Black Eye for the Buckeyes

NCAA puts Ohio State on three years’ probation and penalizes former basketball coaches for misconduct.
March 13, 2006
 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association placed Ohio State University on three years’ probation on Friday for major wrongdoing in its men’s basketball program, requiring the university to repay nearly $800,000 in championship revenue and  effectively erasing the team’s records in four NCAA tournaments from 1999-2002, when it carried an ineligible player.

The Buckeyes will be forced to remove their 1999 men’s basketball Final Four banner from Value City Arena. 

Ohio State largely dodged any penalties for its current team, which won its first regular season Big Ten title in 14 years and is preparing for the upcoming NCAA tournament. 

But its former men’s basketball coaches were not so fortunate. The NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions required Ohio State’s former head coach, Jim O’Brien, to appear before the panel if he seeks a job at an NCAA college in the next five years, and threatened penalties against Wright State University, where a former Ohio State assistant is now the head coach, if it does not ban him from all recruiting activities.

The report by the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions found that seven of the nine violations at Ohio State involved the men’s basketball team, which provided “extra benefits” to two international basketball prospects in the late 1990s. The other two involved women’s basketball and football. Ohio State disputed only one of the nine violations: that it failed to properly monitor the men’s basketball program.

At the core of the case was the NCAA’s finding that O’Brien had made a $6,000 “loan” (which was never repaid) to the mother of a Yugoslavian recruit, Aleksandar Radojevic, in late 1998, and that  the coach had failed to tell the university about the payment until six years later.

NCAA rules prohibit colleges from giving money or other benefits to athletes they are recruiting.

The $6,000 payment was a "blatant violation,” said Josephine Potuto, vice chairwoman of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and a University of Nebraska law professor. “The circumstances surrounding this violation are especially troubling because the former coaches concealed the cash payment from administrators at the institution for over five years.”

O’Brien asserted in a wrongful termination lawsuit against Ohio State (more on that later) that he was unaware that the gift amounted to an NCAA violation. His reasoning: The player had already forfeited his amateur status by signing a professional contract in his home country. O’Brien also said the payment was to help Radojevic’s family, which was in apparent financial trouble. Radojevic was declared ineligible and never played at Ohio State.

The infractions panel also concluded that Paul Biancardi, who was an assistant coach under O’Brien, had been involved in improper payments made to a former four-year Buckeye men’s basketball player, Boban Savovic, who the NCAA has since been declared ineligible for those years (his statistics will be removed from the record books). During the summer of 1998,  Biancardi was a liaison between Savovic and a sports booster who gave the player free housing and helped him commit academic fraud.

Both Savovic and Radojevic received improper benefits from the booster, the committee found.

The former Ohio State coaches have argued that the violations fell outside the four-year statute of limitations laid out in NCAA bylaws. But the committee said that the rules have exceptions for cases that involve blatant disregard of the rules.

While the NCAA punished Ohio State for its past, the infractions committee largely let Ohio State’s current and future players off the hook. The NCAA limited the number of expense-paid recruiting visits Ohio State could provide in the 2006-7 academic year, but accepted earlier penalties the university imposed on itself -- including a 2004-5 ban on postseason competition and a reduction of two basketball scholarships.

Ohio State officials said they were  relieved. At a press conference Friday in Indianapolis, Gene Smith, Ohio State’s director of athletics, responded to the NCAA sanctions.

“While there obviously are some positive outcomes of this report, this is a very serious situation for the institution relative to the sanctions that have been imposed,” said Smith, adding that the main positive outcome is “closure.”

There is no such closure for the former Ohio State coaches, whose violations “went far beyond [improper] phone calls,” said Potuto, the infractions committee’s chairwoman. “There was a concealment of information.”

The panel imposed a five-year “show cause” penalty on O’Brien that would require any institution seeking to hire him to come before the NCAA to discuss how the coach’s duties should be limited. Mandates like that tend to put a major dent in a coach’s employment prospects, said Paul Haagen, a professor of law at Duke University.

The Committee on Infractions also directed officials at Wright State University, which hired Biancardi as its head basketball coach in 2003, before the violations came to light, to appear before the panel if it does not bar him from recruiting for 18 months. Wright State officials said they were mulling over what to do.

“The NCAA public infractions report contains serious allegations concerning Coach Biancardi during his employment with Ohio State University,” Michael Cusak, Wright State’s athletic director, said in a written statement. “We take these allegations seriously. We will determine our future actions after carefully reviewing the report that we just received. The NCAA has a process for investigation, and we have cooperated fully.”

Kevin Cuddy, a lawyer at the Boston-based law firm Ropes & Gray, which represents college coaches, said “show cause” penalties are reserved for the most egregious cases. He said he was surprised, given the language in the committee’s infractions report, that Biancardi didn’t receive a harsher penalty.

The NCAA committee’s report comes a month after O’Brien won the lawsuit against Ohio State. An Ohio judge ruled that although O’Brien had broken NCAA rules and violated his contract, the violations -- given the language of his contract -- didn’t warrant his termination. Ohio State could be forced to pay its former coach upwards of $9 million.

Some legal experts have argued that Friday’s decision could help Ohio State in the upcoming damages hearing, because of the NCAA’s public condemnation of O’Brien’s actions.

In punishing O’Brien and Biancardi, the NCAA also sent a strong message to colleges considering hiring a coach who has violated rules, said Michael McCann, an assistant professor of law at Mississippi College School of Law and contributor to Sports Law Blog. (http://sports-law.blogspot.com).

“The message here is when hiring someone, do an extensive background check and look out for any possible transgressions,” McCann said. “It encourages schools to do due diligence.”

Both coaches have the right to appeal the NCAA’s decisions. O’Brien told The Columbus Dispatch that he planned to appeal, while Biancardi is still deciding, according to a university statement.

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