AUBURN – Auburn basketball was put on NCAA probation for four years Friday but avoided a 2021-22 postseason ban. The light sanctions handed down by the NCAA Committee on Infractions were accepted by Auburn with open arms, ending a four-year process that started when former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with accepting $ 91,500 in bribe payments.
Coach Bruce Pearl will be suspended the next two games. After the ruling, the committee panel’s chief hearing officer, Vince Nicastro, held a news conference. Here are the key takeaways as the investigation came to a close.
Why are scholarship reductions a former coach’s penalty?
Friday’s report from the Committee on Infractions made it clear that the crime was an assistant coach taking advantage of athletes – Person was sentenced to community service and two years of probation after an indictment by a federal jury – but a coach’s actions are now met with a player’s penalty.
Over the next four years, Auburn loses two scholarships. (That’s two total, not two per year.) Scholarships, obviously, are a way for athletes to have their college education paid for while the university profits off their athletic talent.
Reducing scholarships doesn’t punish the (former) coach who committed the violation; it punishes athletes. It’s a minor penalty that shouldn’t affect Auburn much as a program, but two athletes out there won’t have a college scholarship now.
Here’s what Nicastro said when asked about the philosophy of such a penalty: “It’s a penalty that has been used in a very standard way across cases like this and other similar cases for a long time. And that is a penalty that has been provided to the committee by the membership (NCAA schools) as one of those that could be meaningful in helping to provide appropriate consequences for schools that are rules violators. But again, it’s just one of the tools in the toolbox that the membership has provided the committee and has been used, obviously, a fair amount over the years. “
Nicastro on limiting Auburn postseason ban to one year
Nicastro was asked about the committee’s reasoning for allowing Auburn to escape the investigation with only a self-imposed postseason ban last year – no further NCAA Tournament consequences. In a noted 2018 report from Condoleezza Rice and the College Basketball Commission, one of the recommendations for the NCAA was to impose harsher penalties for programs and individuals that violate rules. The commission recommended that serious offenders could be subjected to a five-year postseason ban.
Nicastro was vague in his response, but he acknowledged a continuing NCAA emphasis: The institution’s enforcers do not think in terms of precedent when investigating and determining penalties for a violation.
“There are a number of these cases that have been resolved, a number that are in a different process, pending resolution, and they’re all very different,” Nicastro said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work on a few of these cases, and again, at face value, they may seem to have similar fact patterns. But each of them are very distinctive – have different sets of evidence and are very nuanced. And in this case, based on all the evidence that the panel reviewed, which was significant, we just felt with our judgment that the penalties that we prescribed were appropriate, or the penalties that were self-imposed were acceptable to us. “
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Whether intentional or not, that’s a strategic win for Auburn, which likely wasn’t going to make the NCAA Tournament last season anyway. The Tigers were without star Sharife Cooper for some of the season during a review of his NCAA eligibility. This year the Tigers (7-1) have their highest-ranked recruit (Jabari Smith, a consensus top-five draft pick) and seem poised to make a run in March.
Bruce Pearl’s track record is a factor
Nicastro confirmed that Pearl’s history of NCAA violations played a role in the committee’s investigation. Pearl previously had a three-year show cause penalty resulting from violations when he was the coach at Tennessee.
“That’s cited as an aggravating factor and factored into the penalty for Coach Pearl,” Nicastro said.
Pearl’s two-game suspension during nonconference play is a minor punishment for the program, much like the scholarship reductions. This is more noteworthy because if Auburn ever gets into a similar situation with the NCAA, it’s now clear that a longer résumé of prior violations might lead to harsher consequences in the future.
Flow of money
Auburn was fined $ 5,000 plus 3% of the men’s basketball budget as part of its sanctions, but Nicastro was unsure which fiscal year that 3% applies to.
“I think it’s the current year,” he said. “The NCAA staff will work with the school on determining the exact amount based on the information that they exchange.”