Southern Methodist University has broken serious National Collegiate Athletic Association rules -- yet again.
The association on Tuesday suspended SMU’s head men's basketball coach for nine games and banned the team from postseason play after concluding that the coach ignored an instance of academic fraud in which an administrative assistant completed course work for a basketball player.
This is the third NCAA infractions case involving the coach, Larry Brown, whose programs at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Kansas also violated association rules, including offering improper financial aid and committing academic fraud. And it is at least the 10th major NCAA infractions case for SMU, which retains the distinction of being the last Division I institution to be given the NCAA’s “death penalty” for violations in the 1980s.
“The fact that this institution has been before the NCAA so many times was an aggravating factor,” Michael Adams, chancellor of Pepperdine University and chief hearing officer in the case, said. “On one hand the institution had made some efforts to comply, and yet at the same time a fairly large number of individuals were at least making individual decisions that were unethical.”
Those individuals include Brown and a former administrative assistant for the basketball program, as well as the former head men’s golf coach and a former compliance director -- in NCAA parlance, the chief official responsible for ensuring that the sports program follows the rule. Only Brown still remains employed by the university.
In Brown’s case, the NCAA said the head coach was unaware of any misconduct as it was occurring, but he failed to “promote an atmosphere of compliance” when he later learned of the academic fraud and chose not to inform SMU or the NCAA. He later lied to enforcement officials about what he knew, according to the NCAA’s infractions report.
In June 2013, a former assistant men’s basketball coach determined that an athlete he recruited to the team needed to take a summer course to meet NCAA eligibility standards. The assistant coach met with the athlete and his mother, and encouraged the incoming freshman to enroll in an online course. The player later told investigators that the assistant coach told him to sign up for the course, but, other than that, the athlete shouldn't “worry about it.”
The report does not name any of the individuals involved in the case, but an assistant coach named Ulric Maligi took an indefinite leave of absence around the same time that SMU first acknowledged the NCAA investigation. That acknowledgment came while Keith Frazier, then a sophomore player with the program, was appealing an academic suspension.
It was Maligi who recruited Frazier from Justin F. Kimball High School, which has faced its own allegations of improper academic benefits and recruiting tactics involving the player. Brown said on Tuesday that Frazier remains eligible to play on the team.
Soon after the athlete enrolled in the online course, he met an administrative assistant in the men’s basketball office, who “took an interest in his life and academic work,” according to the report. In July 2014, the assistant obtained the athlete’s username and password for his online summer course, as well as for his email account.
She completed all of the athlete’s assignments and exams, earning him an A minus grade. The administrative assistant later tried persuading the athlete to lie to investigators about her involvement. It is unclear, the NCAA said, if a superior instructed her to complete the course work for the athlete or if it was her idea.
In late July or early August 2014, according to the NCAA report, the athlete and the administrative assistant confessed to Brown that potential violations had occurred.
Brown did not report the information to his athletics compliance staff, the NCAA, the university’s athletics director or SMU’s president for a month. Even then, Brown only admitted to knowing about the academic fraud when confronted during the NCAA’s investigation. He first denied the allegations, but later said he “had no excuse” for not telling the truth more promptly.
The NCAA said in its report that Brown acknowledged “his failed judgment,” and that he was “reflective and remorseful.”
During a news conference Tuesday, Brown said he accepted that under NCAA rules he is responsible for the actions of his staff. He said he didn't agree with all of the association's sanctions, however. When asked about the violations committed by Kansas and UCLA while he was head coach, Brown said he has "nothing to be ashamed of in any of those cases."
When SMU first hired Brown in 2012, it expressed concern about his ability to handle the compliance side of running a college basketball program, as he had spent the previous two decades coaching professionally in the National Basketball Association.
“The institution identified the need to provide the head men’s basketball coach with a significant amount of compliance support to bridge his transition back into the college game,” the NCAA said in its report. “[Brown] admitted that the compliance director ‘[was] with [him] on a daily basis, he meets with every recruit, travels with us, and is at practice and at every game.’ However, despite the institution’s dedicated resources assisting [Brown] and his program, problems arose.”
Sanctions for the basketball program include a three-year probation period, a $5,000 fine, a postseason ban, vacating all wins in which the athlete participated, a three-year reduction in scholarships and a nine-game suspension for Brown.
SMU’s golf program is also facing a number of sanctions, including a three-year reduction in scholarships, after a former head men’s golf coach had “64 impermissible contacts with 10 prospects” over the course of 10 months. Most of the interactions occurred a full year earlier than what NCAA rules allow.
In a statement Tuesday, university officials said SMU may appeal some of the sanctions, and that the university is “committed to academic and athletic excellence.”
“Our compliance program is among the best in the nation, but we acknowledge that even the strongest compliance programs can fall short when individuals act in an unethical manner,” R. Gerald Turner, the university's president, said. “SMU has a proud history of academic and athletic excellence, and we are committed to full compliance with NCAA bylaws and with our ethical standards.”
History of Rule Breaking
Proud as that history may be, SMU is arguably better known for its noncompliance with NCAA bylaws and ethical standards. The university has been caught committing some type of NCAA violation at least once a decade since the 1950s.
Most famously, SMU in 1987 became the first -- and in full force, the last -- Division I institution to be slapped with the NCAA’s “death penalty” for “repeat violators,” a series of sanctions so severe that it took the program decades to fully recover. The punishment came after an NCAA investigation revealed that 21 football players had received about $61,000 in cash payments, capping off a decade of corruption and NCAA violations within the program. The pay-for-play scheme reached to the office of then Texas Governor Bill Clements.
The current infractions case began when the institution self-reported that a member of its compliance staff provided falsified documentation as part of the university's reporting obligations stemming from an infractions case decided in 2011. The compliance director forgot to make sure coaches signed in during two rules education sessions that were required by the 2011 decision. The staff member later admitted to changing the dates on earlier sign-in sheets and submitting those instead. The university was on probation at the time over coaches sending impermissible text messages to parents of recruits in 2007 and 2009.
In 2000, the NCAA placed SMU on probation and vacated 10 games after a defensive line coach allegedly paid someone $100 to take a football player’s ACT exam. The investigation into those allegations also revealed recruiting and tryout violations throughout the 1990s.
“They’re kind of saddled with that” history of rule breaking, said David Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president-elect of the Drake Group, an organization pushing for more emphasis on academics in college sports. “SMU is forever going to hold the mantle of the worst program ever when it comes to NCAA violations because of that death penalty -- not that others haven’t committed serious violations.”
Indeed, it’s been a marquee year for athletic misconduct, especially for cases involving academic fraud.
A report released in October detailed how for 20 years some employees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill steered 1,500 athletes toward no-show courses that never met and were not taught by any faculty members, and in which the only work required was a single research paper that received a high grade no matter the content. The NCAA is currently conducting its own investigation into the matter.
In March, the NCAA suspended Syracuse University’s head basketball coach, Jim Boeheim, for nine games and vacated more than 100 of his wins, saying he allowed athletics staff members to access and monitor the email accounts of several players, communicate directly with faculty members as if they were the athletes, and then complete course work for them. In one case, an athlete had his eligibility restored by turning in a paper to raise a grade he had earned the previous year. The paper was written by the director and a basketball facility receptionist.
Earlier this month, Rutgers University suspended its head football coach for three games and fined him $50,000 after he repeatedly emailed and met with an adjunct professor to pressure her to change a player's grade.
Ridpath said given both SMU’s and Brown’s history, the university and Turner should have known that there was “a massive risk” that a similar scandal could occur at SMU under the head coach's watch. Turner is the co-chair of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and is well versed in the ethical issues that surround big-time college sports. During a news conference Tuesday, Turner said Brown had his full support.
“They ascertained that the reward outweighed any risk, and honestly they may even be thinking of that today, because Brown has put SMU’s basketball team on the map,” Ridpath said. “It’s really one of the most predictable things. Larry Brown is a great coach, but he shouldn’t be a college basketball coach, because he’s only concerned with what’s going on on the floor. Most presidents and athletic directors are OK with that, though, and they’re willing to take chances like this.”
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