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The History of College Football Recruiting Cheating- Part 6

So far we've covered the evolution of recruiting guidelines, enforcement and violations. This may be a good time to discuss in more detail how violations are discovered, investigated, and punished. We can then examine the effectiveness of the punishments.As noted before, to have an NCAA investigation, you first need a school to violate the recruiting rules, and you then need somebody to turn them in. There are a lot of reasons to think that there are more violations than violations reported. The guilty parties (school offering money and player on the take) have an incentive to keep quiet, to protect their reputations. If a player tried to solicit bids from competing schools, the losing bidders can't come forward without revealing themselves as aspiring cheaters.

So, how does anybody get turned in? Well, an aggrieved school (losing suitor) can give tips and evidence to a news media outlet, and let them generate the story that spurs the NCAA to open an investigation. In these cases, any public information can be used to implicate a program. This is why illegal payouts have always been a cash business, and the standard car given is a late model, rather than a new car.

Another source of violation reports are disgruntled players. College football is competitive, and recruiting is inexact. Just because a player was purchased doesn't mean he is destined for glory. The savvy cheaters knew that they needed to continue promised payments to players who never rose on the depth chart, to keep them happy and quiet. The programs that were sloppy in cheating, such as SMU, might curtail the payments to players who were failing on the field and find themselves turned in by the spurned athlete.

Schools that are already on probation may feel free to turn in their rivals. We saw that in the '80s as the SWC died amidst internecine finger-pointing. The final, and rarest source of an initial investigation is self-reporting. As we will see below, it has become a good-faith practice for investigated schools to perform honest internal investigations and reveal more violations (and a bad-faith practice to not do so), but it is very rare for a school to self-report the major violation that spurs the investigation. The best example is Jim Wacker reporting his employer, TCU, after a couple of star players were so moved by his integrity speech that they let him know that they were getting paid by boosters. Wacker could have quietly shut the payments down and continued rebuilding the Frog program. Instead, he followed the letter of the law and reported his team to the NCAA, who punished him severely for his honesty (he referred to it as "the living death penalty"). No program would make that mistake again.

When the NCAA begins an investigation, it has almost no tools. It has no subpoena power, and lying to the NCAA investigator is not illegal. Furthermore, the NCAA investigators are young attorneys, and their career paths lead them to employment as Compliance Directors at universities' athletic departments. This creates an incentive for the investigators to not be too aggressive in their sleuthing. Typically, the NCAA investigations don't reveal much that hasn't been given to them gift-wrapped from the media, other schools, or the investigated school's own internal investigation.

The NCAA does have two tools in its investigations- the carrot of promised immunity for testifying, and the threat of censure for not cooperating or lying. These incentives are only as strong as the desire of an individual to stay in NCAA athletics, as a player or coach. This made for a humorous moment in the Hart Lee Dykes case (Dykes was an Okie State WR from Baytown whose recruitment landed several schools on probation) of the late '80s, when the OU assistant AD for compliance admitted that Dykes was telling the truth about OU, but that it wasn't fair that Dykes was getting immunity while OU was getting probation.

Once the investigation is complete, and infractions determined, the NCAA assesses penalties. When enforcement began, in the '50s, the NCAA had three penalties- post-season bans, TV bans, and the simple stigma of probation. Of those, the TV ban was most harsh. The NCAA negotiated the national TV contract, and in order to promote all of the schools, only allowed a team to be on TV a maximum of three times per year without penalties. That meant that a TV ban hurt the school far more than it hurt the NCAA, since the TV contract needed the non-penalized programs to be on TV a lot anyway. If OU, for example, could not be on TV, the network only needed to find a substitute for three weeks.

Still, these penalties were weak, and served as little deterrent to repeated cheating. Then, in the '80s, four things happened that started to make a dent in cheating. First, the NCAA had to find a new penalty when it lost control of the TV contract. It hit upon scholarship reductions. Although a recent study showed that scholarship reductions don't severely hurt a program's record downstream, it certainly makes recruiting for a particular year painful. Having five fewer scholarships to give in a particular year makes coaches work harder and stress more.

Second, the NCAA created "the Death Penalty" (suspension of a program that has been found guilty of major infractions twice in five years). The period after SMU was given the Death Penalty found many programs scared straight. That was the period when TAMU and OU fired successful coaches for fear of the NCAA shutting them down. If the NCAA were to apply it again, schools would fear the NCAA again.

Third, the NCAA started insisting that schools keep boosters away from recruiting. As you recall, up until the '60s, the boosters were the key recruiters. They were still allowed to be participants until the '80s, when the NCAA passed rules against booster participation, and started penalizing programs for having boosters involved. Now, the NCAA did not have to differentiate between "honest" boosters and "crooked" boosters. If a booster was talking to a recruit, by definition the program was cheating.

Finally, the last new factor in reducing cheating was one the NCAA did not necessarily endorse- huge increases in coaching salaries. In the '70s, a typical major college head coach earned about $40 - $70K- good salaries at the time, but certainly nothing to get rich from. The only chance he had to really build something, career-wise, was to win big (which might be an incentive to cheat). Salaries started climbing, and by the end of the '90s head coaches were getting seven figure salaries, with guaranteed buyouts if fired- but not if they were fired for cheating. A head coach at a major college now gets a contract that comes close to making him financially secure for life, even if he doesn't win- but not if he gets fired for cheating. A sensible coach today will police his program clear of any ridiculous levels of cheating.

Coming up, we're going to have to revisit SMU's sordid history, and the almost unbelievable George Smith story.