KNOXVILLE — It’s finally over.
The 28-month saga of the NCAA and the University of Tennessee’s football and men’s basketball programs ended Wednesday afternoon when the NCAA Committee on Infractions issued its final report, adopted UT’s self-imposed penalties with no additional sanctions and slapped the Volunteers’ former basketball coaching staff with show-cause letters.
The school will not appeal the Committee on Infractions’ ruling.
“We appreciate the opportunity to close this chapter with the committee’s announcement today, moving forward with no major violations in our football program and no additional penalties from the NCAA,” interim Athletic Director Joan Cronan said in a UT release. “The institution cooperated fully with the NCAA, and we have a strong culture of compliance. A bright future is on the horizon for Tennessee athletics.”
The NCAA did put UT on two years’ probation, though the school self-imposed a two-year probationary period in the response it sent to the NCAA in May. The most severe punishment landed on Bruce Pearl, the Vols’ former basketball coach, and his former assistants Tony Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay.
During an interview on June 14, 2010, Pearl lied to NCAA investigators about the location of a photo showing him and Aaron Craft, then a junior in high school and now a sophomore at Ohio State, at a barbecue at Pearl’s home in September 2008.
Jones, Forbes and Shay also denied knowledge of the photo to investigators and discussed the case with one another when instructed not to do so. Pearl called Craft’s father later that night and, in the Committee on Infractions’ eyes, attempted to persuade him to mislead investigators as well.
“The cooperation the institution demonstrated in this case is in stark contrast to the conduct and failures of the former men’s basketball coaching staff,” the NCAA’s report states.
The Committee on Infractions handed Pearl a three-year show-cause letter, and each assistant received one-year show-cause penalties. They are banned from any recruiting during those terms, and any school wishing to hire them must file a report to the Committee on Infractions either adopting the restrictions or requesting an appearance before the committee to contest them.
“I think it seems clear from the report that if an individual intentionally violates rules and is dishonest when asked about them, then the individual will be held accountable,” Committee on Infractions Vice Chairman Britton Banowsky said during a conference call announcing the report’s release. “The committee was very serious about these deliberations.”
In the Notice of Allegations it sent to UT in February, the NCAA labeled Pearl and Jones’ off-campus contact with a high school junior last September as a major infraction, but the violation of the so-called “bump” rule — coaches are not allowed to accidentally “bump” into recruits before they're seniors — was disregarded in the final report. The alleged incident happened four days after a teary Pearl confessed at a news conference to lying to the NCAA.
UT had supported Pearl throughout the season, but in firing Pearl and his staff in March, it cited that incident with the high school junior as part of the cumulative reasoning behind the move.
“It was disputed in the case,” Banowsky said. “Most of the allegations are actually admitted in the case and agreed to by all parties. This was disputed and it was disputed as a fact. At the end of the analysis, there was simply insufficient evidence to support that finding. Had it been found, though, it would likely have been a secondary violation.”
After alleging a pair of major infractions in February, the NCAA “concluded that the evidence was insufficient to support findings of major violations” in the Vols’ football program under former coach Lane Kiffin and his staff, who collectively committed 12 secondary violations related to recruiting between January and October 2009.
“The committee was troubled by the number and nature of the secondary infractions by the football coaching staff during its one-year tenure at the institution,” the report states. “Some of the violations received nationwide publicity and brought the football program into public controversy. This is not a record of which to be proud. Nevertheless, because the violations individually were secondary and most were isolated, the committee, in the end, determined not to make a finding of a major violation.”
Kiffin, who’s about to begin his second year as head coach at the University of Southern California, had a failure-to-monitor charge levied against him in February, but it was dropped due to insufficient evidence. His staff made 16 impermissible calls in January 2010 to five recruits after the players had reported to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Kiffin also allowed then-football intern Steve Rubio to make in-person off-campus contact with administrators at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after UT director of football operations David Blackburn informed both Kiffin and Rubio that it was illegal.
“I’m very grateful to the NCAA … for a very fair and thorough process,” Kiffin said in a USC statement. “I’m also very grateful that we were able to accurately and fairly present the facts in our case and that no action was taken against us. I’m pleased the NCAA based its decision on the facts and not on perception. I’m also very grateful that the Tennessee football program was cleared of any wrongdoing.”
David Reaves, who was UT’s quarterback coach under Kiffin, gave “approximately $40” to a student who was an intern in the football office and a member of the Orange Pride hostess group for a trip to a high school game in Duncan, S.C., the report said.
Reaves provided the money “with full knowledge” that the intern and another student intern were making the trip to the game, where both interns and a third member of Orange Pride made impermissible in-person off-campus contact with three players UT was recruiting, the report said.
“The issue really was if there was sufficient evidence in front of us at the time to find a failure to monitor and a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance,” Banowsky said. “A majority of the committee at the end of the day determined there was not sufficient evidence to do that. However, as these allegations are becoming more regular in cases that we see, it’s very clear that a head coach is held responsible and accountable for what goes on in their program.”
Kiffin and his staff, Pearl and his staff and former athletic director Mike Hamilton are no longer employed at UT, though Banowsky said that didn’t play into the committee’s thinking “very much at all.” How the school handled the violations and its cooperation with the NCAA, though, might have been the biggest reasons UT avoided stiffer sanctions, he said.
“There were a lot of penalties imposed,” Banowsky said. “In fact, we were really impressed by the way the institution responded in this case.
“It’s not a case involving lack of institutional control or failure to cooperate. On the contrary, the university did a commendable job of addressing the issues once discovered, and they self-imposed a substantial number of penalties, so the committee simply adopted the penalties that the institution had self-imposed and basically concluded that the bulk of the additional and more serious penalties should be directed to the coaches.”
Under second-year football coach Derek Dooley and first-year basketball coach Cuonzo Martin, UT can now move forward. Martin had a clause in his memorandum of understanding that added years to his three-year deal for every year affected by any NCAA penalties, and Dooley said at Southeastern Conference media days last month that UT’s investigation was still impacting recruiting.
“This is our third recruiting class, and we’re still answering the questions,” Dooley said. “The hardest challenge for us has been some of the negative attention that swirled around our program [that] prevented guys from even having an initial interest in coming to look at us. Certainly it provides a tremendous amount of fair ammunition for your opponents.”
Neither Dooley nor Martin will have to answer questions now that UT’s tale is told.
“It is time for the University of Tennessee to put this behind us and look forward,” Chancellor Jimmy Cheek said in a release. “The NCAA commented very positively about our cooperation. We have worked hard to make things right, and that has been accepted by the committee. We have great coaches and great student-athletes, and now it’s time to go out there and compete.”
TENNESSEE’S NCAA PENALTIES
What the NCAA Committee on Infractions imposed Wednesday:
* Public reprimand and censure
* Two years of probation, which officially began Wednesday and ends Aug. 23, 2013. UT must continue to develop and implement an educational program on NCAA legislation to coaches, staff, administrators and athletic department personnel, in addition to filing a report with the Committee on Infractions on Oct. 15 and filing annual compliance reports on June 15 of each year. UT must also inform basketball recruits that the school is on probation, explain why and publicize that information in media guides and other publications.
* Former men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl received a three-year show-cause letter, and former assistants Tony Jones, Steve Forbes and Jason Shay received one-year show-cause penalties.
What UT self-imposed in response sent to NCAA in May:
*Two years of probation that require the school to send annual compliance reports to the NCAA and the Southeastern Conference.
* Current basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and staff are prohibited from providing occasional off-campus meals during the 2011-12 academic year.
* Martin and his staff’s permissible recruiting days for the spring 2011 evaluation period were reduced from 168 to 162.
* A 50 percent reduction, from 10 to five, of the number of football coaches permitted to make telephone calls to recruits on the first day of the November 2011 contact period.
What UT self-imposed against Pearl and his staff:
* Pearl’s total compensation was docked by $1.5 million through the end of June 2015, and UT delayed by two years and seven months the $500,000 retention bonus he was to receive in November of next year.
* The salaries of Jones, Forbes and Shay were reduced by approximately 25 percent.
* Pearl and Forbes were banned from all off-campus recruiting for a year; Jones was banned for nine months and Shay for three months.
* Pearl and his staff were fired in March after a 19-15 season and first-round NCAA tournament exit.
* The basketball staff was limited to just two calls per week to high school seniors during the fall 2010 contact period, when calls are generally unlimited.
* The number of calls Pearl could make to high school seniors was reduced to one a week for 11 months.
* Pearl was prohibited from making recruiting calls for a two-week period from Feb. 24 to March 4, 2010, and Jones was prohibited from making recruiting calls from Jan. 1 to June 15, 2010.
* The basketball staff was prohibited from all recruiting telephone calls for one week in August 2010.
* The basketball staff was prohibited from making any off-campus recruiting contact during one week of September/October 2010 contact period.
* The number of permissible recruiting person-days for 2010-11 academic year was reduced from 130 to 104.
* Jones couldn’t recruit off-campus for a 10-day period during the summer 2010 evaluation period.
* The number of official visits for men’s basketball during the 2010-11 academic year was reduced from 12 to eight, and no official visits were allowed for two home football games last September.
* The basketball staff was required to attend 2010 NCAA Regional Rules Seminar.
What the SEC imposed in December against the basketball program:
* Pearl was suspended for the first eight conference games of last season.
What UT self-imposed in its football program:
* All noncoaching football staff members are permanently banned from recruiting-related travel.
* Football coaches couldn’t recruit players from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from Dec. 18, 2009, through Sept. 1, 2010.
What the SEC imposed against UT’s football program:
* Football coaches could not send any recruiting correspondence, including National Letters of Intent and SEC financial aid agreements, to recruits at St. Thomas Aquinas from Dec. 22, 2009, through Jan. 31, 2010. The staff could only make one call per week to recruits during that period.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...