By Cecil Hurt
Preparations are complete. The long practice sessions and strategy meetings are done. A daunting task remains.
No, the University of Alabama football team has not suddenly shot at fast-forward speed through the remainder of two-a-days and landed in Norman, Okla. But it may feel that way for the UA appeals team.
Alabama’s legal team will appear before the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee in Chicago on Friday, arguing that the penalties imposed on the Crimson Tide football program — particularly the ban on postseason play and the extra scholarship and recruiting cuts above those self-imposed by UA — are inappropriate.
There will be a large contingent representing UA, including acting president Barry Mason, former president Andrew Sorensen, athletics director Mal Moore and five attorneys — Stan Murphy and Glenn Powell of the UA Office of Counsel, "outside" attorney Robert (Bobo) Cunningham of the Mobile firm of Cunningham Bounds, Rich Hilliard of Ice Miller and Charles Cooper of the prestigious Washington, D.C., firm of Cooper & Kirk.
The Committee on Infractions, which seems deeply invested in upholding the penalties in this case, will be represented by Jerry Parkinson, dean of the University of Wyoming law school. Parkinson did not vote on the UA penalties, but sat on the case as the appeals coordinator. Normally, the other members of the Committee on Infractions do not appear, although it is not prohibited. Some sources feel that there is a possibility that COI Chairman Thomas Yeager will be in attendance, which would be interesting indeed.
It doesn’t take more than a glance at the legal roster to realize that this will not be a simple, single-issue appeal. Alabama has raised several points, ranging from the consistency (or lack thereof) of the NCAA penalty structure to the use of "confidential source" testimony in the case.
Even if it were prudent to predict what an NCAA committee will do in any given case — which it is not — it is still too early in the process to guess what the eventual outcome will be. In other words, Alabama might get relief, or it might not.
It is, however, possible to predict some things that will NOT happen as a result of the Appeals Committee hearing.
First, the Appeals Committee will not write an opinion that berates or embarrasses the Infractions Committee, or directly contradicts the February 1 ruling. There will be no strong language about any mistakes the COI committed, even if such mistakes exist. There will be no demand for an apology from Yeager. Zealous Alabama fans who cling to the notion that this hearing will result in sweeping repudiation of the COI can forget it.
NCAA committees simply do not operate in that fashion, even in low-profile cases. The Alabama case is a lot of things, but it is certainly not a low-profile case. At the end of the day, UA will still be guilty of major violations — many of which it has acknowledged — and will have been penalized.
The odd notion among some media members that Alabama officials maintain that the institution "did not do anything" misses the point of the appeal entirely. Alabama is not arguing innocence, or retrying the Infractions case in front of a different jury. It is questioning whether the school had a fair chance to defend itself from the charges, and whether its cooperation and institutional control (as determined by the COI itself) were properly considered in the penalty phase.
At best, the Appeals Committee will look for a way to ease the blow if — and that is a big "if" — it does make any findings of error by the COI. The committee members may say that the penalty does not fit the crime; they will not say that there was no crime in the first place.
There will also be no startling revelation that some nefarious outside agent was responsible for Alabama’s problems with the NCAA. Most responsible Alabama fans already understand this, but it bears repeating. There are still a few conspiracy theorists who are convinced that Tennessee, or the Southeastern Conference office, or some other culprit, "brought the NCAA" to Alabama.
Wrong. I cannot state it any more simply. The fact is this — if the University of Tennessee did not exist, there would still have been a major NCAA investigation at Alabama. If Roy Kramer had thrown his body across the southbound lanes of I-65 as it crosses from Indiana into Kentucky, the NCAA would still have found a way to get from Indianapolis to Tuscaloosa.
Did some of Alabama’s rivals contribute information to the investigation? Yes. Did some also directly or indirectly see that such information was used to maximum effect by the media? Yes. Did the Southeastern Conference office act with unbroken good faith towards Alabama once the investigation had started? No. Did the Committee on Infractions weigh the case in a vacuum? No.
But does any of that make "them" — however you define "them" — "responsible" for Alabama’s NCAA troubles? No, and the appeal — or, more specifically, the documents released by UA in the days after the appeal hearing — will make that point clear. For better or worse, UA and its fans and administrators will face a period of sobering introspection — and, quite possibly, recrimination — in the coming weeks.
That does not invalidate the appeal issues. Alabama has a case for mitigation, and the Infractions Appeals Committee may well be receptive to that case. But "mitigation" — the reduction of penalties to fair and appropriate levels — is not the same thing as "vindication." And the expectation level will have to be set accordingly.
Cecil Hurt is sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org