Coach Caught By an E-Mail Trail

August 23, 2007

The National Collegiate Athletic Association punishes anywhere from a handful to a couple dozen colleges a year for violating its rules, and the reports about the association's actions are usually pretty dull. But every once in a while, the cases can read like a cautionary tale about one aspect of American society or another. And so it was Wednesday when the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions penalized Purdue University for a serious case of academic fraud in its women's basketball program.

The gist of the situation, as described in the NCAA panel's report on the case, is that a former assistant coach at Purdue, whom the university fired last year, broke NCAA rules by "partially researching and composing" a two-part sociology paper for a player and then lied (as did the player) to university officials who were investigating the alleged breaches. The university began investigating in February 2006 after another former assistant coach told Purdue officials that she had overhead the player say that a coach had helped her with a paper. But as often happens in cases like this, the coach in question minimized the significance of her actions, telling investigators that she had not "independently" done any research and that she had made only "non-substantive revision(s)" of the assignment. The player, too, denied that she had received substantive help from the coach.

It is not uncommon in the course of such investigations for college or NCAA officials to run into he said/she said disputes. But in this case, Purdue recovered e-mails and instant messages that the assistant coach had deleted from her e-mail account the day after her colleague reported the alleged wrongdoing (but that were retained on her computer hard drive) -- and they told the tale.

In an e-mail message one late afternoon in late October 2005, the former coach sent the player a one-page attachment and wrote in the body of the e-mail: "Here are some thoughts that should help. Make sure you read it and add your own info from class notes or any textbooks you use. All of my info is from the internet and what I remember, which may not be the important points from class or what your professor has stressed in class. Just make sure you double check everything."

Later that night, the coach sent another draft of the same paper (two pages long this time) and a note that said: "Throw away the other one. This one is better and more organized. I don't know when this is due but if you can bring it to me after you revise it I'll look over it. You can change and add things and send it back to me if you want."

A month later, when the second part of the two-part assignment was due, the coach sent a six-page document and the following note: "Hey, you still have to do the title page and the reference page. I have attached everything you need to do those (two) things. Make sure you reread the paper and make it sound like you. I wrote some notes on the bottom of the paper. I looked at your schedule and see you have some time in the morning. Make sure you work on this before you turn it in. Good luck and I hope this helps!"

An instant messaging exchange from early November offered seemingly incontrovertible evidence that the player in question had been a willing participant in the scheme. The coach wrote: "Hey Girl! I will be finished around 9 p.m.…"

The reply from the athlete: "Stop cakin' and finish the paper....dang!"

The electronic communications between the player and the coach, the NCAA committee said in its report, "were tantamount to the proverbial 'smoking gun,' confirming that [the] former assistant coach committed academic fraud with the full knowledge and complicity of [the] former student-athlete."

The case, said Josephine R. Potuto, chair of the Division I Committee on Infractions and a law professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, offers an "object lesson in why coaches should not involve themselves in any way in [players'] academic work," adding, "That's what academic advisers and tutors are there for."

The infractions panel praised Purdue for investigating the case aggressively once athletics department officials learned of the possible violations and then self-reporting them to the NCAA. But the committee expressed concern that the former head coach (Kristy Curry, who is now head coach at Texas Tech University), when informed of possible wrongdoing in late 2005 and early 2006, had "conducted her own investigation and dismissed the information, concluding that it originated from 'bad blood' " between the two former assistant coaches involved.

The NCAA committee stripped Purdue's women's basketball team of two scholarships in the coming academic year, on top of a one-scholarship reduction that the university had imposed on itself in 2006-7. In addition, the NCAA required any institution that seeks to hire the former coach who committed the academic fraud in the next three years to appear before the infractions panel to explain why it should not face penalties for doing so.

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