Though the findings also came with penalties and probation, Mississippi State officials were both relieved and satisfied to get the final, official word. "The best thing is, it's over," said Coach Sylvester Croom. "The uncertainty is gone. We can move forward and move our program in the direction we want to go. The sanctions are tough, but we can live with the sanctions. And as I've said previously, we will not, under my watch, be in this situation again."
MSU president Dr. Charles Lee called the report "appropriate and fair" and indicated there will be appeal of the penalties. "We accept the committee's findings and the sanctions that have been imposed. We can continue to make progress on and off the field while the restrictions are in effect."
Those restrictions were include a bowl ban this season, loss of four scholarships in both 2005 and '06, and reduced official visits, as well as loss of SEC bowl revenue this year. Athletic director Larry Templeton said that, while receiving sanctions was nothing to celebrate and that emphasis on playing by NCAA rules will be stressed inside and outside the athletic department, Mississippi State is out from under that cloud at last.
"It has not been fair to this institution and football program, and to Coach in his first year," Templeton said of the drawn-out investigation. "The most satisfying thing is it's out, we know exactly what we're dealing with, and we're going to move forward. We know what the consequences are and we can explain that to the young people that we're recruiting."
Croom echoed that theme, particularly the effect speculation about both the inquiry itself and potential penalties has had on potential players. "I've been prep for this mentally since I took the job," the coach said. "The uncertainty has been the most difficult part, part in recruiting, because I didn't know what to tell our prospect. The opposition has created a cloud of doubt, it's what coaches have used against us. (Now) We can tell players exactly what the penalties will be and they can make their choices."
Chairman Thomas Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Conference, reported the C.O.I. findings as well as the penalties, and explained why it had taken so long since the June 17 hearing in Indianapolis to issue the final report. "We had several large and very complicated cases in the April-June timeframe that delayed the report much longer than we would have liked," Yeager said. "Because we realize the institution and the individuals are greatly anticipating the conclusion of the process."
The NCAA sanctions are: Mississippi State is publicly reprimanded and placed on a four-year probation, which dates back to June 12, 2004;
--the 2004 Bulldogs will not be eligible for a bowl game;
--State has a maximum 81 players on scholarship for the next two school years, 2005-06 and 2006-07, which is a loss of four scholarships each year (MSU had already self-imposed a reduction of two scholarships for each year):
--Paid visits for the next two recruiting years are reduced to 45, from 56;
--Former assistants Glenn Davis and Jerry Fremin are subject to a two-year ‘show cause' provision starting June 12, 2004;
--Mississippi State remains subject to repeat-violator status.
Also, under SEC rules in such cases, Mississippi State will not receive a share of league bowl and Championship Game revenue this year.
Yeager said this case fell within the repeat-violator category, and not just because some of the violations occurred less than five years after the previous probation. "It also involved the same sport and the same head coach. We view these as significant aggravating factors." Yeager also said that Sherrill's actions in fighting the charges—he used the word "jockeying"—contributed to slowing the process.
Yet when the final report was filed, charges of allegations of unethical and unprofessional conduct against Sherrill had been dropped. In fact, Sherrill's aggressive defense appeared to contribute to the committee taking closer, harder looks at both the charges and the evidence provided by NCAA investigators. "The allegations of staff misconduct were unsubstantiated," Yeager said.
"Individuals who provided information who, after exposure of their identity, seemed to recast the information provided or deny providing information at all." This led the committee to study the evidence further and, Yeager said, "assured a solid, substantial basis of reliable information to support the findings." The most serious allegations of illegal inducements by the coaching staff were not found substantial by the committee.
Nor was State charged with a lack of institutional control, which Lee pointed out.
But the committee did find numerous recruiting violations from 1998-2000 involving the former assistant coaches, who are no longer at State. Fremin left MSU in 2001 and Davis was not retained by the new coaching staff. The violations were impermissible contacts with recruits by coaches and boosters, arranging impermissible employment for prospects, as well as rules violations in transporting and lodging prospects. None of these mentioned Sherrill.
Yeager acknowledged MSU's strong defense, and called the University's cooperation in this investigation "exemplary" Speaking of the June 17 hearing, "We heard specific information from the new head coach. We heard very compelling statements form the University, we saw written reports that are included in our report on efforts and corrective actions. You just have a recognition that there's a new atmosphere surrounding rules compliance in Mississippi State football."
When the COI had spoken, though, there were questions if an investigation begun reportedly in the summer of 2001 had produced results to justify the efforts, much less the penalties. "Obviously this would be viewed on the upper end of the scale of seriousness," Yeager said. "I think four years with a one-year postseason ban, grant and visit cuts is serious." Yeager also dismissed popular speculations that the investigation had been directed not so much at Mississippi State as at the former head coach. "You can't help perceptions. I can tell you that the findings were based on a standard of evidence that we're required to apply."
Sherrill retired from Mississippi State and college coaching on October 17, 2003, effective at the end of his 13th season in Starkville. He currently resides in Germantown, Tenn. Prior to his hiring at Mississippi State in December 1990, Sherrill had been out of coaching after a major NCAA investigation and penalizing of the Texas A&M program he coached in 1982-88. Sherrill resigned from A&M before the 1989 sanctions occurred.
Mississippi State was also sanctioned in 1996-97 for violations in Sherrill's program, with loss of scholarships and a probation period. The committee report said this was cause for "additional concern" and added that the former staff was "seemingly more concerned with purported conspiracies to discredit them by supporters of rival teams, rather than with attentive compliance with the rules."
"There was so much stuff swirling around, some with merit and some without," Yeager said. "It was difficult to focus on what the facts were and decide what was just static, with no bearing on the case."
All parties speaking Wednesday agreed that this investigation really exposed a poisonous atmosphere surrounding football rivalry in Mississippi, without actually naming the rival. "There are some who thrive more on destroying somebody else's program than taking pride in their own program," Templeton said. Lee's prepared statement spoke of "a commitment to integrity, to playing by the rules, and to confining our rivalries to the playing field, rather than unfounded rumor and gossip. That is what we expect of our coaches, athletes, and fans."
"My intention is in building Mississippi State," Croom said. "I'm not worried about the programs with which we compete. We will do things within the NCAA rules, I expect all our people to do the same thing. If we find anybody that is doing otherwise, I personally will notify Larry and the president."
While Croom can't enjoy the loss of scholarships, for the MSU athletic department the most serious penalty is the bowl ban, resulting in the loss of SEC bowl revenue. Last year State received $2.7 million under the league's ‘share the wealth' plan from SEC bowl teams and the Championship Game's TV payout. Worse, these expected funds from 2004-05 had already been booked to be spent this year. Under league procedures MSU could get back half of these monies in 2009 assuming no further violations.
But for now, "We've got to review where we are in the budget cycle and the things we can hold off until next year," Templeton said. "We have planned some things for the future that we can postpone." Those things will not include ongoing construction of the weightroom/locker room addition to the Shira Fieldhouse, and the Palmeiro Center.
Croom told the Bulldogs at Wednesday's practice that even if they win out (State is 2-5 going into this weekend's Kentucky game) they will not be able to play in a bowl game. "I don't consider that light at all," he said of the sanction. But the coach added that should this team finish with a winning record, they will be recognized someday. "If we go to a bowl in the future, I'll pay for bowl rings for these guys," Croom said.
And even with the loss of grants, visits, and a looming budget crunch, Croom said "This has been a good week." It began with a 38-31 upset of Florida, and now clears an issue out of the way for this year's recruiting plans. Croom repeated that he lost four possible signees last February due to rumors about State's impending fate. Now that it is out of the way, and as for losing eight grants over two years that can be worked around. "We won't waste visits or a lot of conversation on guys we don't feel will come to Mississippi State," Croom said. "We'll sign our full complement of players, and things usually take care of themselves."
Upon which the head coach left the afternoon press conference for the practice fields, to get back to work on the immediate issue of Kentucky. By coincidence, some of the afternoon overcast was clearing up at that moment. And as Lee said, "It will be (Coach Croom's) first practice unburdened by the albatross of uncertainty."