The National Collegiate Athletic Association punished Texas Christian University's men's track program on Thursday for a set of rules violations that included some of the most egregious and unusual examples of academic fraud in recent history.
They included an instance in which a former assistant coach took a final examination alongside a track athlete -- with the consent of the faculty member in the course -- and then swapped his version of the test with the athlete's, allowing him to pass.
In its report  on the case, the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions described a "pattern of willful violations" by the former head coach, Monte Stratton (though as is NCAA custom, the report left him unnamed), and several former assistants. The NCAA largely adopted as its own a set of penalties that Texas Christian imposed on itself, including scholarship and recruiting limitations and a ban on postseason competition by the track team through 2006-7. The NCAA levied a two-year probation and said it would require Stratton to appear before the panel, and face additional penalties, if he seeks to return to college coaching in the next eight years.
The committee, on the basis of an investigation jointly undertaken by Texas Christian and NCAA officials, found that the coaches had given a wide range of academic and financial help to nearly two dozen highly talented athletes, many of whom were foreign and most of whom finished in the top 10 in NCAA championship events.
"The former head coach's purpose in providing these inducements and benefits was to gain an unfair competitive advantage," said Gene Marsh, chair of the Committee on Infractions and a law professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. "These impermissible activities were used to recruit, retain and ensure the eligibility of a significant number of world-class student-athletes."
Because Stratton declined to cooperate with the investigators -- he also could not be reached for comment for this article -- the NCAA took the unusual step of granting immunity to two former assistant coaches, which Marsh said it does rarely and only when an investigation is "largely at a dead stop, and there's no other way to get at something." The panel's report said the assistant coaches "had been subjected to intimidation and threats" by the former head coach.
With the help of those former assistant coaches, who had already resigned from TCU, investigators uncovered an enormous range of violations committed by the track program. They found that between 2000 and 2004, coaches made numerous $100 monthly payments to international athletes to help them pay federal taxes on their financial aid, and paid thousands of dollars to help athletes move into off-campus apartments. The former head coach also directed his assistants to give cash, airline tickets and other gifts to athletes the program was recruiting.
While those financial payments are almost run of the mill in NCAA infractions cases, the academic violations are anything but standard. In several cases, from 1999 to 2004, the head coach told his assistants to help recruits write essays required by the Texas Christian admissions office. In 2003, the coach told another assistant to help a potential recruit finish an online algebra course he needed to complete an associate degree and become eligible to compete at TCU. Another assistant coach took the research materials an athlete had accumulated and wrote a paper for him.
But by far the most egregious incident, Marsh said -- and TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini agreed -- involved all the help that an assistant coach gave to one athlete during the university's 1997 summer session. At the urging of the head coach, an assistant coach "attended classes with and in some cases attended class for" an athlete in a "Nutrition Concepts" course.
At final eam time, the infractions panel said, the coach told the instructor that he had attended all class sessions and "wanted to see how he would perform on the final exam."
When he noticed that the athlete appeared to be struggling on the test, the NCAA found, the then-assistant coach switched his exam sheet for the athlete's and put the athlete's name atop his copy of the test. The athlete passed the course and remained eligible.
"I don't think anyone is comfortable with the idea of coaches walking into class and sitting down," Marsh said during an NCAA conference call about the TCU case. "Then things got away from them."
He added: "That's academic fraud and that's bad news on both the athletic end and faculty end."
Boschini, the TCU chancellor, declined to say what had happened to the instructor involved, because it is a personnel matter, although he did say that it had been "discussed in depth."
He said that incident was "clearly the most disturbing part to me" of the entire case. "I also teach -- I'm a professor in the school of education -- and I find it hard to believe that it happened. If someone approached me about doing that, I'd think, 'What planet are you from?'"
Boschini described the example of academic fraud as an "isolated incident," but encouraged other college presidents to "take nothing for granted. "I would take for granted that this couldn't happen, but obviously it did. So it might sound pretty elementary to say that you have to have a written policy saying you shouldn't let someone take a test like this, but you should."
And now TCU does.