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The approach of USC and UNC to NCAA charges could not have been more different -- in every way

For different reasons, an innocent USC and a guilty UNC will both have to live with their far different choices to dealing with the NCAA charges although UNC is on path to escape the NCAA's wrath, it would seem. USC . . . not so much.

Ed. Note: This is a warning: For those of you whose heads tend to explode at the mention of what USC has done – or not done -- over the past six years with regard to the NCAA case compared to what other schools in similar situations have done, this column may require that you not read it all at once. Or at the very least, to stand back from others when you do. This could get messy.

Here’s the headline from a column by John Drescher of the Raleigh News and Observer, the North Carolina paper that’s done the best job by far covering the sordid academic fraud in the goings-on at UNC “over three decades,” as Drescher describes it, of “bogus, no-show classes.

The headline of his Friday column says: UNC’S LAWYER-UP STRATEGY MAY BE WORKING.

And much as at USC, the way many of the folks who most care about the university’s reputation have been dismayed at the inaction and indecision as to how to proceed for a USC program that’s been defamed and essentially framed, many of those who care about UNC’s reputation are not happy about the way their university has chosen to go.

Here’s the UNC decision: “Carolina has spent millions of dollars and worked aggressively to manage its risk,” Drescher says, as “the university has chosen its words carefully” in a “crisis strategy driven by lawyers and consultants.”

And it’s working. USC’s strategy, say some, to protect Pres. Max Nikias and the $6 billion fundraising campaign, at the time the largest in U.S. higher education, has also worked as USC has just passed the $5.2 billion mark. It’s worked, of course, unless you care about what happened to football.

Here’s the way Drescher sets up the choice at North Carolina: “When the existence of the no-show classes was revealed in 2012, UNC had to choose one of two basic approaches to handling a scandal. Each approach has costs and benefits. One approach is to relentlessly pursue the truth, reveal even the embarrassing details and throw yourself upon the mercy of the court, which in this case includes the NCAA, which governs college sports. Among the benefits to this approach are that it limits legal and public relations bills and it can speed the process. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the organization can gain credibility. The risk is that in acknowledging the ugly details and in speaking plainly about them, the punishment could be severe.”

So UNC chose another direction. While an essentially innocent USC program, we now know, chose not to defend itself – in the court of public opinion or in a threat to go to court as Todd McNair has done after the NCAA decided it had committed near “death-penalty” violations – a plainly guilty UNC program decided to fight with all its might.

As a sidebar to UNC’s having to spend, as Drescher says, “millions of dollars” to fight the public relations and legal battles to whitewash the decades of fake classes in a bogus African-American department that helped keep thousands of athletes eligible -- many in football and basketball -- USC would have been able to take a different, far more economical path. One Trojan benefactor had pledged to the university that he would underwrite all the costs of such a campaign against the NCAA's demonstrably unfair actions. USC said thanks but no thanks.

“UNC has had another strategy,” Drescher wrote in his weekend piece, “to lawyer up, hire PR and NCAA consultants, portray itself in the best light possible, parse words, say the wrongdoing was limited to a few people and argue its case. Carolina has spent millions of dollars and worked aggressively to manage its risk.”

At the heart of the strategy, Drescher says, was a parsing of words when describing classes that “never met and were not supervised by a professor” and where “a paper was required but often not read and grades were generous.” While one state investigation called them “phantom” classes and another “academic fraud,” UNC now describes them as “irregular,” “aberrant” or “anomalous. If Carolina described the classes as academic fraud to the NCAA,” Drescher writes, “that could lead to an unethical conduct violation and harsh penalties.”

Wouldn’t want that. None of that “We’re going to go to class the right way,” promise from UNC’s athletics director. Hey, the Tar Heels have a basketball program to protect.

But when you’re guilty and they have you dead to rights, there’s a downside. For UNC, this so-called “public Ivy” school that occupied a spot in the nation’s Top 25 universities near USC, that came in the form of a reprimand from the nation’s largest accrediting body in higher education – the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools that put UNC on probation last June – its “most serious” penalty calling into question the academic integrity of all degrees granted by the institution.

But the upside is that an NCAA predisposed to give UNC, one of the organization's “good ole boys,” a pass, appears to be doing just that as the investigation now goes back only to 2006-2007. That protects UNC’s 2005 NCAA basketball title despite testimony from that team’s players that the only way they were eligible was through the bogus courses.

Here’s the way Drescher characterizes what’s going on: “UNC’s strategy might be working. The NCAA’s initial Notice of Allegations named football and men’s basketball, the sports that bring in the most revenue. The amended allegations recently released do not mention those programs. If Carolina succeeds in limiting its NCAA penalties, its leadership (and devoted sports fans) will be relieved.”

And for those of us who have contended that the NCAA’s enforcement processes are essentially corrupt to their core, as are some of the people entrusted with carrying them out, this is just more proof of that. And grist for the mill of those who say USC should never have given in to these agenda-driven takedown artists with no interest in the truth or justice.

Drescher contends of UNC that “the university will have work to do in regaining the trust of people . . . Carolina’s lawyer- and consultant-driven strategy has not helped its credibility and has delayed resolution of the four-year-old scandal. That’s the bargain UNC has made.”

USC also made a bargain. And there are those who say that the $5.2 billion raised is proof that it was a deal that had to be made.

But unlike UNC, USC was essentially innocent of the charges. And yet it received the harshest penalties the NCAA could muster in its attempted kill shot on Trojan football. UNC meanwhile, as embarrassed as it is academically, will skate in football and basketball. Just a bump in the Tobacco Road for the Tar Heels.

But a decade of disrupting dismay for USC.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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