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What’s Next for Florida, Phillips, and Muschamp

Late last week, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported that Florida assistant football coach Joker Phillips had resigned due to his involvement in a potential recruiting violation. That was followed up by a report from Yahoo!’s Pat Forde and Charles Robinson with more specifics about the violation.

Two sources told Yahoo Sports that the encounter was described to the NCAA as a violation of the “bump rule” – a scenario in which a coach unexpectedly comes across a recruit and has an impermissible dialogue. Such an instance is considered a secondary violation by the NCAA. However, the violation can graduate to something more serious if the contact between a coach and recruit is premeditated or arranged – such as a dinner or social gathering – in which the coach would be deemed to be purposefully violating the recruiting dead period.

The Yahoo! report included a note that such a violation, even just one, could be elevated to a major violation. But is that really the case?

For starters, in the new enforcement structure, there is no major or secondary violations. There are four levels, starting with the most serious:

  • Level I: Severe Breach of Conduct
  • Level II: Significant Breach of Conduct
  • Level III: Breach of Conduct
  • Level IV: Incidental Infraction

An impermissible recruiting contact, arranged or not, is not an incidental infraction, one which is “technical in nature”. It is also not, in isolation, a Level I severe breach of conduct. One impermissible recruiting contact does not “seriously undermine or threaten the integrity of the NCAA Collegiate Model” or “provide a substantial or extensive recruiting … advantage”. So the debate is between Levels II and III, which under the old system would have been between the least severe types of major violations (often disposed of via summary disposition) and the worst secondary violations.

To be a Level III violation, it must be:

  • Isolated or inadvertent in nature; and
  • Provides only a minimal recruiting, competitive, or other advantage; or provide no more than a minimal impermissible benefit.

A Level III violation becomes a Level II violation when it fails either of parts of that test. One impermissible recruiting contact, if that is the extent of the violation(s), would be isolated and no benefit was provided. So the question is whether contact during a dead period provides more than a minimal recruiting advantage.

One clue can be found in the list of violations which result in head coach suspensions. Included on the list for all sports is the following item:

  • “In-person, off-campus contacts during a dead period (particularly during the NLI signing dead period).”

Violations of the dead period are considered more significant that other Level III recruiting violations. But the list still assumes they are Level III, not rising to Level II where a suspension is handled not by that list but by the Level I/Level II violation penalty matrix. Still, the fact that dead period violations are singled out for the toughest penalty given for a Level III or “secondary” violation means they straddle the line of a Level II.

The new enforcement structure recognizes this by allowing the institution and involved individuals to be charged at different levels in the same case. Given Florida’s vaunted reputation for compliance, that seems a likely outcome. Joker Phillips may be charged with a Level II violation, where the standard penalty in the matrix is a one to two-year show-cause order, but which can range from zero to five years depending on the presence of aggravating or mitigating factors. At the same time, Florida can be charged with a Level III violation, which would carry standard 2-for–1 penalties instead of the more significant reductions associated with a Level II recruiting violation.

The final question is what would happen to Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Level II or III, Muschamp is facing the possibility of a suspension for Phillip’s violation under the head coach responsibility bylaw and list of Level III violations that carry head coach suspensions. To avoid that suspension, Muschamp must show that he monitored his program effectively and that he has promoted an atmosphere of compliance. The quick dismissal and/or resignation of Phillips will likely be cited as an element of the latter.

Pac-12 Breakout Star Derek McCartney.

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