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Post Thoughts and questions on the NCAA and Georgia Tech

Friday July 15, 2011

The NCAA released its public infractions report on Georgia Tech Thursday. You can read the full report here. A few thoughts and questions based on the report…

First – basketball. The violations were deemed “major” in the eyes of the NCAA, “were also not inadvertent,” and “provided the men’s basketball program more than a minimal recruiting advantage.” With that in mind, does Tech now have cause to reduce the massive buyout due Paul Hewitt? I would imagine that someone at Tech is digging through the contract now to see how the compliance clauses read. Hopefully that person doing the digging is a better counsel than the one who gave the football program such poor advice.

“It is almost always the cover-up…”

Back to football. Of course the story is less about the $312 in improper benefits and much more about Tech’s response. Everyone from the legal counsel to the athletic administration to the compliance office contributed to a decision to willfully ignore the possibility of an ineligible player. As Tech’s president admitted, “it appears (the ineligible players) would quickly be reinstated” had Tech acted more aggressively and moved to declare them ineligible as soon as they were aware of a problem. But that timeline put Tech up against their three most important games of the year: the rivalry game with Georgia, the ACC championship game, and subsequently their first BCS bowl game.

Was it worth it?

No one will admit that it was. But if Thomas was a factor in Tech winning or not winning the 2009 ACC championship game, it becomes an interesting call. That game was an exciting display of offense, and both teams needed all of their weapons. A 70-yard touchdown pass to Thomas was a huge play in the third quarter. He finished with only two receptions, but there’s no questioning his impact in the game. Instead of heading to a BCS bowl, Clemson fell all the way to the Music City Bowl.

Tech lost two of the three games for which Thomas was retroactively ineligible, but they won the one that paid off. There’s no telling in which bowl Tech would have played had they lost the ACC title game, but no other bowl is close to the payout or exposure that comes from a BCS bowl. If Tech isn’t required to pay anything but the $100,000 fine, that’s a relatively small investment for a BCS payout.

So what?

It might seem tough to have to vacate a conference title, and four years of probation sounds ominous. But none of those penalties are constraints on the program going forward. There is no loss of scholarships, no postseason ban, no requirement to repay the gains of their violations, and no reduction in recruiting contact. Should there be? The program might have to whitewash their conference title, but the memory will remain of an exciting last-minute triumph and a trip to the BCS. On the other hand, I can’t get past the fact that all of this was over freaking $312. When you think about breathless stories of major violations, you think about cars, reckless boosters with envelopes full of cash, and sketchy six-figure “donations”. $300 is a rounding error in most of the infamous college scandals.

It’s worth pointing out that Tech’s penalties were similar to those self-imposed recently by Ohio State. The Buckeyes also vacated their wins using ineligible players and accepted probation. Ohio State vows to fight penalties with any teeth like the loss of scholarships or a postseason ban. If the Tech decision is any indicator, will Ohio State have anything to worry about? Of course the cases aren’t analogous from the value of improper benefits to the number of student-athletes involved to the school’s cooperation with the investigation. But in the end both cases involved programs playing ineligible players.

What can Georgia learn?

Tech did what many Georgia fans urged Mark Richt to do last season: play your best receiver anyway. Georgia was tipped off to the possibility of an improper benefit. While the NCAA took its time to rule on the case, the frustration was building each week. Georgia made the tough and unpopular call to keep Green on the shelf while there was still uncertainty. The news ultimately wasn’t great for Green, but he served his suspension and that was the end of it for he and Georgia as far as the NCAA was concerned.

The Dawgs face a situation now where two incoming student-athletes possibly received improper benefits. The severity of Tech’s penalties were ultimately about their response (or lack of response) to evidence of an improper benefit. Georgia will consider that precedent when deciding how to proceed with Jones and/or Caldwell-Pope. If there’s any uncertainty, I would expect them to be declared ineligible until the NCAA is able to decide otherwise.

Where was the media?

I asked this earlier, but it still amazes me. When you think about the concentration of college football media that passes through or resides in Atlanta, how could this story have slipped through until the day when the NCAA came forward to announce sanctions? Look at all of the actions that occurred just on the football side of things:

  • You had the NCAA notifying Tech of a possible violation in November of 2009. They conducted interviews in November and December.
  • In September of 2010, Tech’s president got a notice of inquiry from the NCAA.
  • In December of 2010, Tech received a notice of formal allegations.
  • Tech responded to the allegations in March of 2011.
  • The school appeared in front of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in April 2011.

All of that, and the story stayed under the radar until today. I have to take my cap off to Tech for keeping it quiet, but even they couldn’t have done it without the complicity of a lazy media. It’s not the first time this year the Atlanta media have been caught asleep at the wheel.

The lack of media attention wasn’t necessarily a good thing for Tech. When the A.J. Green story broke last year, Georgia’s every move was open for scrutiny. They had no choice but to play it safe and by the book. Had there been a brighter spotlight on the Tech program, might they have been forced by the exposure to make the tough but wise call to shelve Thomas for the Georgia game? They still would have lost to Georgia, but they’d still likely also have their ACC championship banner.

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