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Wildcat Scratch Fever

July 30, 2010

In a case highlighting how the National Collegiate Athletic Association is cracking down on the predatory recruitment of teenage basketball players, the association on Thursday punished the University of Arizona for major recruiting violations that took place during the tenure of Lute Olson, the legendary head men’s basketball coach who recently retired.

An NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions report details that the infractions took place during an annual high school basketball tournament (the Arizona Cactus Classic) and a high school basketball “showcase” game (The GOAZCATS.com Showdown) held in gyms on the university’s campus between 2006 and 2008. Before each of the events, Olson helped Jim Storey, local basketball promoter and publisher of GOAZCATS.com, solicit donations from the Rebounders, the university’s official booster club for the men’s basketball team. Coaches, per NCAA legislation, are not allowed to be involved in such events hosted by outside groups that could give them access to prospects.

“This tournament brings some of the top players in the country to Tucson and is very critical for our recruiting,” Olson wrote in a letter to Rebounders' board members. “These are high level players that wouldn’t ordinarily have a chance to visit our city and the University of Arizona campus.… To ensure the future of this tournament, [the promoter] needs support from private donations.… I want you to know how important this is to Arizona basketball recruiting.”

Olson was so adamant in his pursuit of donations from the boosters that he dismissed one of the Rebounders’ board members who refused to give money for the 2008 Cactus Classic. The board member, who was a long-time season ticket holder and a charter member of the boosters club, received a pink slip from Olson stating, “[The promoter] indicated that you would not do anything for me or for Arizona basketball so I think this letter will be welcomed by you!” Ultimately, university boosters gave more than $197,000 to the promoter.

Additionally, during the 2008 Cactus Classic, two incoming assistant men’s basketball coaches who were not yet employed by the university engaged with current team players and high school prospects in a way that the NCAA says made them “countable coaches.” Their actions violated NCAA recruiting rules because it took place during a “quiet period,” a long portion of time near the end of spring and early summer when universities are not allowed to recruit men’s basketball players.

In a harsh rebuke of one of the game’s best-known and most successful coaches, the NCAA also found that Olson “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance” by purposely not checking with athletics rules compliance staff regarding his association with the promoter, in whose events he was repeatedly made aware he and his staff could have no involvement. The NCAA also determined that Olson asked the incoming assistant coaches to observe players prior to officially taking their jobs and did not check with compliance staff to see if this violated rules.

The university was also admonished for a “failure to monitor” its men’s basketball program and its involvement with the high school basketball events that took place on campus between 2006 and 2008.

As a result of these findings, the university has been placed on NCAA probation for two years. The association also restricted for two years the amount of official recruiting time the men’s basketball team has at its disposal, and the team loses a full athletic scholarship for two years. Finally, the team must vacate 19 wins from the 2007-8 season, in which two players who were illegally recruited during the 2006 Cactus Classic participated.

University officials said that they would not appeal the NCAA’s decision.

"We're satisfied that the process has reached a conclusion," said Greg Byrne, director of athletics, in a statement. "We have cooperated throughout and respect the findings of the committee. Now it's time for us to move forward with a focus on maintaining the highest standards of integrity within our entire athletics program."

The university’s statement made no mention of Olson. Faculty Senate leaders also did not respond to requests for comment regarding how these violations might taint the legacy of Olson, whom many observers regarded as having run a “clean” program throughout his 25-year tenure at the university.

Paul Dee, chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and a lecturer of law and education at the University of Miami, said the committee did not give Olson, 75, a direct personal or “show cause” penalty because he was retired from coaching. He refused to say whether another coach who was not retired would have been given similar deference. In addition, he noted that Olson’s poor health had affected the coach’s ability to appear before the committee.

“Our view is that our responsibility is to find the facts and it’s for others to make a determination whether there’s any taint or not to them,” said Dee of his committee’s harsh words for Olson.

Dee went on to note that the NCAA’s focus on men’s basketball recruiting in recent years could help prevent violations like those in this case from happening. For example, the NCAA adopted new rules preventing universities from hiring those involved with outside camps or clinics to serve as recruiting consultants. It also altered legislation to consider boys as early as seventh grade to be official basketball prospects by the NCAA, so that all protections previously given to high school recruits could be extended to them.

“Work is being done by the NCAA … that has been helpful to identify situations like this,” said Dee. “The basketball focus group together with several members of NCAA and conference commissions have been looking at this and making proposals as they come across things to change. I would expect more to come.”

Among the NCAA recruiting proposals being talked about right now is one that would ban coaches from offering "verbal commitments" to prospects. These are unofficial scholarship guarantees made to young recruits before they are formally able to sign a National Letter of Intent to attend a specific university. Sometimes these commitments are made during camps and clinics during which coaches have contact with middle and high school athletes.

Josephine R. Potuto, chair of the Division IA Faculty Athletics Representatives and constitutional law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, argued that the recruiting landscape, especially in men’s basketball, remains problematic.

“There’s an influx of people other than parents, guardians and coaches who are having an increasing influence on the process,” said Potuto, a former member of the Division I Committee on Infractions. “The general view is that’s not a healthy progression for the sport. Coaches are now under increasing pressure. … It’s been described as a cesspool out there, and I think that’s an apt description.”

 

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