sanctions handed down to Oregon this week are unlikely to have any practical impact. Oregon was accused of paying a recruiter, Willie Lyles, $25,000 to funnel a recruit to the school. After failing to agree on a proper punishment through the NCAA’s summary disposition process, the prevailing sentiment was that the Committee on Infractions (COI) would punish the Ducks harshly, most likely with a bowl ban of at least one year. That was not the case. The school faces no bowl ban, which generally accompanies major sanctions (See, Ohio State, Penn State, USC, and countless others). Other penalties were equally insignificant. The reduction of one scholarship per year is unlikely to yield significant detrimental effects. The reduction in official visits from 56 to 37, accompanied with other various recruiting restrictions, will make the task a bit more challenging for the coaching staff, but overall, will not impede a program of this magnitude. The harshest sanction, the 18-month show cause penalty against former Head Coach Chip Kelly, also has no real impact since Kelly now coaches in the NFL, and is unlikely to return to college during that 18-month period.
A number of explanations for the decision could be at play here. One factor is that the NCAA’s recruiting regulations have undergone significant change in the last few years (See generally, NCAA Bylaw 13); it may simply be that the facts of this case were just not that nefarious based on emerging sentiment and rule changes. Another ancillary consideration that the COI likely took into account is that the student-athlete in question never played for Oregon. Perhaps the COI was actually reluctant to issue harsh sanctions due to the constant and biting criticism NCAA Enforcement has faced as a result of the Miami investigation, and other public relations missteps.
One take way from this decision, however, is that the NCAA does not look favorably upon lying to investigators, and it will punish teams and individuals accordingly. It appears that Oregon was frank with investigators, and admitted to paying Mr. Lyles the $25,000 fee. Whereas, at USC and Ohio State, key administrators and coaches attempted to conceal key facts, resulting in much more draconian sanctions (Penn State is a different matter entirely). Also, while there is no way to know for certain, it is interesting to theorize what would have happened if Kelly was still coaching at Oregon. As it is, the team got off light, and he received the harshest sanction. Would that have been reversed if he was still the sitting coach? Perhaps. Similarly, would the COI have issued a show cause penalty of significant length to an active head coach? Its difficult to say. It appears that Kelly’s penalty further serves as an example of the NCAA’s distaste for dishonesty: Kelly received an 18-month show cause penalty for paying money to an unscrupulous recruiter, but was honest about it after the fact; Bruce Pearl, former Head Basketball Coach at Tennessee, hosted a barbeque for prospective-student athletes at his home, a seemingly harmless offense, yet he lied about the event and was issued a three-year show cause order. Ultimately, there is no way to accurately predict how the COI will rule in these cases, but the best advice that can be given is that when the Association arrives on campus, the truth should not be concealed.
Hat tip to Brian Konkel for his work on this piece.