The relatively recent NCAA position of holding head coaches more accountable for violations within their programs is facing a challenge in 2017, with much at stake in the Mississippi football and Louisville basketball infractions cases.
Rick Pitino could find out his NCAA fate as early as this week, as the Cardinals await a Committee on Infractions ruling on the violations that arose from an escort queen’s tell-all book in 2015. Pitino is charged with a lack of head coach control – a Level I violation, most serious in the NCAA’s hierarchy of crimes and misdemeanors – and the school has disputed the charge.
Mississippi has mounted a vigorous defense of coach Hugh Freeze, who is facing the same primary Level I allegation as Pitino. He was charged as one of 21 allegations against the football program in an NCAA Notice of Allegations that the school released publicly for the first time last week, along with its response to that NOA.
Four years ago, the NCAA revised a rule and upped the ante on coach responsibility for what happens on their watch. In 2015-16, the impact of that revision was felt: nine-game suspensions were applied to basketball coaches Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Larry Brown of Southern Methodist for violations within their programs. Despite that precedent, both Louisville and Ole Miss have gone to bat for their head coaches.
“Ole Miss has laid out a position similar to what Louisville laid out with Coach Pitino,” said Stu Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who has represented both coaches and schools in NCAA cases. “Both are able to do that because, in essence, the head coach was not individually charged with substantial misconduct. Pitino was not charged with anything, and Freeze is charged with two Level IIIs [an impermissible recruiting contact and knowledge of an impermissible recruiting video] one of which they are disputing.
“That gives them grounds to be more supportive of their coach. They have to decide: for win-loss, financial and political reasons, is the coach someone the school wants to save? If a school was looking for a reason to get rid of a coach, having him charged with lack of coach control would at least give the school the opportunity to say, ‘We can’t defend you.’ If coach is winning, if coach is popular, if coach is raising revenue, coach gets supported.”
There has been some speculation that a school could open itself up to more significant penalties by choosing not to discipline the head coach and then disputing the lack of program control charge. That’s widely viewed as an incorrect assumption.
“I don’t think you take any risk opposing those [charges],” said another veteran lawyer who requested anonymity because of his involvement in an ongoing NCAA case. “Most schools are going to take those on if they like the guy and want to keep him.
“This is still a developing story with the Committee on Infractions. We don’t have enough case precedent to know how they’re going to respond. Until we get 10 or 15 more cases to establish precedent, it’s still something of an unknown.”
For that reason, a lot of interested parties will be watching how the COI rules on Pitino and Freeze in the coming days and months. Will the precedent established with Boeheim and Larry Brown be strengthened or weakened?
It seems likely that Ole Miss based at least some of its defense for Freeze upon Louisville’s defense of Pitino. Three people with extensive history working such cases described Mississippi’s strategy as good lawyering but ultimately perhaps a lost cause.
“It was a pretty good response, they did a good job making their case,” said one former Committee on Infractions member who read the Ole Miss NOA response. “But they may have gone overboard [in defending Freeze]. It’s a little trickier for schools to defend head coaches the way they used to.”
A significant part of Ole Miss’ defense of Freeze is to pin much of the blame on Barney Farrar, the former assistant athletic director for junior college and high school relations. It is a tactic the former COI member saw many times.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least that they’re trying to shift blame to a staffer,” he said. “One thing that bothered us on the committee was how quick schools were to pin it on rogue assistants, as they always call it. They’re quite willing to send that guy up the river.
“Head-coach legislation makes it hard to do that now. They aren’t doing anything unusual in defending the head coach, but they may come under pretty serious questioning.”
Part of the Ole Miss defense of Freeze appears to be little more than compliance window dressing, in the view of Stu Brown.
“A lot of the things they listed as being part of an atmosphere of compliance were things done by the school’s compliance office,” Brown said. “Traditionally that has not been used in a coach’s defense. Making his staff go to compliance education that is put on by the institution – the volleyball coach, the softball coach, everyone’s doing that.
“Staff witness testimony to the coach’s atmosphere of compliance traditionally has not been sufficient, either, if you look at cases involving [former Connecticut basketball coach] Jim Calhoun, [former Central Florida basketball coach] Donnie Jones and Boeheim.”
Mississippi also is disputing the charge against Freeze because lack of coach control was not part of an earlier Notice of Allegations that was given to the school in January 2016. It was in the amended and enhanced NOA that was delivered some 13 months later.
Ole Miss has argued that the facts of the case have not substantially changed between NOAs as they relate to Freeze. Stu Brown suspects that will be a difficult argument to win before the COI after the NCAA added seven new allegations to the charges against the football program.
“I think that is likely to be pretty easily refuted by the enforcement staff,” he said. “The cumulative weight of the violations was not as much then, and now it is. The old plus the new gets them to a point of saying the coach did not sufficiently monitor.”
And if the head coach did not sufficiently monitor, sanctions will follow. A 30 percent season suspension, which is what Boeheim and Larry Brown faced, would likely put Pitino out of commission for nine games (plus practices) in 2017 and Freeze for three.
“In the school’s calculus, that may be a better price to pay than changing coaches,” Stu Brown said. “Whatever the committee does, it sets the standard going forward.”
A new, softer standard or a reinforced hard line – everyone will be watching to see which direction the NCAA committee on infractions will take.
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