Letting the Culprit Go

The NCAA's failure to punish departing coaches amid major violations

Based on documents released by the school, the NCAA has found that the Oregon football program between 2008 and 2011 committed major violations, mostly through its connection to recruiting services provided by Will Lyles.  

“There were underlying major violations coupled with failure to monitor violations involving the head coach (2009 through 2011) and the athletics department (2008-2011),” NCAA enforcement staff wrote in a recent report.

Now I have no inside information here, and don’t know what exactly will come of these transgressions, but it’s hard to ignore the timing of these findings when considered in light of former head coach Chip Kelly’s recent exodus to the NFL. Whether the peculiar timing of Kelly’s departure was merely coincidental or a strategic move away from a sinking ship, what’s clear is that he got out at just the right time, the kind of fortune oddly similar to what former USC head coach Pete Carroll experienced in 2009 when he bolted for the pros.

Of course, most know that USC football is currently on probation, but many forget that Carroll managed to get out of LA just before any of the sanctions were handed down, sanctions that were issued as the result of rules broken under Carroll’s less-than-watchful eye.

Again, I don’t have inside information here; I don’t know why Pete Carroll left for Seattle when he did, or if Kelly got out of Oregon because he saw the rocky road ahead. And, really, I don’t even care. What I do know, though, is that due to probation, USC football is struggling in a big way, and that for similar reasons Oregon football is likely soon to follow. What I also know is that despite Carroll’s hand in USC’s past violations, he got out of town completely unscathed, no worse for the wear, and that Kelly has managed to escape his collegiate post with much the same luck.

It seems obvious that these coaches should in some way be held responsible for the cheating they either condoned or failed to prevent. They, however, are not.

Here’s what I’d ordinarily consider obvious logic: If one is the leader or top dog overseeing an athletic program, business or any other official organization, and under their watch certain violations are committed, that person should not be able to jump ship to avoid punishment or penalty, but rather should be held responsible for their role in said offenses. Here’s the real kicker, though: Carroll and Kelly didn’t just escape penalty for the violations they allowed or committed, one could argue they actually profited from them.

Think about it this way: Had Carroll moved to suspend Reggie Bush for the benefits he received, USC’s product on the field would have most likely suffered in a big way, and with fewer wins and accomplishments to his name, who knows if Carroll still would have landed the job in Seattle. And though it is mostly conjecture at this point, it appears Kelly and Oregon benefited hugely from the recruiting services provided by Lyles and others. Again, had Kelly been forced to play with less talent and, as a result, won fewer games, he may never have been under consideration for the job he now has with the Eagles. In each of the aforementioned cases, then, one could claim that both coaches cheated in an effort to win and build impressive resumes, and then parlayed those resumes into bigger and better jobs just in the nick of time, before they could be held accountable for the transgressions they allowed/committed.

But instead of punishing the real violators on their way out the door (admittedly, this can be hard/complicated to do), the NCAA has historically chosen to focus its attention on penalizing the programs, where the residual damage can be costly. Here, major money is lost, players completely uninvolved in the past incidents are penalized, and new, often innocent, coaches are undermined. I’m not suggesting the institutions or programs that foster these specific violations should go undisciplined, but that their leaders should be held accountable as well and, most importantly, prevented from profiting off of the dishonest culture they've created.