When the NCAA ruling in the textbook case was announced last Thursday, the penalties were perhaps as tolerable as could have been reasonably expected. After admitting to a major infraction in front of the Committee on Infractions, all the while being considered a repeat offender, things could have easily gone much worse than they did, especially given Alabama's history with the NCAA over the previous fourteen years. This is not suggest, mind you, that Alabama got off light in this matter, because it did not, but with little doubt this saga could have easily had a much darker ending for the Tide.
When the news broke that UA had appeared before the COI this past February in San Diego, the information we had at the time suggested that the textbook scandal was an institution-wide problem that only remotely touched the outer fringes of the football program. That was the accepted thought up until this past week, but unfortunately as it turned out the textbook matter was a football problem after all. Football player involvement in bilking the textbook distribution system went back to the very beginning of the investigation, and as it turned out the football players were the biggest offenders. Football players claimed the four largest monetary amounts involved in the scandal, and those four players alone, while being only about two percent of the total number of athletes inolved, nevertheless accumulated over thirty percent of the total benefit in this case. Again, we thought it wasn't a football problem, but in all actuality it was. As I said earlier, we did not get off light, but the ruling could have been much worse.
Fortunately, though, the penalties will have no negative effect on the state of the football program moving forward. We lost zero scholarships in the matter, and the probation will only have ill effects if we find ourselves in trouble again. It should be noted that there is not one iota of evidence that that the NCAA ruling in the textbook case has even remotely harmed Alabama's recruiting efforts for the 2010 class or beyond, nor does it impact any signee from the 2009 class. Having to vacate some 21 wins is a bit disheartening, but vacating wins is a non-penalty in the first place. The games were played, they had a final result, and in the end that is all that will matter or will be remembered. The entire notion of vacating wins is pure fiction created by the NCAA, and they themselves know it, hence why they do not allow other schools to claim vacated wins as victories, and why they do not change the final scores listed in the records. Again, it's a non-penalty, the NCAA cannot retroactively re-write history by scribbling in an "L" in a column. Thus, all told, as an Alabama fan it's hard to overly complain about the penalties we received. I say this with the utmost reservation given my knowledge of their workings as an organization and their treatment of UA in the past, but objectively speaking the ruling in this case was largely fair.
And in all honesty, we absolutely dodged a bullet in this case. Or, to be more precise, we dodged a missile in this case. Go back and look at the procedural history of this case... On November 21st, 2007, the Wednesday following the Louisiana-Monroe debacle, the University of Alabama received a preliminary letter of inquiry (PLOI) from the NCAA. Just think, we thought that week was bad enough as it was, and we did not even know the half of it. At any rate, despite receiving the PLOI right before the 2007 Iron Bowl, somehow, someway, UA was able to keep that dirtly little secret under wraps for almost 15 months. Regardless of how UA was able to pull that one off -- and I'll be frank, I do not care the least how Draconian the measures may have been in doing so to bring about that end, the end justified the means -- the fact that we were able to successfully do that is the saving grace in this case.
Think back to mid-November of 2007. Let us assume for the sake of argument that it would have become public knowledge that UA had received another PLOI from the NCAA, what happens? Easy... things go nuts. UA was firmly within the repeat offender window and technically could have received the death penalty or a post-season ban. Every newspaper in the southeast would have jumped on it, and this would have played out in the print media for over a year, just like the Means saga. There would probably have been a barrel of ink wasted just reprinting Yeager's 2002 warning of what would happen if Alabama appeared before the COI again. Opposing coaches would have mentioned the words "post-season ban" and "death penalty" every time a top recruit thought twice about Alabama.
It isn't hard to see what the real-world implications of that would have been. Nick Saban is arguably the best recruiter in the country, but even he could not compete with that. Again, look at the date... November 21st, 2007... that is before we received commitments from the likes of Terrence Cody, Mark Ingram, Jerrell Harris, Julio Jones and others. And of course, that is long before prospects like Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick, and others came along. Truth be told, had the PLOI became public knowledge then, recruiting would have went straight to hell. We would have missed out on many of the top prospects we have landed the past couple of years, and in all honesty we would probably be not too far above and beyond the Shula-esque levels of top-end talent and qualify depth throughout the roster that Saban found when he arrived at UA in January of 2007. Had that happened, recruiting might now only be beginning to take off with the NCAA cloud now finally in the rearview mirror. Again, plain and simple, we absolutely dodged a missile by keeping this under wraps. The gains of the past two years would have been largely, if not wholly, erased had there been public knowledge of the PLOI from the time it was received. I do not feel it to be an exaggeration that it could be considered one of the most important developments to date in rebuilding the Alabama football program.
As for Coach Saban, this should not be an issue to him, as he has experience dealing with NCAA sanctions in the past. When he took over the Michigan State program in 1995, it was clear that NCAA sanctions were looming, and they came the following year to the tune of four years probation and nine scholarships lost. Likewise, at LSU, in 2002, the program was charged with several academic violations, namely plagiarizing papers, cheating on tests, and pressuring faculty members to make grade changes to keep athletes eligible. Eventually LSU settled out of court with two professors in a settlement of over $100,000, and self-imposed a loss of two scholarships and a reduction in recruiting visits. Nevertheless, Saban weathered both storms with ease, and none of the aforementioned stopped him from rebuilding the Michigan State program, nor did it slow his building of a national powerhouse at LSU. The entire textbook scandal was very frustrating at UA, but there is no real reason to believe that any of its fallout will effect Saban's rebuilding of the Crimson Tide.
The good news is that all of this is now in the rearview mirror. It could have been a disaster, but we largely avoided it. Now we are faced with the decision over whether or not to appeal the penalties, but it's really all a moot point. Even if we do choose to appeal, the likelihood of success is likely going to be quite low, and again none of the penalties affected us moving forward, so in all actuality there is little to actually "win" back on appeal. Reducing the length of the probation period would be nice, to be sure, as would re-claiming the vacated wins, but again the entire notion of vacated wins is bogus fiction from the outset, and even if the length of the probation period is reduced the repeat offender window is going to run for the next five years regardless. Again, there is little to "win" back even if we do appeal, so that is largely a moot point one way or the other.
Besides, it's all in the past now. At the risk of sounding dismissive over the textbook scandal, when all is said and done, the eleven-year stretch from 1997-2007 will be remembered as worst period in the history of Alabama football. You can just throw "textbooks" right into the trash heap with Dubose, Debbiegate, Fran's fleeing, Arety's Angels, Club Shula and all of the rest of the historical remnants of that awful era. It is what it is, and thankfully it is now over. The only positive likely to withstand the test of time from that entire era will be the arrival of Nick Saban, and the rest will be painfully forgotten. Fine. Again, it's all over with now, let's just move on to the much brighter future that lays ahead.
The real issue, of course, is moving forward. The one unmistakable reality emerging from this scandal is that our run-ins with the NCAA must stop right now, period. Oh sure, we can all sob poetically about how absurd many of the NCAA rules are, and how unequal the enforcement is, but that is all beside the point. Yes much of the NCAA's rules make little logical sense, and the underlying basis for many of them is often times far from rational. Furthermore, selective enforcement is a major issue, both within the NCAA and within the compliance departments of the member institutions. Nevertheless, the NCAA is a voluntary association, and when you agree to join you agree to play by the rules, warts and all. This is not the proper time or the proper place to debate the merits of particular NCAA rules, absurd as some of them may be. Rather, this is the time and the place where UA must definitively and emphatically demand and execute complete and total enforcement of the NCAA's rules at all times, regardless of how ridiculous we may think some of those rules are. Again, this is not the time to debate, this is the time to comply.
Of course, talking about compliance is easy, but actually executing it is much tougher. So exactly what does UA need to do?
With regard to this particular scandal, many people have pointed to the likes of Jon Dever, that is key people at the center of the textbook scandal who were presumably in the best position possible to have stopped such an issue from developing before it ever really started in the first place. Many have bemoaned the fact that these individuals have only received as punishment a public reprimand and a temporary pay freeze. Of course, though, it's a bit simplistic to evaluate these individuals solely on what they did or did not do in the textbook case. Take Dever for example. Perhaps he could and should have done more in regard to the textbook situation, but on the other hand, as the assistant director of Athletic Student Services, clearly Dever deserves a great deal of credit for helping put the Tide's athletes in reaching such high levels of academic achievement in their time at the Capstone. Putting it all together, again, it's just not all that simple. Besides, it would be a folly for us to try to only re-live the textbook situation and punish accordingly. After all, the textbook distribution system has since been fixed, and it will not be a problem moving forward. The problems moving forward will come from somewhere, some unknown area, but I think you can rest assured that they will not be coming from the textbook distribution system. As a result, moving forward, you really cannot become textbook-centric. If all we do in the aftermath of the textbook scandal is to fix what was wrong with the textbook distribution system, we have done little more than set ourselves up for failure further on down the road.
To address the bigger picture, many are now adamantly calling for Athletics Director Mal Moore to resign or be dismissed. I suppose that's fine and dandy for those needing to point their pitchforks towards someone, but there's one problem with that line of demands... for all intents and purposes, Mal Moore really isn't AD anymore. At this point, Mal is really just a figurehead. Oh sure he may be the one releasing official statements and doing press conferences, but in reality Mal is essentially just a glorified fundraiser at this point. He works with Ronny Robertson, Associate AD for Development, on fundraising initiatives, but that is about it, aside from having a few general oversight responsibilities.
In reality, official titles notwithstanding, the real AD now is Dave Hart. We officially turned over the keys to him this past February, the day after National Signing Day, and Hart is now in charge of day-to-day operations. Now, all members of the executive staff, including compliance, report directly to Hart. To be sure, Hart is technically still underneath Mal in the chain of command, but again Mal is just there for general fundraising and a little oversight, he's not really actively involved in anything other than trying to get people to write checks out to "The University of Alabama." People can call for Mal's head all they want, but again he is not the man in charge any longer. You may as well be begging George W. Bush for a presidential pardon. The times have changed, and you are simply barking up the wrong tree. And if you are looking to call for the AD's head, keep in mind that Hart's hands are clean with regard to the textbook scandal... Hart didn't arrive until July of 2008.
So, moving forward, for all intents and purposes, our Athletics Director is Dave Hart. And that may or may not be a good thing. Hart recently left Florida State after spending several years as the Seminoles AD. FSU President T.K. Wetherell didn't see eye-to-eye on many things, so Hart decided to hit the road. Of course, one has to mention the fact that the FSU academics scandal occurred during Hart's tenure, and no reasonable Alabama fan can look at that and not feel at least somewhat unnerved. But again, though, it's not necessarily all that simple. The academics scandal is a clear concern and a definite blotch on Hart's resume. On the other hand, perhaps Hart did all that he could, and furthermore, it's probably nothing short of a minor miracle that FSU didn't get themselves in serious trouble for some other matter all of the years that Hart was at FSU simply because Bobby Bowden was largely willing to accept any thug or character case he could find, so long as the raw talent was there. Moreover, for what it's worth, Wetherell himself did just decide to step down in his own right, so perhaps he was the problem all along.
At this point, again, we just do not know what the Hart regime will entail, good or bad. It is entirely too early to tell, and we simply do not have enough information at our disposal to form an opinion with any degree of confidence. What we do know that is the Dave Hart is effectively the one in charge now, and we will either sink or swim under his leadership in the athletic department. And again, that may or may not be a good thing. Only time will tell.
All told, I think it is relatively clear at this stage of the game that there does need to be some restructuring and turnover within the athletic department. With that in mind, however, I feel confident in saying that no one in the general public, or the traditional media, has anywhere near the knowledge needed to form any legitimate opinion on who needs to go and precisely what needs to be done. I try to follow the inner workings of the athletic department as closely as possible, but even I am not going to pretend for one second that I really know what needs to be done. The positive news is that with Dr. Whitt and Nick Saban leading the way -- and I'm sure that they will do just that -- getting the power needed to bring change about will not be an issue.
At the end of the day, I do not have all of the answers, and to be sure I do not even have some of the answers. Nor does anyone else who may proclaim to. No one really knows exactly what needs to be done, but the underlying point remains clear: Our run-ins with the NCAA have to stop right now, period. It does not matter exactly how we achieve that goal, it only matters that we successfully get the job done, and that we stay scandal-free for many, many years to come. Unfortunately, if we cannot do that...