Could death penalty give NCAA new life?

The “death penalty” sounds as if it should be the ultimate deterrent for major college football, a sanction last lodged against Southern Methodist University more than two decades ago.

SMU was forced to cancel its 1987 season after a string of violations, and the Mustangs are just now recovering.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see that again,” SMU coach June Jones told And some within college football could very well be working under that assumption.

Postseason bans, like the current one levied against USC, are as deep as the NCAA goes these days, although several large programs have been put on probation, lost scholarships, been docked recruiting visits or had records and titles vacated.

But, as Jones suggests, even after a recent string of scandals, the NCAA’s most powerful means of scaring schools straight may be a thing of the past.

“The chances of seeing the death penalty again are small, but I would hate to think that coaches and administrators are sitting in their offices and doing a cost-benefit analysis,” said Illinois State associate professor Chad McEvoy, who has studied the impact of sanctions on athletic programs for years. “If you are a big-time college football or basketball coach who is bending the rules, you’d want to know the negative outcomes if your violations are discovered. The data suggests that repercussions are relatively minor compared to the advantage you might gain from cheating.”

For coaches, the biggest downside of violating NCAA rules recently is the loss of employment. Ohio State’s Jim Tressel resigned under pressure after an investigation showed he concealed information about quarterback Terrelle Pryor and other players allegedly trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos. On Wednesday, the University of North Carolina forced out Butch Davis after the school was told by the NCAA that there had been nine major violations in the football program under his watch.

The repercussions for the schools involved haven’t been nearly as biting.

Miami, Auburn and Alabama all won national championships in the past decade after each was tagged with serious sanctions in years prior. Off the field, booster money and ticket sales tend to rebound, as well. And as other major programs like Oregon are subject to ongoing investigations, the stigma that once tanked a school’s credibility could even be lessened these days.

“This persistent drip, drip, drip of allegations that turn into sanctions may not resonate like it once did,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. “A lot of fans have gone tone deaf. I think there is a belief out there that there are so many programs running afoul of the rules that it’s becoming impossible to regulate. It’s like when you hear of so many doping cases in the Tour de France or a baseball player testing positive for steroids a few years ago. With respect to college athletics, I think there are a lot of fans out there rolling their eyes.”

No matter the punishment, a 2007 study by McEvoy found that programs typically rebounded from NCAA sanctions. His findings, based on 35 teams studied over a 15-year span that ended in 2002, showed that the teams’ winning percentages actually rose, from .547 to .566, in the five years after they were sanctioned. The 10 schools with the most serious sanctions had their combined winning percentage drop only slightly, from .634 to .614.

SMU hasn’t been so lucky.

Before Jones arrived for the 2008 season, the Mustangs — who also decided cancel the 1988 season on their own — had one winning season since the scandal, which involved several players linked to payments by boosters.

But Jones says the death penalty was only partially responsible.

“There were some at the school that didn’t want SMU back in big-time football,” said Jones, who has led the Mustangs to consecutive bowl appearances. “They didn’t help the coaches. SMU was falling behind in academic support to players and they didn’t allow coaches to invite a kid on a recruiting trip unless he had an 1100 on the SAT, even if he was qualified by the NCAA academically. SMU was over-complying and over-adjusting to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Josephine Potuto, a law professor at the University of Nebraska and former member of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, said the reason no other school has joined SMU on the death penalty stage is the mere fact no other football program has so egregiously violated NCAA rules in the years since.

“The kinds of violations were pretty serious at SMU,” Potuto said. “There was a level of institutionalized activity there.”

Those around college athletics also have learned one way to avoid major sanctions: disclosure.

The NCAA, which refused to comment for this story, is an independent organization that has no subpoena power, unlike government authorities. That means NCAA investigators largely rely on the cooperation of schools as they delve into allegations, something the University of Kentucky failed to provide when its men’s basketball program was first investigated in the 1980s.

“Right before I got there, the Kentucky basketball [program] had a scandal that involved some of the former players,” said David Roselle, the former Kentucky president who helped stave off a death penalty by forcing out coach Eddie Sutton and making other changes. “When the NCAA first came in, they all clammed up and the NCAA was not able to prove any wrongdoing. The NCAA went away thinking that Kentucky was guilty and that they would really pursue anything that came after that.”

Roselle, unlike the previous administration, didn’t stonewall when allegations that players had received improper benefits emerged.

“We surprised the NCAA in two ways,” Roselle said. “At our hearing, the NCAA presented a few infractions and we came right out and said we were guilty. I don’t know if anybody had done that before. Second, we surprised them with a list of infractions that they didn’t know about, many a hell of a lot worse than what we were initially accused of. We just came completely clean.”

The Wildcats basketball program suffered a two-year postseason ban and was put on probation for three years.

Roselle’s approach runs opposite of what Georgia Tech officials tried as the NCAA recently investigated comparably minor violations, including one player receiving $312 from a sports agency employee. The NCAA wrote in a July 14 news release that the school “failed to cooperate and protect the integrity of the investigation.” As a result, the NCAA took the rare step of fining the Yellow Jackets $100,000 and accepted four-year probation for the school’s football and men’s basketball team. The football team also was forced to vacate its 2009 ACC championship.

Georgia Tech didn’t have to surrender any of its scholarships, one of the most stinging of all NCAA sanctions.

“That affects the foundation of the program,” said Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, who inherited a football program banned from the postseason and docked scholarships in 1987. “You have to have players to be successful, and when you’re working with fewer players, that directly impacts your program.”

Beamer weathered penalties similar to what Southern Cal dealt with under first-year head coach Lane Kiffin a season ago. In time, Virginia Tech was back in the postseason and hasn’t missed a bowl game in 18 consecutive seasons. Beamer, like many within college athletics, has less of a problem with the sanctions the NCAA levies, and more of an issue with how long it takes to finish an investigation.

“If you break the rules — no matter the level — you should serve the consequences,” Beamer said. “My only wish is that they could do these sorts of investigations faster. I know it takes time for the NCAA staff to investigate allegations, but it seems like it takes so long that the players and coaches who violated the rules are no longer in the program. That leaves the guys left behind to pay the consequences.”

Potuto said such investigations take time, much like the NCAA’s probe into allegations that running back Reggie Bush received improper benefits at USC. The charges went back to 2004; in June 2010, long after Bush had joined the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and coach Pete Carroll had taken the head-coaching job with the Seattle Seahawks, USC received one of the stiffest punishments since the NCAA imposed the death penalty SMU. USC would have to forgo the postseason for two years, lose 30 scholarships over a three-year period and serve five years of probation.

“Even in a criminal investigation, it can take some time to unravel a complicated scheme,” Potuto said. “This is not unique to college sports. I would be very reluctant to speed things up, because you might miss something.”

Schools from five of the six the automatic-qualifying BCS conferences — Auburn (SEC), Ohio State (Big Ten), USC (Pac-12), Oregon (Pac-12), Georgia Tech (ACC) and West Virginia (Big East) — have been subject to NCAA investigations in recent months. There goes the notion that the NCAA picks on only the little guys.

“You hear that the NCAA is afraid to go after the big dogs,” Potuto said. “I don’t think that was the case at all.”

Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager, former head of the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, said the perception that there are more investigations and penalties these days is largely just that: perception.

“You see a lot more activity on social media and a lot more outlets tracking all this stuff,” said Yeager, who is also a former NCAA investigator. “This used to be localized to a state or an individual community. Now, it’s a national story every time. I think it’s been on par with what we’ve seen in previous years.”

Potuto points out just because an investigation is launched doesn’t mean sanctions will necessarily follow. And since colleges now tend to self-report infractions more consciously, there are, in turn, more investigations and less-severe penalties since issues are excised before they balloon.

This all makes for a climate where the NCAA issues less-lethal options.

“When it’s reported by the media, it may sound like a really big case,” Potuto said. “Just because you think something happened doesn’t mean you can prove it.”