Ask would-be college athletes what they think of the recruiting process, and they're more likely than not to talk -- and not necessarily in positive terms  -- about the attention showered on them by the coaches trying to woo them. The coaches' livelihoods depend in part on how successful they are in getting the best athletes to choose their programs, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association has a big fat book full of rules designed to limit what coaches and others can and cannot do to win athletes over.
And sometimes, the coaches just plain ignore the rules, to the detriment of the would-be athletes and, ultimately, their institutions. Wednesday, the NCAA's Division I Committee on Infractions ruled in just such a case, placing California State University at Fresno  on four years' probation for rules violations in its men's basketball program. This is the second time in three years that the university has been found to have committed major violations of NCAA rules, though the panel praised the university's leaders for their response to the mess.
The main breach this time: hundreds of telephone calls (457, to be exact) that its former men's basketball coaches made to high school and junior college athletes that exceeded or otherwise violated NCAA limits. Calls to high school juniors before the date when NCAA colleges are allowed to contact them. Excessive calls per week to individual athletes -- 73 more than allowed to one athlete, and 57 more than allowed to another.
Twelve of the 25 athletes to whom impermissible calls were made wound up enrolling at Cal State-Fresno, proof to the NCAA panel that the violations gave the university's basketball program a competitive edge in recruiting. And that is, after all, the primary reason NCAA rules exist: to try to "level the playing field," so that no one institution has an unfair advantage over another. But in recent years, the NCAA has also increasingly paid attention to what it calls "athlete welfare" issues -- how much time athletes spend in their sports, whether they are integrated into campus life and, not unimportantly, the experience they have when being recruited.
Barraging high school athletes with telephone calls -- to their homes and their cell phones, as occurred in the Fresno case -- is a "serious student-athlete welfare issue," Gene Marsh, a law professor at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and chairman of the Division I Committee on Infractions, said in announcing the penalties in the Fresno case.
The former head coach, Ray Lopes,  had sat in on the 2002-3 infractions committee hearings at which Cal State-Fresno's last infractions case (stemming from the coaching reign of his predecessor, Jerry Tarkanian), and he "knew the program was under enhanced scrutiny," Marsh said. Yet even before those hearings, he had "already engaged in a pattern of impermissible phone contacts," which continued after those hearings and until November 2004, when the NCAA began investigating the basketball program, Marsh said.
In addition to implicating Lopes and three former assistant coaches in the rule breaking, the NCAA infractions panel cited Cal State-Fresno for its failure to maintain proper control over the basketball program. The athletics department had a system in place to monitor the recruiting calls its coaches made, Marsh said, but it was "neither adequate nor followed."
Because Fresno had been found to violate major NCAA rules twice within a five-year period, the university was susceptible to the association's penalties for "repeat violators," which give NCAA enforcers the authority to ban programs for up to two years. But the infractions panel went relatively easy on the Cal State program, largely because the university had imposed a set of penalties on itself -- including banning the basketball program from postseason competition this year and restricting recruiting in several ways.
The infractions panel added to those penalties only by extending the probation period under which the university will be under closer watch and by requiring Lopes to appear before the NCAA if he seeks to work at another NCAA member college within the next three years; if that occurs, the institution that seeks to hire him will face penalties if it doesn't restrict Lopes's duties.