Louisville's decision to contest a post-season ban was an agonizing one
Call it a bullet dodged. Say they slipped the noose. Neil Brooks, associate athletic director for compliance with the University of Louisville, doesn't much care which catch phrase you choose to describe his school's situation. He just knows he was relieved to see the Cardinals listed as a number-seven seed in the South Region of this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament.
It wasn't that Coach Denny Crum's Cardinals were a team on the bubble; with a 19-10 record, the Cards were all but assured of an invitation to the Big Dance. But as recently as January, a mere two months before the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee released its brackets, it looked as though Louisville would be sitting out the 1999 postseason. Last September, the NCAA Committee on Infractions found the university guilty of a major violation of NCAA bylaws. Already on institutional probation resulting from major recruiting violations found in its basketball program in an unrelated case, Louisville qualified as a repeat violator - and, as a result, was banished from tournament play.
The trouble could be traced to a credit card - the one that a former Louisville assistant basketball coach illegally used in December 1996 to guarantee rental payment on a local motel room where a player's father had been staying. Louisville administrators never disputed that their coach had sinned; their appeal hinged on their belief that the Committee on Infractions hadn't given them adequate notice that the violation would be classified as major, subjecting the school to repeat-violator status. "It's like, if you get picked up for speeding, you figure it's a misdemeanor," says Brooks. "When somebody comes back and tells you you've been charged with a felony, you're going to be kind of shocked."
According to figures compiled by NCAA Enforcement officials, between 1993 and January 1998, the Appeals Committee issued 15 reports that either modified or fully remanded a finding by the Committee on Infractions - about 50 percent of the cases it reviewed. Of those 15 appeals, three-fifths were brought by institutions; the remainder were brought by individual student-athletes. But before proceeding with their own appeal, Brooks and the athletic department thought it best to assess Louisville's standing in respect to another court - the court of public opinion.
"We had to ask ourselves, if we appeal, does it send a bad message to the public, because people will think we just don't get it?" asks Brooks. "Or do we appeal, because it affects student-athletes and we believe it's the right thing to do? Every school has to make this decision: Is it going to hurt or help us to appeal?"
Mike Garnes, who once served as an NCAA enforcement representative, understands the problem Brooks and Louisville faced. After leaving the NCAA, Garnes briefly represented universities under NCAA investigation through an organization called Intercollegiate Athletics Associates; today, he still consults with law firms on compliance matters.
"Obviously, in cases like this, the institution wants to put the matter to bed as quickly as possible, because the longer you drag it out, the greater potential there is to damage your program even more," says Garnes, who notes that the NCAA appeals process generally takes about four months to complete. Over that time, as the drama is played out in the local media, a school can find itself facing a growing public relations nightmare that can make coaching, fundraising and recruiting difficult, if not impossible.
"Remember, in some of these cases, the coach's job may still be on the line while a school is going through an appeal," notes Garnes. "If you lose, it's going to be pretty tough to turn around and fire that individual when the case could have been put to bed and that coach could have had an opportunity to turn that program around. That's why schools agonize over this."
For Louisville, what ultimately helped tip the scales in favor of appealing was the fact that, had the Committee on Infractions finding gone unchallenged, three seniors who had nothing whatsoever to do with the 1996 infraction - Cameron Murray, Eric Johnson and Alex Sanders - would have been denied a postseason opportunity in their final year of college eligibility. Worse yet, as a result of poor timing, the seniors hadn't been informed of their right under NCAA bylaws to transfer to another school until it was too late for them to do so.
The process did end up taking about four months. In early February, the Appeals Committee released its ruling, which admitted that it had made a "serious procedural error" in not giving the university adequate notice that the violation would be considered a major one. The committee's decision made Louisville the first school to ever have a postseason ban vacated.
In retrospect, Brooks describes the appeals process in almost glowing terms. Realizing that the appeal barred them from re-arguing the facts of the case before the Committee on Infractions, Louisville instead focused on procedural issues and how the bylaws were applied to those facts. Brooks says he was particularly impressed that his school was given a full month to construct its case, and two opportunities to defend it. "At the appeals meeting, we had a better exchange of ideas, and the whole situation was a lot more laid-back than the original infractions meeting," says Brooks. "We were surprised by the scope of discussion that was allowed in the appeal. We thought it was very fair."
Louisville's victory aside, the school remains on institutional probation and Crum still has one fewer scholarship to offer his players and recruits for the next two years. There's also no way Brooks and company will ever recoup an estimated $350,000 in revenue the school lost because the Appeals Committee's error prevented them from hosting an early-season home game and playing in a preseason exempted event.
For his part, Brooks just hopes he never again has to guide his school through an appeal. "The bottom line is, this case wouldn't have even existed had my people done the right thing," he says. "Now, we'll just have to take some time to heal and show people that our coaches are doing the right things. Eventually, we'll overcome any lingering negative perceptions."