Still ahead for one of college football’s elite programs: a second year without a bowl game and 30 fewer football scholarships over the next three years.
Even so, USC landed a top-five national recruiting class in February. Lane Kiffin, in his second year as coach, began managing his roster for the sanctions before a USC appeal was rejected last month, using redshirt years and midyear transfers to stock the Trojans for leaner times ahead.
Now, with Ohio State in the NCAA’s crosshairs because of a scandal involving alleged improper benefits to players that already has led to the departures of coach Jim Tressel and star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the OSU program could face the same question as USC:
How do such powerhouse football programs ultimately fare after major NCAA sanctions? Are some simply too big to fail?
Recent cases suggest that. The Miami Hurricanes, hit with NCAA penalties for lack of institutional control in 1995, won the 2001 national title. And Alabama, sanctioned in 2002, won it in 2009.
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USC — penalized because the NCAA concluded former running back Reggie Bush and his family received improper benefits from prospective agents — remains publicly cautious about its prospects on the field.
The Trojans’ defiance of what the school considered excessive NCAA penalties is shifting toward acceptance. As J.K. McKay, senior associate athletic director and a son of the late Trojans coach John McKay, told boosters in a gathering attended by a Los Angeles Times reporter: “This is USC. We’re going to be fine.”
Others — including Larry Coker, coach of the 2001 Miami team and now of the fledgling program at the University of Texas at San Antonio— echo that sentiment about Ohio State.
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“With Ohio State, I think you’ll see the same thing, because so many good players in the state want to play at the school,” says Coker, an assistant coach in Columbus earlier in his career. “When I was recruiting there for Ohio State, a mother once told me: ‘Coach, my son was born to be a Buckeye.'”
Vacated victories don’t mean vacated futures.
Apart from Southern Methodist — which in 1987 became the only school whose football program was halted under the NCAA’s “death penalty” and managed one winning season in the next 20 after the program was resumed — many penalized schools do surprisingly well.
A 2007 study by Chad McEvoy, an associate professor of sport management at Illinois State, found that the five-year winning percentages of 35 teams sanctioned over a 15-year period ending in 2002 actually rose, from .547 to .566 in the five years after they were penalized by the NCAA.
Even among 10 schools hit with what were considered the most serious sanctions, the winning percentage dipped only slightly, from .634 to .614.
So are the NCAA’s penalties for rules violators severe enough?
Steve Morgan, a lawyer in the Overland Park, Kan., office of Bond Schoeneck & King, the most prominent firm representing schools in NCAA infractions cases, spent two decades working for the NCAA as an investigator and enforcement director.
“What is weathering the storm?” Morgan says. “If they continue to be successful competitively, does that mean the penalties have not had an impact?
“I work with college presidents. … They’re not worried what the final penalties are going to be. They’re worried about their broad constituency that isn’t their maybe borderline-insane fan base — all their alums, all the people who support the research and the academic programs of the institution, who on some level are going to have a negative reaction to the fact that the institution is making national headlines as a major violator of NCAA rules.”
Two powers rise again
Major NCAA penalties hardly mean dear old State U won’t win another national championship in an alum’s lifetime.
Alabama, hit with major penalties in 1995 and again in 2002, recovered both times. (A 2009 case involving widespread misuse of free textbooks resulted in the football team vacating 21 wins from 2005 to 2007 but no bowl ban or scholarship cuts.)
The resources and backing that mega-buck football factories enjoy appear to make a difference.
“That’s true in anything. General Motors obviously has weathered some storms,” says Gene Stallings, who coached the Crimson Tide from 1990 to 1996, including the 1992 national championship team. “Where smaller companies will go out of business” when facing trouble, “the larger ones will just tighten up their belts and they have resources and they’re eventually able to do it.”
Alabama was banned from bowls and stripped of several scholarships in 1995, when the school was cited for lack of institutional control in part for not responding swiftly enough to allegations a player received money from a sports agent after the 1993 Sugar Bowl. Alabama went 8-3 and 10-3 in the seasons that followed its sanctions.
“Losing two or three scholarships … you always recruit three or four (players) who can’t play anyway,” Stallings says. “Now, you just got to be really, really good on who you recruit. Instead of having 25 and gambling on five of them, you’ve got to take 20 and make sure they’re the right people.”
Hit again in 2002 with a two-year bowl ban and scholarship losses for booster-related violations, the program went through a five-year dark period but returned to national prominence after hiring coach Nick Saban in 2007 for what initially was an eight-year, $32 million contract. (In a bit of creative scheduling, the team offset the bowl ban by booking season-ending games in Hawaii.)
By the end of the 2009 season, Saban’s Alabama team was the undefeated national champion.
Stallings imagines a similar scenario for Ohio State.
“They’re going to have some kind of sanctions, whether they’re bowl (bans) or scholarships (reductions). But I think Ohio State will be a good football team this year, and I think they’ll be a good football team next year.
“Obviously, there’s a certain amount of embarrassment. But I will assure you, if Ohio State performs at a high level next year, there won’t be near the grumbling there’d be if they win two and lose nine.”
Miami is another case study on the impact of sanctions.
The Hurricanes won four national championships in nine years during the 1980s and early ’90s. But in 1995, the school was cited for lack of institutional control in a case that included a Pell Grant scandal. It received a one-year bowl ban and a loss of 31 scholarships over three years.
The low point came in 1997, when the team’s 5-6 record — its first losing season since 1979 — included a 47-0 loss to rival Florida State.
At the end of the 2001 season, the Hurricanes celebrated their fifth national championship.
“At Miami, it was very difficult at first,” said Coker, the coach in 2001 after being an assistant during the probation. “At one time, we were playing with 52 scholarship players (teams without sanctions are allowed up to 85) and some walk-ons. We really had a short stick, and it was very difficult to compete. And nobody was feeling sorry for Miami when we’d go play somebody.
“I still have the Sports Illustrated cover (“Why the University of Miami should drop football”) framed in my office. We knew we could come back, because you had so many good players in the area.”
TV ban ‘would be crushing’
The NCAA has at least two penalties in its arsenal it has used for football infractions in many years. One is the death penalty, in which it shuts down a program. The other is banning a school’s team from appearing on TV.
“You look at most of the major scandals, particularly at the big state schools, and within a couple of years they’re able to come back, and in a lot of cases the coaches have been able to resurrect their careers at other schools — though I’m not sure if that will be the case with Coach Tressel,” says Richard Lapchick, a University of Central Florida professor and founder of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. “I think we’ve got to make the penalties sufficiently big enough to be a deterrent.”
Lapchick says the NCAA effectively has shelved the death penalty “because it proved so devastating to the Southern Methodist program.” He says there is uneasiness about severe penalties on universities when violations involve third-party agents the school possibly wasn’t aware of.
A TV ban has not been imposed on a Division I team since one was imposed on Maine’s hockey team in 1996.
Josephine Potuto, a University of Nebraska law professor and former chairwoman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, told USA TODAY in 2008 that an infractions subcommittee drew up recommendations for tougher penalties, including a return to TV bans. The recommendations went to the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors, which has not acted on them.
NCAA President Mark Emmert said at this year’s men’s Final Four — won by a Connecticut basketball team facing penalties for rules violations — that a review of the penalty structure is needed to deter those who might be making “cost-benefit analyses” about whether cheating is worth the risk.
The most common calls for tougher penalties involve sanctions that hit a school’s bank account, such as returning postseason earnings or imposing TV bans.
Gary Williams, the former Maryland basketball coach who resurrected that program after NCAA penalties in 1990, said a one-year television ban was one of the most difficult aspects of a probation that included two years without postseason play, the loss of two scholarships and returning revenue Maryland had received for playing in the 1988 NCAA tournament.
“Players feel they need the exposure, so they’re going to go to a school where they can be on television, so it hurt in that regard,” says Williams, who went on to guide Maryland to the NCAA title in 2002. “It hurts you down the road. It’s not just that one year you’re not on television, it’s that year where you maybe didn’t get great recruits and now all of a sudden you’re two years behind.”
Television is a pocketbook issue that affects not only the penalized school but also members of its conference who share TV revenue. Although former Pacific 10 commissioner Tom Hansen says conference contracts typically include language that rights fees would not be diminished if teams were banned from TV, the use of such bans could undermine the market value of future TV contracts.
Kiffin, the USC coach, says a TV ban “would be crushing.”
Kiffin — who must appear at an NCAA Committee on Infractions hearing Saturday in Indianapolis to face allegations of recruiting violations while he was the football coach at the University of Tennessee— also called rules that allow players to transfer without sitting out a season because of sanctions an underestimated penalty.
“That’s free agency in college,” Kiffin says. “Other schools could call our players and say, ‘Come here and play right away.'”
After an 8-5 season at USC, Kiffin says he is concerned about his team’s depth with scholarship reductions on the way. But overall, “what I’ve said is, I’m happy it’s over.”
His recruiting pitch continues to emphasize “education at a private university, playing at USC in the (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum, NFL-style coaching,” plus the bowl ban expires before the next signing day. But in addition to “Fight on,” the USC mantra has become “Move on.”
“Everybody wants to talk about what Ohio State’s going to get,” Kiffin says. “That doesn’t matter.”
Williams, the former Maryland basketball coach who also coached at Ohio State, predicts one thing will not change for the Buckeyes:
“They’re going to have their first football game of the year,” he says, and “they’ll have 105,000 people in the stands.”