Kevin Ollie could well be the appetizer. Is the main course coming next?
If the NCAA is intent upon devouring head coaches who sit atop rule-breaking programs — holding accountable the richest and most powerful and often most protected people within a program — it may have been signaled Tuesday. That’s when the former University of Connecticut basketball coach was hit much harder than any other element of the school’s men’s basketball program as the NCAA Committee on Infractions announced its sanctions against the Huskies.
Some games were vacated from disappointing seasons, a scholarship was docked, and some recruiting restrictions were imposed. Garden-variety NCAA justice for violations few would deem egregious. But Ollie was hit with a charge of failure to monitor his program, and a subsequent three-year show-cause order.
A show-cause order doesn’t carry a specific penalty, but it does give the NCAA the ability to punish any school that hires a coach with sanctions in effect and, furthermore, opens the school up to more serious penalties if an infraction occurs while said coach is still under sanctions.
Ollie’s tenure ended poorly at UConn in 2018, but it’s not hard to envision a national championship-winning coach getting another shot in the college ranks if he wants one. With this ruling, though, Ollie would basically be untouchable in the hiring market until 2022.
That’s a stout penalty for what the NCAA characterized as primarily Level II violations (Level I is the most serious). Ollie was found to have lied to investigators and then declined a follow-up interview with the enforcement staff, so that was an aggravating factor. Still, there is a palpable sentiment within the NCAA membership to apply significant penalties where they would have the highest impact — and that means head coaches.
“We do note the emphasis we’ve been asked to put on head coach responsibility since it was put in place,” said NCAA Committee on Infractions chair Joel Maturi on a conference call Tuesday to discuss the UConn sanctions. “And we do think it’s important.”
Now here’s what to extrapolate from this ruling: If you’re a head coach whose program is under investigation, in a sport everyone believes is in dire need of a stout fumigation, there could be a pesticide with your name on it. Even if your name is a big name.
Lo and behold, there are some highly accomplished head coaches whose programs are in the enforcement crosshairs right now: Kansas and national champion coach Bill Self; Auburn and Final Four coach Bruce Pearl; Arizona and three-time Pac-12 coach of the year Sean Miller; North Carolina State and former coach Mark Gottfried, a 400-game winner, now at Cal State Northridge; Louisville and Hall of Fame former coach Rick Pitino, whose college coaching future could hang in the balance; USC and Andy Enfield; LSU and 2019 SEC champion coach Will Wade.
Among the 2018 charging guidelines at the NCAA’s disposal if Level I head coach responsibility violations are found to have occurred: a full-season suspension. Level II violations can result in a half-season suspension.
If significant charges are leveled against some or all of those men, followed by significant penalties, all the Cleveland State jokes that have been foisted off at the NCAA’s expense would have to be put in storage. It would not be the action of an NCAA enforcement staff that was timid about disrupting the sport at a high level.
This is also worth noting, and factoring into the current climate: The above coaches are all white men, and only one of them (Pitino) has lost his job in relation to the corruption scandal. The assistant coaches who were nailed by the FBI, fired from their jobs and are facing jail time, are all African-American men. Don’t think for a minute that dynamic is lost on the coaching community, or on the NCAA itself.
“If rules are being broken, then those universities should be accountable for their actions,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, an African-American, said last month. “Not to make it black or white, but it appears that when you have four coaches with the FBI get involved in that stuff happen to be black Americans but the head coach is still OK …
“Not to say as a head coach I see everything. I don’t. But … I just think there has to be a level of accountability.”
Thus the expectation is that head coach accountability is arriving. And arriving quickly.
We know from NCAA vice president Stan Wilcox spilling the particulars last month that notices of allegation are coming soon in the wake of the federal investigation of corruption college basketball. “Soon” is an evasive target with the NCAA, but July makes sense for the first notices to drop.
When they do, look for “head coach responsibility” within the allegations. Kevin Ollie may be the first of several head basketball coaches to find themselves on a silver serving platter of sanctions in 2019 and 2020.
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