telephone calls, many of the coaches who placed the calls stated that they did not remember placing the calls or may have returned a call made by an individual whom the coach did not recognize as a prospective student-athlete. In some cases, coaches placed calls to parents of prospective student-athletes who were also nonscholastic team coaches, believing such calls to be permissible under certain circumstances. Coaches attributed some of the impermissible calls to inadvertent “pocket dials.” While the panel determined that the violations did not provide a significant or extensive recruiting advantage, it was troubled by the number of coaches who claimed ignorance of recruiting communication legislation. It is incumbent upon member institutions to ensure that coaches are fully aware of all aspects of applicable NCAA legislation so that violations do not occur”
On the span of the violations: “Moreover, the panel was concerned by the significant length of time, two-and-a-half years, over which these violations occurred. This delay in discovering and reporting the violations was due, in large part, to the institution’s failure to properly utilized a compliance software program it purchased.”
There are more, but you get the idea. There comes a point where the NCAA believes you’re not doing things the right way, and though WVU avoid damning charges for a failure to monitor, lack of institutional control and failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance — and got that in the damn lede! — there was a level of dissatisfaction. And nowhere was that more apparent than the faceoff between WVU’s software and the NCAA’s interpretation of the issue WVU had with it.
I’ll be the guy who says we’re probably in a bad place when you need software to police NCAA rules, but that was the necessity and supposedly the solution at the time. Let’s move on.
WVU has this program to flag questionable phone calls and text message … and, according to the NCAA, “did not fully understand how to use an electronic software package it purchased to monitor telephone and text message activity.”
WVU pointed to the program as a contributing factor to the number of violations. The NCAA said the same program is how and why WVU discovered them. It goes around and around throughout the report, but this is the best synopsis.
The institution stated that it devoted compliance personnel to check the software program on a daily basis and that it addressed any questions arising from these daily reviews with its staff members. However, the software program identified and stored potential texting and telephone violations in a location that the institution did not check during its daily use of the program. The institution uncovered the violations in January 2013 after the software company implemented an internal change merging all potential violations into a single section on the home screen. At that time, the institution became aware of over 500- flagged potential violations that had not been previously identified by the compliance office because it had not been reviewing all of the pertinent program fields.
In short, the NCAA said, “It’s not our concern you didn’t know how to use a program that helps you do your job. It is your problem, though, that that program wasn’t utilized properly and left you unable to do your job appropriately.”
Here’s what I wonder: Flagged items go to a storage area WVU apparently doesn’t know exists. It then stands to reason WVU was never aware of any flagged items until the update. Had the software brought ZERO questionable communiques to WVU’s attention? Didn’t WVU think that was unusual?
(And, oh, to be a fly on the wall when the compliance person updated the software, found 500-some flagged calls and texts and had to go to Cunningham’s office.)
So, no, the calls and texts are not things to get riled up about here — though you totally dismiss the impressive quantity of rule-breaking if you choose to think that way — but I never thought that was the NCAA’s issue. I think putting a label on this that says WVU is being punished for impermissible calls and texts is at best limited and at worst misleading. This is about WVU’s oversight. Again.
Remember, the last time this happened — and it was far, far more serious with five major violations — newly arrived Oliver Luck fired the compliance guy. (Actually, he was moved to a new assignment and allowed to spend the final few weeks of his contract playing Minesweeper, but, hey, semantics.) Many of you have been quick to point at Cunningham here. Is this why she didn’t want to be the AD? Is this why she wasn’t considered for AD? Is this her fault? Is she safe?
Those are hard but fair questions. It’s the first time this has happened on her watch, and though we agree it’s not bad and could be worse, I think we also think the systemic stuff had the NCAA’s attention. With regard to her candidacy, or lack thereof, those are good points to ponder that we might not be able to answer. Certainly, because of her title, she’s culpable here, and you better believe people are going to get to know her very well throughout the terribly tedious probation period, if only because things slipped through the cracks the last time WVU was on probation. Is she safe? I’m not going to guess, not knowing all of the particulars of the case, or how Shane Lyons and his compliance-heavy background operates.
But if something else, if something bigger, follows this …