USC, Ohio State, Miami, Penn State — Until a few years ago, this may simply have been a list of universities behind some of the most successful college football programs in the history of the sport.
Now, this also represents a fast-growing list of prominent schools that in recent years or months have been rocked by athletic controversy.
But despite widespread scandal in collegiate athletics, athletes and coaches at BYU sound confident the university has taken every reasonable measure to prevent such disaster. Cougar fans hope they are right.
BYU and NCAA Violations
Where does this nationwide tumult leave BYU and its athletics programs? Those who follow the Cougars’ accomplishments on the field of play will find how well BYU’s athletic department has maintained institutional integrity– especially with this backdrop of events nationwide.
First year offensive coordinator Brandon Doman said integrity in compliance with the NCAA is a priority constantly being discussed with players in the football program.
“Coach Mendenhall addresses one of those issues [with the team] every single day,” Doman said.
Is such vigilance practiced in each program?
It turns out that BYU’s circumspect reputation holds up in the vast majority of cases, but not all.
Chad Gwilliam, who has been the director of compliance at BYU’s athletic department for the last 10 years, said secondary infractions at the university typically occur between 20 and 30 times per year. The majority of these infractions are unintentional, he said, and about three quarters of them are self-reported by coaches of the various teams.
“I’ve seen schools report upwards of 40 violations and I’ve seen some schools that have reported less than 10,” Gwilliam said. “We’re standard with our counterparts.”
Since the NCAA began handing out penalties for violating amateur rules in 1953, BYU had not been cited for major infractions until 2008, when the NCAA levied penalties, after a lengthy investigation, on the men’s volleyball team for recruiting violations.
The violation occurred in 2006, when a foreign recruit was given employment by a program booster and was deemed to have been given preferential pay.
BYU and the NCAA each concluded from their separate investigations that the violations were more technical than ethical in nature, but still significant enough to warrant major sanctions. The volleyball program was placed on probation for three years and docked half a scholarship for the 2008-09 and 2009-2010 seasons.
BYU also moved preemptively before the conclusion of the investigations: the university announced head coach Tom Peterson’s resignation in September 2006, shortly after the violation occurred. Peterson led the Cougars to a national championship only two seasons earlier.
The firing caused a stir because of Peterson’s good track record as a coach and circumstances that some, including Peterson himself in an official statement, viewed as incidental and just plain unlucky.
While insisting the athletic department still takes seriously those original infractions on the part of the volleyball program, Gwilliam said he is hopeful the NCAA will move toward a rule book that is less arbitrary — and smaller.
“In an ideal situation, they [the NCAA] cut through some of the minutiae. The buzz word for the NCAA is deregulation, trying to get rid of some of these rules that just aren’t necessary,” Gwilliam said. “Hopefully they can get to that point where they deregulate, and they really focus on the key principles of the NCAA — amateurism, fairness, equity on the field and off the field.”
The initial penalty turned out to be more of a beginning than an end to BYU volleyball’s problems with NCAA rules. BYU fired coach Shawn Patchell in September 2010 in response to findings that improper benefits had been given to players, and by March 2011, the program was officially penalized again by the NCAA.
“We’re disappointed in the program,” athletic director Tom Holmoe said at the time. “Certainly every program makes mistakes, but not intentional and not major mistakes.”
So far, the university has avoided similar disasters in other sports, but players and coaches insist it takes constant vigilance to stay out of trouble.
“You’ve got to be careful because donors love the program and they do a lot for the program, but they can also hurt the program if you’re going over to their house every night having dinner,” said sophomore wide receiver JD Falslev, who recently received a football scholarship after joining the team as a walk on. “They’re not a huge thing, but they’re still against NCAA rules, so you have to abide by those.”
Junior quarterback Riley Nelson agreed players risk tripping up when they fail to be conscientious.
“It’s the little things, the temptations that we all face, mostly academic things,” Nelson said. “Just being honest and trustworthy is what [Mendenhall] reminds us of most consistently.”
Holding Up a Reputation of Moral Integrity at BYU
Not all of the latest scandals in college sports have centered simply on improper benefits for players.
As recently as November, the top winning coach in Division 1 football history, Joe Paterno, was fired from Penn State after being reprimanded by the Pennsylvania attorney general for his failure to report the alleged sex crimes of his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, to legal authorities.
Although Paterno’s inaction did not immediately result in an official NCAA investigation, the moral ramifications were perhaps even more stark. Paterno’s premise for uniqueness at Penn State was the university’s mantra that winning with honor— not simply winning— was the bottom line. BYU and Penn State are the only two universities with a national title in football without a major infraction committed by its program.
But Falslev still believes BYU’s goals are unique enough to make the university an exception — not only in reputation, but in deed.
“The way people go about themselves here is different than anywhere else,” he said. “You can tell people care about all the little things, and care about doing things the right way and the truthful way.”
Gwilliam said the Honor Code gives BYU athletics an advantage over other schools, but that most of it has little to do with NCAA’s rule book.
“As hopefully most BYU students will tell you, it [the Honor Code] just makes BYU unique. In that aspect, it’s great and [we] embrace it because it helps our athletes just attain to another level,” he said.
College sports have rarely, if ever, seen a more tumultuous time. The NCAA and its member universities have been besieged from critics on all sides who openly question whether anything besides greed and glory remains sacred in amateur sports— particularly amateur football.
But Doman insisted that when coaches and players live out the principles that make BYU unique, what is important to the university’s standing as a competitive institution will continue to fall into place.
“[Coaches are] challenging these kids all the time to live morally clean,” Doman said. “At the same time, when they make mistakes we help them get back and be better and resolve those issues that they have. … The combination of all that together at BYU, to be clean and to not have sanctions, has been a real positive thing.”
September 2006: Foreign men’s volleyball recruit given preferential pay by a program booster.
2008: Cited by the NCAA for major infraction after investigation. Three years probation and docked half a scholarship for two seasons.
September 2010: Improper Benefits given to men’s volleyball players
March 2011: Cited by NCAA and officially penalized