As I’ve been reading CBSsports.com excellent series on cheating in college football, I’ve been researching if the problem is as widespread in college basketball. Over the next week, I’ll examine cheating within NCAA Division I basketball, the impact it’s had on the game, and how the NCAA could, and should proceed, given the increased control it has over basketball programs in comparison to the BCS led football programs.
On November 17th, 2009, Bruce Pearl won his 100th game as the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, the second fastest any UT coach reached that milestone. Suddenly, at a school taken much more seriously for their women’s program, men’s basketball was relevant, and led by stocky, loud, orange suit wearing coach. That same season, Pearl won his second SEC coach of the year award, leading the Volunteers to their first ever win over a #1 ranked team (Kansas) and later bring the Vols to their first ever Elite 8. Many were singing the praises of the former D-II head coach, heralding him as one of the best in the college game.
Little did anyone know that less than a year from that milestone win, the wheels were about to fall off for Pearl and quite possible the men’s basketball program at Tennessee.
Pearl’s downfall began in September of 2010, when he admitted lying to NCAA officials about excessive phone calls to recruits. Tennessee, and the SEC in turn, handed down rather severe punishments to Pearl; suspending the coach 8 conference games, terminating his contract while docking him $1.5 million in pay, and suspending him from off campus recruiting for an entire year. On September 10th, Pearl held a news conference, where he famously (or infamously as it may have become) teared up as he apologized for lying to the NCAA, and in turn the school.
|Pearl posted a 145-61 record
in 6 seasons at Tennessee
But just 4 days later, the NCAA alleges Pearl committed another violation by speaking to a high school junior on a recruiting trip. Things would get worse in February, when then NCAA sent an official notice of infractions to Tennessee, only for more violations to come to light just 4 days after that. On March 22nd, Tennessee finally made the decision to fire Bruce Pearl.
The Pearl situation is an especially sad one, and also very unique. It’s sad given that 21 years ago, Pearl, at the time a unknown Iowa assistant coach, recorded a conversation with a prospect who told him that the University of Illinois had offered him cash and a car to come play for them. He was a whistle blower against another coach who had flat out offered money and gifts to a potential recruit.
What really makes this situation unique is that in the NCAA’s 26 page letter to the university, the basketball program wasn’t the only program accused of committing major violations. The football program, in just one season with Lane Kiffin at the helm, was also accused of committing similar major violations. On February 23rd, 2001, the NCAA sent the University of Tennessee a letter alleging 12 violations were committed between the two programs over the same period of time.
|Front page of “Dallas Morning News”
on February 26, 1987
Much has been made of cheating in college football recently following the resignation of Jim Tressel at Ohio State, the sanctions placed against USC recently, and the Tennessee violations under Kiffin. Many are comparing today’s cheating to that in the late 80’s that resulted in the NCAA imposing the dreaded “death penalty” against SMU football. While it would be foolish to compare the severity of SMU’s violations to the known violations of this generation, the case can, and is being made, that cheating is as bad as ever.
But one question does remain: does the problem lend itself more readily to one sport than another or is this an institutional problem across the board?
With college basketball’s highest level more than 3 times larger than football’s, it stands to reason that the sheer number of major violations would be much higher, and we find that to be true. Since the death penalty was handed out to SMU’s football team in 1987, 56 schools have been found to commit at least one major violation. In basketball in that same timespan, at least 83 schools committed at least one major violation
Without even breaking out a calculator, though, it’s easy to see the percentage of major violations aren’t equal. Those 56 teams in football represent more than half of the FBS. The 83 basketball teams are less than a third of the 340+ Division I basketball teams.
Another difference between the two sports comes when we look at what teams committed the violations. Of the 56 schools that committed major violations in football, 44 of them were from BCS conferences. In basketball, only 35 of the 83 were from the same conferences.
Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that while cheating is an issue in NCAA basketball, it isn’t to the same extent as it’s football brethren. In determining why, we have to consider that FBS football generally brings in more money for the schools and conferences than basketball, but that doesn’t necessarily hold for FCS football.
That itself could have a few implications that could explain both statistical differences. First, it makes sense that being the largest source of athletic revenue, there is more pressure on football programs to win; pressure that could help create the environment of cheating. That could also explain why more teams in BCS conferences have been convicted of major violations in football than basketball. For FCS schools, or schools that don’t field football teams, the opposite could be true. Since basketball is the largest source of athletic revenue for those schools, the pressure is placed on the basketball programs to win, creating the same environment.
While often we hear of programs self-reporting violations to the NCAA, the biggest violations are the result of coaches either turning a blind eye to possible violations or covering them up to protect the players, and often themselves and school boosters. It stands to reason that since a football team is much larger than a basketball team, that both more violations would be committed by football players and that more of those would be reported to the team, or even local media.
As much as I hate to say it, anytime you engage in any type of competition over a period of time, somebody, somewhere will do anything they can, legal or otherwise, to gain an edge. To think that you can rid any sport of cheating is naive at best, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps that can be taken to discourage cheating, and to effectively punish those who do.