The Birmingham News
STEVE KIRK and STEVE IRVINE
News staff writers
TUSCALOOSA An exhaustive investigation into the University of Alabama football program that began 2½ years ago ended Tuesday when the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee denied UA's request to reduce severe sanctions against the school.
Committee chairman Terry Don Phillips cited a "pattern of abuse by boosters that has to be dealt with," and upheld penalties that include postseason bans this season and next and 21 scholarship reductions over three years.
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The UA defense team does not plan any future legal action.
Phillips echoed the Feb. 1 statement of NCAA Infractions Committee chairman Thomas Yeager that without the diligent actions of UA's compliance department, the illegal cash payments by Tide boosters to aid in recruiting would have led to the second NCAA "death penalty" in history. That would have shut down the football program.
"We found the Committee on Infractions was very deliberate in how it mitigated the university's cooperation against heavier penalties that most likely would have meant the death penalty," Phillips said.
Several UA officials released statements Tuesday expressing their disappointment, but the strongest reaction came from attorney Robert Cunningham Jr. of Mobile, who was hired to assist UA in its appeal.
"In the history of the NCAA, no member institution has ever received a ban on postseason play in the absence of institutional culpability," Cunningham said, pointing to UA's case as primarily involving boosters Logan Young, Wendell Smith and Ray Keller.
Tide head football coach Dennis Franchione, who wasn't at the school when the violations occurred, said he refuses to think about things he cannot control such as the NCAA.
"Talking about those guys is a waste of time and energy," Franchione said. "... I've got enough to do in my 24 hours a day."
Mike DuBose, who was coach when most of the violations occurred, said Tuesday that "I will not now or ever again talk about anything that happened at Alabama."
Young said he was "shocked by some of the things the NCAA said today" and declined further comment. Smith and Keller also declined comment.
Phillips, Clemson University's athletics director, led a four-person committee that heard UA's appeal Aug. 16 in Chicago. It included University of Southern California law professor Noel Ragsdale, Harvard University attorney Allan Ryan and Robert Stein of the American Bar Association.
It could have been worse:
The appeals committee disagreed with all of UA's points:
UA's major contention involved the severity of the penalties, considering that most of the violations focused on illegal booster payments and not on university employees.
The appeals committee disagreed the penalties were too severe. It said the penalties would have been much worse if UA employees hadn't cooperated so thoroughly during an investigation into the recruitment of former players Albert Means of Memphis and Kenny Smith of Stevenson.
"It is to the credit of the university's athletic administration that it actively sought out the facts and thereby saved the university from probably the ultimate penalty," Phillips said.
The appeals committee cited a Nevada-Las Vegas case in 2001 as precedent for harsh penalties against a school that had mostly booster wrongdoing and no lack of institutional control or failure to monitor, such as Alabama.
"The IAC is flatly wrong in this regard," Cunningham said. "The UNLV case included specific findings of failure to monitor. In addition, the (UNLV) violations were `remarkably similar' to previous (UNLV) violations. Despite these differences (with Alabama's case), UNLV received only a one-year ban on postseason competition.
"Rather than support the sanction imposed on Alabama, we believe the UNLV case actually supports a reduction of that sanction, and we are astounded by an error so fundamental and critical to the IAC's decision."
Phillips acknowledged the mistake, but when asked if the misinformation was a basis for the committee's findings, he said: "None whatsoever."
UA said the infractions committee didn't account for the NCAA enforcement staff's failure to alert the school to 1996 violations involving the recruitment of Smith until 2000.
"The enforcement staff failing to provide that information to the university is very regrettable," Phillips said. "In the future that needs to be a mitigating factor."
But, he added, most of the damaging evidence involving Smith was not known in 1996 and came to light in recent interviews. "Beyond that, it's very speculative as to what may have happened or what might not have happened" if UA had been informed sooner.
UA argued that violations found in the Smith recruitment came outside the NCAA's four-year statute of limitations.
But the appeals committee said the charges involved a particular booster, Young, who was named in other violations and as allowed by NCAA rules established a pattern.
UA argued that the NCAA violated its own bylaws by relying upon at least one confidential source.
"The confidential witness was made available to the university, who had the opportunity to interview that particular witness and determine the credibility of that witness," Phillips said, and there "was ample evidence beyond what this particular witness provided that supported the findings."
UA argued it shouldn't be harshly punished as a "repeat violator," considering that its 1999 men's basketball case involving former assistant coach Tyrone Beaman was self-reported by the school and that Beaman's alleged solicitation of recruiting money from Montgomery boosters was identified before rules were broken.
"Again, (the 1999 case) shows the commitment the University of Alabama has toward compliance," Phillips said, "and the Committee on Infractions, based upon institutional cooperation, so noted it."
Still a repeat violator:
But the committee said UA would have been a "repeat violator" nonetheless, because the Smith violations occurred one year after a 1995 football probation relating to former defensive back Antonio Langham. Langham played in several games in 1993 after signing with an agent.
Also Tuesday, the appeals committee upheld findings against former UA assistant football coach Ronnie Cottrell, who argued that evidence concerning his receipt of two loans from Young totaling $56,600 didn't constitute a violation, and that he shouldn't have been cited for failing to make full disclosures to investigators.
Todd Vargo, Cottrell's Birmingham attorney, said the former Crimson Tide recruiting coordinator was "disappointed but not surprised" with the NCAA's latest decision.
"Ronnie's disappointed with the NCAA for failing to provide some relief that we believe is warranted," Vargo said.
UA Athletics Director Mal Moore also voiced displeasure with the day's news. "Our appeal was made on what we considered a very strong case," Moore said in a prepared statement, "and we are disappointed with the result."
News staff writers Mike Bolton and Doug Segrest contributed to this report.