Thursday, May 27, 2010
Self-Flagellation, Michigan Style
It used to be that the biggest thing the University of Michigan football program worried about was whether or not it had enough firepower to compete for a national title. Now its chief concern is whether it can effectively stay one step ahead of the law.
After the Detroit Free Press last fall published a series of stories about various potential NCAA infractions within the Michigan football program under new head coach Rich Rodriguez, followed by the usual official but vague denials and the requisite teeth gnashing by the Michigan faithful, it turns out that the smoke really was coming from a fire blazing inside the program.
After conducting its own investigation, the University of Michigan slapped its own self on the wrist with a bunch of mostly meaningless “sanctions” as a way of wiping away the mess that Rodriguez visited upon its football program starting about 20 minutes after he got the job in December, 2007.
The story started when some of Rodriguez’s own players outed him and his staff for a variety of matters including having them practice in excess of NCAA imposed time limits. Once the NCAA got done with its preliminary investigation, it determined that Rodriguez exceeded the number of authorized coaches by 5, permitted staff members to monitor and conduct supposedly voluntary summer workouts, and had a graduate assistant coach lie to NCAA investigators about his role. The NCAA also accused Rodriguez of not monitoring his program closely enough and for essentially bullying the university’s compliance staff into not nosing around.
At the time the university promised to investigate but mostly downplayed the seriousness of the inquiry despite recent violations by its basketball program that threatened to turn the football allegations into a loss-of-institutional-control case. Rodriguez, ever the smarmy ne’er do well, admitted to nothing and said that hypothetically if violations occurred then it was all just one big misunderstanding.
Some misunderstanding. Fulfilling the prophecy of its knee-jerk reaction to the allegations in the first place, the university admitted that indeed infractions occurred, several in fact, but it’s all pretty minor stuff. Now a cynic might suggest that Michigan is downplaying the seriousness of this all because it doesn’t want to be labeled a repeat offender by the NCAA. But why be cynical? Let’s just give the big fat benefit of the doubt and let the facts do most of the talking.
At the very least, the investigation Michigan conducted revealed some sobering realities. Michigan has never had any allegations in the 100+ years of its program, that is until Rodriguez arrived. Moreover, it’s not as if Michigan admitted only to one or two items. There were multiple violations on a whole host of issues ranging from improper conduct of assistant coaches to poor recordkeeping to an internal compliance department that was subservient to the football program to an assistant who lied during the investigation. For all that to surface in the less than two years under Rodriguez doesn’t speak well for anyone associated with the university no matter how minor you think the violations might be.
As a result, Michigan self-imposed a variety of very minor penalties such as cutting practice time, cutting the number of assistant coaches and putting itself on probation. What exactly probation means isn’t quite clear because the university didn’t bother to explain it any better than that. Let’s just say that they didn’t vow to keep themselves out of any bowl games or cut scholarships or do any other kinds of acts that are usually the hallmarks of substantive probation.
The problem with the university’s response is that they are so busy detailing the differences between each cattail that they don’t realize they are in the middle of a swamp that Rodriguez brought to them. There’s a lot of “everybody else does it” to their defense even as they disclaim any attempt to justify their actions on the basis of other programs’ alleged violations.
They talk about how Rodriguez has increased the number of so-called quality control coaches (essentially paid go-fers) from what is was under Lloyd Carr but then say, hey, every team has lots of them. Then conveniently buried in a footnote is an acknowledgement that virtually none of these quality control types have had the requisite training or certifications they needed to be engaged in the activities they supposedly were responsible for.
It begs the question, what were they really doing? The university doesn’t address this point despite how central that really is to the underlying allegations that these go-fers were essentially spies for Rodriguez and the rest of his staff when NCAA rules won’t allow them to be around, such as during supposedly voluntary summer workouts or extra film sessions.
Something that’s bound to get the notice of NCAA investigators reading the university’s response is how quickly the university was willing to throw its own compliance staff under the bus in favor of trying to preserve Rodriguez’s credibility, a nearly impossible task at this point. The university acknowledges that its compliance staff asked the right questions of Rodriguez when it inquired about what exactly these quality control coaches were supposedly doing and why certain forms weren’t getting filled out but then blames that same quality control staff for not following up when Rodriguez and his staff stonewalled them for answers. That’s like blaming an assault victim because the 911 operator forgot to dispatch his call to the police.
The university’s considered decision to blame the compliance staff and not Rodriguez is all part of the larger defense of Rodriguez. Specifically the university goes to great lengths to deny any allegations that Rodriguez failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program despite the numerous violations it admits to.
The university attempts to reconcile the conflict between the numerous violations and their belief that they nonetheless don’t have a culture of non-compliance by essentially admitting that instead they merely have a culture of stupidity. They suggest that the NCAA rules are just so gosh darn hard to understand sometimes and that Rodriguez is trying, he really is.
I’d say the university is completely tone deaf both in its official response and in what it said during its recent press conference as to the seriousness of the allegations but they are abject apologists compared to Rodriguez. Forced by the NCAA to issue his own response to the allegations made against him, Rodriguez goes to great lengths to put it all into his version of context. And that version? Compliance isn’t a one person job. A lot of people didn’t do their jobs and poor Richard was just one cog in that wheel of misfortune.
Rodriguez tries to distance himself from most of what occurred by saying that heck he didn’t even know that people weren’t counting training hours correctly and gosh he had no idea that his staff wasn’t responding to the university’s compliance staff or geez he was completely unaware that the NCAA had a rule about that, go figure.
He essentially paints himself as a well-intentioned babe in the Michigan woods caught wholly unaware by all the intricacies of the NCAA’s reach. That would have all played better if Rodriguez was a first-time coach. He wasn’t and spent much of the introduction to his response trumpeting his Division I experience, pre-Michigan.
For all of that the university did issue Rodriguez a written reprimand, a copy of which wasn’t included in the university’s response. I assume, however, that as Dean Wormer would say, this isn’t going to look good on his permanent record.
The university’s athletic director, David Branden, was asked at a press conference recently whether Rodriguez would be terminated. Branden acknowledged that violation of NCAA rules could be grounds for termination but said that in this case it wasn’t warranted because the infractions, essentially, weren’t all that serious.
There’s probably some justification to that position. Yet a more compelling case can be made the other way. In his two years at Michigan all Rodriguez has done on the field is shame the program. Now he’s shamed it off the field as well. I understand trying to make something work. But eventually Michigan will tire of trying to force this square peg into a round hole and Rodriguez will be gone, off to somewhere that should be more used to NCAA violations. Maybe they’re all just waiting for the USC job to open up again.