The Wait Is Buckeyes' Hardest Part

Is doom and gloom on the way for the Ohio State men's basketball program? Some reporters and analysts have speculated as such, but reports of the program's demise are likely going to be proven to be exaggerated. The Buckeyes will get punished by the NCAA, but the punishment likely won't be as severe as some may think. Kyle Lamb looks at past precedent to explain why.

It has been anxious times for Ohio State head basketball coach Thad Matta. Bittersweet times continue to lie ahead, drudging through the worst accusations and forecasters and prognosticators predicting Ohio State's eventual doom.

But somewhere amidst the various media reports, accusations, assumptions, and plenty of time to test Matta's patience is the truth. Perhaps it's the truth that keeps Matta excited. Perhaps it's the truth that shall set him free.

What really is the truth? It's not what is being reported.

Let's start from the top. There was a national report this past weekend following the delay of the Ohio State NCAA hearing in Indianapolis that declared potential disaster for Ohio State. The same report uttered the infamous ‘death penalty' as a possible, although unlikely penalty for the Ohio State basketball program.

This obviously is not the truth, as Ohio State does not even meet the NCAA's criteria for handing down the death penalty.

Per the NCAA's FAQ page on major infractions, the death penalty is only applicable to an institution if within five years of an announcement of another major rules violation, the said institution again commits another major infraction. Ohio State has not had a violation since 1993, a secondary rules violation, and they have not been a major rules violator since 1957.

As if the death penalty were even a real option, only once has the NCAA ever hammered an institution with this last-resort scenario that either removes all grant-in-aids from the program for a short period or closes down the program from competing all together for a period of one year. SMU is the only school ever to be given this penalty as their football program was shut down for a year back in 1987.

The real truth is that although coaches and administrators at Ohio State cannot comment on the case, when Ohio State self-imposed a 1-year postseason ban last December for the 2004-2005 basketball season, never since then has the university felt it would have to deal any further with the wrath of the NCAA as far as postseason play is concerned.

Friday, December 9, Matta, Ohio State President Karen Holbrook and athletic director Gene Smith all flew to Indianapolis to speak on the opening day of the NCAA hearing for Ohio State. The NCAA infractions committee listened to opening arguments and also was presented the case from the enforcement committee and a couple of witnesses spoke, including former Ohio State athletic director Andy Geiger.

Geiger was asked if he felt the Ohio State would ultimately face possible institutional control charges when he dismissed basketball coach Jim O'Brien for improper recruiting inducements that included giving $6,000 to Alexsander Radojevic. He acknowledged his belief that this was a possibility, although Ohio State entered the hearing facing a lesser ‘failure to monitor' charge.

When the trial ended that day being delayed indefinitely and without closure, it sent wild speculation that Ohio State was in deep trouble. This despite the NCAA press release explaining the delay was not any indictment on the case or the facts presented.

An NCAA official, who could not discuss the case specifically, reiterated that statement by phone on Tuesday.

"It is what it is, as the statement indicated, this delay should not be taken as any sort of indictment or representation of the status of the case," an official said anonymously.

As mentioned, no one within the program is allowed to comment on the case. But privately, even despite the perception to the contrary, sources indicate that Ohio State is very much satisfied with how they expect this case to turn out.

Sources indicate that Jim O'Brien's pending lawsuit against Ohio State had everything in the world to do with the trial not being finished on Friday. In fact, it has been mentioned that O'Brien himself did not want to testify until his pending lawsuit is finished, as it could jeopardize his case if he said something on the record that legally may hurt his chances.

It appears as though the case will resume and conclude when the infractions committee meets again in late January or early February. Ohio State could have opted for a shorter and quicker method called a summary disposition instead of a trial.

In a trial, the institution might disagree with the charges against it and the hearing discusses the charges and the legitimacy of them. A summary disposition, on the other hand, only works if both the NCAA and the institution agree to all of the facts of the case as well as the charges. This basically expedites the committee's work, as they don't have to determine the guilt, they simply move right on to the penalty.

However, in this case, Ohio State disputes the ‘failure to monitor' charge levied against it. It was that charge being argued which resulted in witnesses, including Geiger, to be called in Friday's abbreviated hearing.

With O'Brien attempting to sue the university, they are hoping to not only dismiss the failure to monitor charge, but also knock down O'Brien's suit which claims he was fired unjustly.

Despite sources indicating Matta and the rest of Ohio State feel strongly they have already endured the worst of their punishment, that's not to say the frustration isn't mounting with how long this cloud has lingered over their heads. An obviously shaken Matta commented after the victory against Norfolk State on Monday night about how proud he was of his team to work through the controversy.

"It is truly amazing what they've been through with what the hell is going on right now," he told reporters after the game Monday.

Despite thoughts to the contrary, however, the words ‘institutional control' will have no play in this process. Now it's simply a question of whether or not Ohio State is found to have been guilty of failing to monitor its basketball program properly.

The case began when Ohio State self-reported these initial infractions to the NCAA last June. At that time, Geiger turned in a total of six reported violations for the men's basketball program.

Shortly thereafter, the NCAA made a standard notice of inquiry, which alerts Ohio State of its intentions to investigate the allegations. The investigation made by the enforcement committee, which came to Columbus and interviewed all of the pertinent parties, completed the ‘fact-finding' phase this past spring.

Ohio State, who had already prohibited itself from the postseason last spring, responded in August to a total of nine violations returned from the NCAA in their official report, which included seven basketball violations (the six that were self-reported, and also a charge of failing to monitor the basketball program).

The initial hearing was set for September or October but was pushed back because of the pending lawsuit, which finally got underway on Monday. So December 9 was the date set for the hearing.

After the case was halted on Friday, some people questioned whether the NCAA was reopening the case in light of new evidence.

"The investigation is completed and now it's in the hands of the infractions committee," the NCAA source said.

The head of the infractions committee has some experience in dealing with these issues. Gene Marsh, a law professor at the University of Alabama, has a BS and MS degree from Ohio State.

He was around Alabama a few years ago when they faced a potential for the death penalty as they committed a second major rules violation within a five-year period, already being on probation for a previous infraction.

However, Alabama was handed a one-year loss of a bowl game and some other lesser penalties considering how bad they could have been punished.

Smith, Ohio State's current athletic director, also has experience with this sort of thing. While serving as the director of athletics for Arizona State University, Smith also served a couple of three-year terms on the infractions committee. So when Ohio State returned their official reply to the charges against them this fall, a written letter required within 90 days of receiving the NCAA report, it should be noted that Ohio State recently added a self-imposed loss of two athletics scholarships for this upcoming basketball season.

Sources are adamant that Ohio State will not self-impose any further sanctions regardless of the timing of when they may finally receive closure.

So if the hearing is not resumed until February, the expected 4 to 8-week timeframe expected before the infractions committee returns after that hearing with its final report would mean Ohio State might already be involved in postseason play before the case is resolved. That means an unlikely second year without postseason could not be served until the 2006-2007 season when Greg Oden and the highly regarded Ohio State recruiting class arrives on campus.

So one would imagine they must be confident of where they stand to jeopardize next season.

A second year is extremely unlikely, however. Both case history and reputation back that up.

For starters, NCAA President Myles Brand has said many times over the past two years that Ohio State is the leader nationally in self-policing and maintaining a solid model for NCAA institutions to follow as far as NCAA compliance. That reputation also follows NCAA policy.

In Article 32.2.1.2 of the 2004-2005 NCAA Division I Manual, self-disclosing NCAA violations as well as self-imposing punishment is considered strongly in how the infractions committee responds potentially to violations.

"Self-disclosure shall be considered in establishing penalties, and, if an institution uncovers a violation prior to its being reported to the NCAA and/or its conference, such disclosure shall be a mitigating factor in determining the penalty," the rule reads.

Then, there's the case of innocent athletes.

Over the last several years, according to the Division I manual, the NCAA's mission statement is to try and lessen the penalties imposed on member institutions with several innocent student-athletes.

In the case of Ohio State, most of the NCAA violations took place in 1999 or 2000, before any of the current Ohio State players were on the roster. Since then, Ohio State has fired the coach. There is a new group of players, a new athletic director and also a new President.

When Ohio State says that a one-year removal from postseason meets case precedent with other NCAA cases in the past for their errors, they are not kidding.

For starters, there has not been a member institution in the last 10 years to receive more than a one-year ban from postseason as a punishment. The last one was Alabama State in 1995, and before that, Alcorn State and Coastal Carolina in 1994. In that time, there have been 57 major infraction cases with men's basketball alone.

Moreover, not since 1990 has the NCAA handed down a loss in more than one of year postseason play to a major Division I team (Maryland).

In those 57 cases, 31 of the 57 were found to have committed ‘lack of institutional control', which is the more egregious violation as opposed to the failure to monitor charge facing Ohio State.

In fact, of the last 15 ‘failure to monitor' cases over the past decade, only two of the 15 faced a loss in postseason play. Ohio State has already faced one season.

Even if Ohio State's penalty were hypothetically elevated to institutional control, the result wouldn't be much different or much worse. Here is a list of the last seven institutional control cases since 1998 and the penalties handed down:

Baylor (2005)

· Lack of Institutional Control

· Unethical Conduct

· Academic Fraud

Probation: Five years

Postseason: None

Scholarships: Loss of five (5) over two years

Other: Loss of non-conference competition in 2005-2005 season and off-campus recruiting restrictions

Nicholls State (2005)

· Academic Fraud

· Extra Benefits

· Unethical Conduct

· Lack of Institutional Control

· Failure to Monitor

Probation: Four years

Postseason: None

Scholarships: None

Other: Public Censure

Gardner-Webb (2004)

· Extra Benefits

· Recruiting

· Competition

· Improper Academic Arrangements

· Unethical Conduct

· Lack of Institutional Control

Probation: Three years

Postseason: One year

Scholarships: Loss of two (2) over a two-year period

St. Bonaventure (2004)

· Lack of Institutional Control

· Unethical Conduct

· Extra Benefits

Probation: Three years

Postseason: One year

Scholarships: Loss of two (2) in one year

Utah (2002)

· Extra Benefits

· Recruiting

· Unethical Conduct

· Academic Fraud

· Lack of Institutional Control

Probation: Three years

Postseason: None

Scholarships: Loss of three (3) over a three-year period

Minnesota (2000)

· Academic Fraud

· Unethical Conduct

· Lack of Institutional Control

Probation: Four years

Postseason: One year (self-imposed)

Scholarships: Loss of five (5) over a three-year period (Note: Minnesota self-imposed four and a fifth was added by the NCAA)

Other: Additional off-campus recruiting restrictions and number of official visits limited as well as a removal of some banners, forfeiture of victories which included ineligible players and records and stats being removed for certain players

Texas Tech (1998)

· Academic Fraud

· Improper Recruiting Inducements

· Extra Benefits

· Unethical Conduct

· Lack of Institutional Control

· Failure to Monitor

Probation: None

Postseason: One year

Scholarships: Loss of seven (7) over a three-year period

The other high profile cases…

Georgia (2003)

· Improper Recruiting Inducements

· Academic Fraud

· Ineligible Players

· Unethical Conduct

· Extra Benefits

Probation: Four years

Postseason One year (self-imposed)

Scholarships: Loss of three (3) over a three-year period, later reduced to a loss of one

Michigan (2002)

· Improper Recruiting Inducements

· Extra Benefits

· Use of Ineligible Players/ Amateurism

· Unethical Conduct

Probation: Four years

Postseason: One year (self-imposed, a second year that was added was later appealed away)

Scholarships: Loss of four (4) over a four-year period

So now, if you wonder why Matta has been sleeping slightly better than many of the average fans, that's why. The real truth is probably nothing like the gloom-and-doom scenarios presented in mainstream media.

It's clear the two-year postseason bans are now only being used for the worst of the worst when it comes to NCAA violating institutions. And in case you're worried about 2006-2007…there has not been a three-year postseason ban since Clemson in 1975.

Ohio State might now have to wait until February or early March for a resolution. However, that resolution is not likely to be much more than maybe a loss in a few more scholarships and administrative probation.

That's also when the real truth will come out. The truth that Matta hopes will justify his smile.


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