Reading Tea Leaves

When word of a potential NCAA investigation into the football program at West Virginia came to light earlier this year, the consensus from inside the Puskar Center was one of concern, but not panic.

With the release of the notice of allegations from the NCAA and West Virginia's initial response on Thursday, that concern is probably growing, but it's still not a matter for mass firings or general hysteria.

Of course, some observers are taking that road already, but it's not the one that should be traveled in this instance. WVU should be concerned and bothered by the potential charges, and that's clearly the case, as it has already made appreciable changes in the way in which its graduate assistants and managers will work with the football program going forward. But will that be enough for the NCAA, which could, by the time it gets to WVU, have heard and ruled on a couple of other similar cases, including the one at Michigan? And what do the charges outlined in the NCAA's document really mean?

While it can be difficult to understand the NCAA's thinking in many cases, there are some important points to consider, and even a couple of conclusions to be drawn, even at this early stage of the process.

  • The language the NCAA uses in its documents is significant, and can give a hint as to how it views the situation.

    The good news for WVU is that the phrase "lack of institutional control" does not appear in any of the allegations. That phrase denotes the highest possible concern by the NCAA. See it attached to any situation, and it's a serious issue that often results in the harshest of penalties, including scholarship reductions and bowl bans.

    There's no cause for rejoicing, however. The bad news is that head coach Bill Stewart is charged with "failure to maintain an atmosphere of compliance" for the program (so too is former head coach Rich Rodriguez). That phrase isn't quite as serious as the lack of institutional control, but it can't be blown off, either. If he chooses to mount a defense, Stewart will have to show what he did and also offer a reasonable explanation as to why those policies didn't work – or he'll have to say that he didn't know the rules, or thought that the way WVU was doing things was right. The bad thing about any of those choices, however, is that it puts a burden on other segments of the athletic department at WVU, specifically the Compliance Office, which is charged with failure to adequately monitor the football program.

    Either way, someone is going to take a hit for these charges, because there's no indication that WVU will contest the root of the charges – that it had employees performing coaching duties that weren't allowed to do so.

  • The amount of information the NCAA is asking for appears overwhelming. Is that an indication as to ho severe the penalties might be?

    Not really. The NCAA is naturally going to ask for anything and everything it thinks is relative to the case, in any possible aspect. It's also asking for information, such as won-loss records and scholarship levels, that would appear to be taken into account in the penalty phase of the investigation, should the allegations prove true.

    That's pretty much par for the course in any NCAA investigation that results in on-campus interviews or a major allegation. Yes, the association has requested a mountain of paperwork. But that's not a surprise considering the timeframe that is covered in the allegations.

  • Five major allegations are a lot. Does that guarantee big penalties?

    Again, not necessarily. Allegations one and two are pretty much the same, covering those people who performed impermissible duties in different situations. Allegations three and four are also the same – they are just targeted at the two head coaches during the period of the allegations.

    That said, it doesn't lessen the seriousness of the charges. We're not talking paying players here, but it's not something so minor as inadvertently providing a player with a meal or giving them a media guide.

  • These charges are the same as those against Michigan. Once Michigan's penalties are announced, won't that show what WVU can expect?

    In a word, no, for two different reasons. First, as we've seen in the past, the NCAA can be anything but consistent in its actions. It shouldn't surprise anyone at all if two different penalties are handed down in cases that were identical, let alone in cases where differences exist. The NCAA doesn't talk about its decision-making process in applying penalties, but they aren't bound to look at historical precedent.

    Second, the allegations at Michigan, while having some similarity, are different. UM's charges include many more instances of excessive practice time than WVU's, which have only one. Does that make Michigan's situation more dire? How will the NCAA Committee on Infractions view that? It's impossible to predict, but there's no doubt that the situations, while similar, aren't identical.

  • Give WVU at least some credit for openness

    WVU's administration has been, for the most part, reasonably forthcoming. It provided copies of letters to the affected parties, and issued an in-person statement from WVU Director of Athletics Oliver Luck. True, no questions were taken and perhaps WVU should have gone through that exercise, even if Luck were forced to "no comment" based on the status of the on-going investigation. Still, there could have been some general, procedural type questions that might have drawn some responses.

  • Where do we go from here?

    Here's a decent overview of the process, but West Virginia has a couple of important strategic decisions to make.

    First, will it go for the early response time and submit its response by Oct. 19, or take the full 90 days and sends its response by Nov. 5. The earlier date would put WVU's hearing in front of the Infractions Committee on Dec. 10-11, while the latter would push it back to Feb. 11-12, 2011.

    There's already been some debate as to which date is preferable. Get it over with as soon as possible? Opt for the choice after the football playing and recruiting seasons are concluded? Each has positives and negatives.

    More importantly, however will be WVU's response. Does it, in effect plead guilty and agree to all of the charges, and go the contrition route? If so, does it identify and lay blame on coaches or enforcement staff? Or on individuals known to be involved in the impermissible activities? That's the first, and biggest, decision that the administration must make. It seems clear from Luck's initial statement that it stands behind head coach Bill Stewart, and that it will also tout several remedies it has already implemented. But that's just the first step the school is likely to take in a situation that will at least hover like a dark cloud over this season's on-field activities.

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