Tuesday, March 13, 2012

North Carolina gets the Ohio State treatment

This happened and is kinda newsworthy (insert fist-shaking image here regarding my workload yesterday):

The NCAA has placed North Carolina's football program on three years' probation and banned it from the 2012 postseason, the governing body announced Monday.

The school already had imposed several penalties, including vacating all 16 wins for 2008 and 2009, reducing nine scholarships over the next three academic years and putting the program on two years of probation.

But the NCAA didn't stop at UNC's self-imposed penalties, finding that the school was responsible for violations including academic fraud, impermissible agent benefits, participation by ineligible players and a failure to monitor the football program.

Insert standard post-verdict complaint here:
"We are very disappointed in the committee's findings and we disagree," Blake's attorney, William Beaver, said. "I'm disappointed in any process where the accuser is also the investigator, prosecutor and judge and jury. It's not reasonable."
Meh. It is what it is. Also, please move "said" to immediately after the first part of the quote kthx. #analcopyeditor

So ... vacated wins, three years of moderate scholarship reductions (three per year) and a one-year postseason ban. Sounds moderately familiar, yes? Those are almost the exact same penalties (in terms of both category and volume) Ohio State got smacked with in December.

I find that interesting for a number of reasons, foremost of which is that Jim Tressel was documented as having covered up violations he had direct knowledge of whereas Butch Davis was never named or implicated in the whole John Blake thing; that apparently wasn't a consideration for the NCAA. Also of note in Ohio State's case: the dealer-car fuzziness, the Sugar Bowl debacle and the general "lol NCAA" attitude deployed by Gene Smith throughout the entire process. Maybe UNC's academic-fraud thing was considered roughly equivalent? I dunno. Tressel and Blake did get similar show-cause penalties, though, and at a zoomed-out level, the shenanigans were similar: craploads of impermissible benefits, a coach (or assistant coach) indirectly involved in said benefits and a general philosophy of "it's all good." I think it's safe to say that the NCAA has established a punishment baseline for that scenario.

The damage-assessment difference is this: Ohio State replaced Jim Tressel with Urban Meyer, who might be a step down by default (can't do any better against Michigan unless he literally never loses) but could theoretically be just as good or even better (argh). North Carolina went from "becoming one of the three best programs in the ACC with arguably the best coach" to ... ummm ... something slightly less than that with Butch Davis not around. Larry Fedora was a fine hire but probably isn't Butch Davis. There are reasons North Carolina has had only a handful of good seasons in the past bazillion years, and losing the guy who was succeeding and building something that defied all that history represents a penalty that can't really be quantified.

I find it unlikely that a one-year bowl ban is gonna have any real effect in UNC's recruiting given that this came out after Signing Day; anybody who commits going forward won't even be on campus until after the bowl ban has run its course. There's also minimal damage done by losing three scholarships a year, although depth will take a slight hit in about 2014-16, making Fedora's job a little tougher. At the end of the day, it's all about Davis and the loss of the momentum (or "cachet" or whatever you wanna call it) the program had built over the previous three years. When people write about the "hard lessons" learned from all this, they're really talking about one lesson that's useless now: Don't hire John Blake. Doing so cost Butch Davis a lot.

The look-on-the-bright-side angle is this: Even with the NCAA stuff, Fedora is still starting from a better spot than Davis, who took over a disaster of a program that John Bunting "led" to one winning season in six years. And with the on-field product being pretty much irrelevant this year, Fedora's got a year to put things in place and start establishing whatever it is he wants to do, with the only expectation being that UNC looks decent enough to keep recruiting at something resembling the last guy's level (I don't think Davis ever got enough credit for the absurd amount of NFL-caliber talent on that roster considering, you know, it's North Carolina and not Florida State). That's doable, as is developing that talent sufficiently to keep UNC in the "regular bowl team and occasional division contender" category in the not-that-great ACC. Actually doing those things is another matter, obviously.

Davis actually did those things, which is why (barring Fedora turning into the East Coast version of Mike Leach) his possibly necessary firing was far more meaningful than the handful of lost scholarships or the bowl ban for what'll probably be a 7-5 team or the essentially meaningless vacated wins. I say "possibly necessary" only because I think the school thought it was necessary from a PR standpoint even though Davis was not penalized at all by the NCAA and was not named or referenced in any way in the allegations. Keeping him would have been justifiable from a legal standpoint and almost certainly beneficial from a football standpoint, but it didn't happen because of Yahoo's power and the academia brow-furrowing that I'm sure carries more weight at UNC than it does at Ohio State.

I'm unsure what I'd do in the same situation but won't spend much time worrying about it since it doesn't matter at all. What matters: The program took a significant hit from this whole debacle despite the NCAA stuff turning out to be relatively benign, but because the NCAA stuff turned out to be relatively benign, the exact significance of that hit is up to Larry Fedora.
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Postscript thought on NCAA shenanigans and my preference to write about football rather than people doing stupid things:

That is all.


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