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Head Coach Responsibility A Potential Gamechanger

It was the best of times and the worst of times. About the same time that Sports Illustrated was publishing a story about the NCAA enforcement staff’s turnover and low morale, an entirely different scene was playing out in a hotel ballroom in Orlando. There a panel which included Tom Hosty of that same NCAA enforcement staff, Vanderbilt athletic director and Infractions Appeals Committee member David Williams, Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer, along with some respected names in the compliance community discussed the NCAA’s new head coach responsibility bylaws and penalties at the National Association for Athletics Compliance (NAAC) convention.

Head coach responsibility seems to have slipped under the radar with all the other changes in enforcement, both negative (Miami scandal and staff turnover) and positive (expanded Committee on Infractions and stiffer penalty matrix). What the new rule does is to presume that a head coach is responsible for violations committed by his direct and indirect reports. That presumption can be rebutted by proving two things: that the head coach monitored his program and promoted an atmosphere of compliance. This is backed by harsh penalties. An assistant committing a Level I violation can cause the head coach to be suspended for up to a year, half a season for a Level II violation.

The response by coaches is eye-opening. Meyer said for the first time, there was real fear of the NCAA’s bylaws and penalties. Head coaches are scrambling to establish monitoring and control procedures. Daily meetings of a basketball staff might have been informal affairs in the past, but now have agendas, minutes, and attendance. Just as the debate about presidential involvement in athletics is heating up, an NCAA best practices document urges head coaches to have regular, ongoing, direct access to the university president to facilitate communicate about issues both up and down the chain of command.

One of the big themes of the session was the personal nature of this change. It seems to have driven home the message that compliance was everyone’s responsibility in a way that nothing else before it did with coaches. Although Meyer pointed out correctly that some coaches will not feel the urgency until a big name head coach at a premier program suffers a significant penalty.

Hopefully this will be the catalyst for an NCAA enforcement renaissance. To replace the talented people that left and reestablish the authority of the staff, the NCAA needs to give that staff the proper tools to get the job done. The message from the membership and coaches themselves is that the presumption of head coach responsibility is one of the most powerful tools the NCAA has created in recent years. It should give new confidence to the enforcement staff that when they open an investigation that includes a superstar head coach, the coach will have to put in the effort to clear his name, rather than the other way around.

One downside is that as the enforcement staff looks to rebuild, the head coach responsibility changes may have fueled their primary competitor for talent: the NCAA’s own members. Panel member Brad Bertani of Ohio State is an excellent example. Bertani is “embedded” in the Ohio State football office, working alongside the coaches, assisting with some of these head coach control issues (given the nature of Ohio State’s recent major infractions case, it’s no surprise they have a head start in this area). But while Bertani works alongside the football staff, he is not a member of it. He reports to the compliance office, has frequent meetings with the rest of the compliance staff, and is part of a chain of command at OSU that leads up to the university’s Chief Compliance Officer.

A couple universities are doing something similar (Rachel Newman-Baker’s assignment at Kentucky has the same feel), but expect this trend to accelerate over the next couple of years. Head coaches must be involved, the panel made it clear that simply hiring someone to do this will not help a coach rebut the presumption of responsibility. But having a dedicated person for a football or basketball staff with a focus on compliance issues can help with the documentation, paperwork, and administrative tasks, while providing the other benefits of having an administrator dedicated to one sport.

But as Bertani pointed out during the panel, this is not a job for a fresh-faced new compliance professional coming off grad school and a couple of internships. The right person for this job has a strong personality, a track record of unquestioned integrity, and vast experience dealing with coaches. Making this an entry-level job is a disaster waiting to happen, when someone eager to please and fighting to establish a foothold in the field stops doing the monitoring and questioning that the position was designed to facilitate. Both universities and the NCAA will be targeting the same group of tough, experienced compliance professionals, and there simply are not enough to go around at the moment.

In a period of massive changes that are still in flux or were successfully pushed back by the membership, this is one area where it appears the change is already having the desired effect. That appearance though is nothing more until the COI lays down the law with this new bylaw. The sooner that happens after August 1, 2013, the more likely that head coach responsibility will be a successful launchpad for a revamped and reenergized NCAA enforcement program.

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