By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 1, 2017
For anyone who was expecting Ole Miss to get hammered by the NCAA this morning, the sound of the words “13 scholarships lost” had the same effect as a tornado siren going off in the middle of a shopping mall: stunned silence, then a rush to find a safe space.
(Editor’s note: It’s 10:52 p.m., Dec. 1, and I’ve read the list of sanctions forwards and backwards and still can’t tell if the NCAA meant to say it was adding 13 lost scholarships to the 11 Ole Miss had already self-imposed, or whether it was including Ole Miss’ 11 in its 13. I’m sure we’ll get some kind of clarity over the next week. For the purposes of this column, though, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 11, 13 or 24.)
If you read the list of charges Ole Miss was hit with – and particularly pay attention to the comments from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions regarding Ole Miss’ two previous brushes with NCAA justice – how the Rebels come out of this down 13 (or 24) scholarships is mind-shaking. It’s also confidence-shaking, in regards to how poorly the NCAA is going about the business of ensuring amateurism doesn’t completely get turned on its head.
Ole Miss was hit with the dreaded charge of Lack of Institutional Control, its acronym “LOIC” so well-known in sports message board circles that its mere utterance can trigger days of hand-wringing, panic and pilgrimages to the Wailing Wall.
Yet today, the NCAA essentially told the rest of college football, “Oh, it isn’t really that bad.”
If ever a school needed to be sent a message, it was – and is – Ole Miss. For years, the school has tried to corner the market on Saturday afternoon parties rather than the football game itself, playing up The Grove while playing down to the opposition. As late as the turn of the 21st Century, Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford was little more than a nice high school stadium, with pass-through bleachers and questionable field drainage hallmarks of the experience.
In short, this was (and is) a bottom-feeder program in the SEC, and should have remained that way, either because reality dictated it, or by NCAA strongarm.
The NCAA had a chance to put the Rebel program in its place – like say, jail – with these sanctions, but for whatever reason, chose to throw Ole Miss a pillow. Show-cause orders mean little in the big picture; most of the coaches who were hit with those today have been so well-paid in recent seasons that they might as well count the next year or two as an extended sabbatical. More importantly, show-cause orders do nothing to alter the future field product itself, and in sports, that’s all that really matters.
The vacation of wins would have meant something had Ole Miss actually won something. The fine of roughly $180,000 is chump change. Boosters were disassociated, but that means something only to them and their families, and really means nothing at all so long as scalpers exist.
The only substantive penalty, therefore, becomes the two-year bowl ban that Ole Miss says it is appealing. And the reason for that, quite simply, is that it’s the only facet of this farce that might actually negatively impact the Rebels’ future competitiveness, as it opens up the rising senior class to zero-penalty transfers.
Alabama can tell you what real penalties feel like. So can Southern Cal. Miami. SMU. And there have been others. Scholarship limitations mean very little until you wake up one day trying to figure out how to win with a Signing Day class of 15 guys, 10 of whom you would have never offered except everyone else was running away from you like you had leprosy.
There’s a reason the SEC has been dominated by the same teams for decades, and it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories generated by the have-nots. It specifically has to do with resources, recruiting bases, fan interest, university commitment and momentum. In the SEC, if you want to eventually be great, you have to first be able to be good, and before that, mediocre. It should be impossible for a school like Ole Miss to have a recruiting class like 2013 without having a full-bore, follow-up inspection from regulators. Sorry boys, that’s just the way it is. For lack of a better way to state it, you just don’t deserve that many nice things at one time when you’re Ole Miss.
The NCAA could have driven that point home if it had wanted to, but for the second time in recent history – North Carolina’s is-it-or-isn’t-it academic fraud case being the other – the organization chose instead to punt. In both cases, NCAA operatives bemoaned the accused institutions for controlling the media message, leaking information and showing a lack of contrition.
But who controls that? The NCAA, that’s who. If the Committee on Infractions was that upset at Ole Miss for planting stories in the media, it could have used the Lack of Institutional Control finding to substantially drive up the number of scholarships lost. It could do the same for the next school down the road, too. And keep doing it until the message is well and truly received.
Unfortunately, the NCAA once again wore well its labels of “arbitrary” and “capricious,” and when confronted with a lawyered-up athletic department backed by deep pockets, wrote a lengthy report full of scathing, but ultimately empty language, and threw in a bunch of minor penalties in order to make the punishment read longer, but not necessarily tougher.
Put simply, given Ole Miss’ history and its brazen actions over the course of this investigation, the NCAA could have saved itself a lot of paper and simply written “40 lost scholarships” on a napkin and slid it across the table. Because that’s where the conversation should have both started and ended. Let Hugh Freeze coach through that if he wanted to. By the end of four years he would have been lucky to win any game at all.
What we have instead is not just a lack of institutional control, but also a lack of institutional fear. If the maximum penalty is a dozen or so scholarships and a few vacated games, where’s the harm? Why not take the risk? You don’t think someone at, say, Purdue or Kansas isn’t sitting at their desk tonight with a calculator running the numbers?
The only thing left to fear in regards to NCAA compliance is the unpredictability of the NCAA itself. Perhaps the next school going before the Committee on Infractions will get hammered as thin as phyllo dough. But if the North Carolina and Ole Miss cases are any indication, the only thing schools really have to fear … is losing.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN