Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39955793@N07/

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/39955793@N07/

by Vince Nicastro*

The Principle of Head Coach Responsibility

NCAA Bylaw 11.1.2.1.  It appears on page 15 of the 300 page Division I manual, if you want to look it up.   Many observers of college sports are starting to become more familiar with its more informal moniker, the principle of “Head Coach Control”.  This bylaw pertains to head coaches in all sports, with the basic tenet being that a “head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all staff members who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.”  Further, the head coach “shall promote an atmosphere of compliance” and “shall monitor the activities of all institutional staff members involved with the program.”  This isn’t necessarily new legislation, as it was initially adopted in 2005.  But, following a recent revision and reinforcement of the rule by the membership, there has clearly been a concerted effort by the NCAA Enforcement staff and the Committee on Infractions to apply it in a more assertive manner.

There have been two recent cases, both involving Hall of Fame coaches, where the application of the rule has resulted in well-publicized suspensions.  And, there is the looming potential for a couple of other iconic head coaches to find themselves in similar situations in the near future.

Prominent Men’s Basketball Coaches Facing Suspensions

Syracuse’s longtime mentor, Jim Boehiem, was cited for “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance and monitor his staff” in a March NCAA Committee on Infractions decision.  As is the case in most infractions issues, there were various violations, but the one impacting Boeheim’s “head coach control” status was related to the involvement of a member of his staff in an academic misconduct allegation.  Boeheim was not directly involved in the academic misconduct, but was held accountable for the actions of his staff member.  The NCAA Committee on Infractions (COI) levied a series of significant sanctions, including vacating wins, a post-season ban, and a stiff 9 game suspension of the head coach.  Syracuse and Boeheim are currently in the process of appealing the sanctions with the NCAA.

Just recently, Larry Brown of SMU was cited for a similar breach of his compliance duties as head coach under Bylaw 11.1.2.1.  The crux of the SMU matter was an alleged single, but significant, academic misconduct issue.  A non-coaching staff member, who was hired by and reported to Brown, was found to have completed on-line coursework for a student-athlete in order to “obtain fraudulent academic credit.”  The COI did note that Brown admitted he wasn’t entirely forthcoming during the investigation (he ultimately acknowledged this in the COI hearing, and was recognized as being “remorseful”), after also not reporting the prohibited activity in a timely manner.  These missteps in his handling of the process clearly impacted the final determination and severity of the sanctions.  It is speculative to suggest how this case would have played out if Brown had managed those issues better at the time which they occurred.

The COI handed down similarly harsh sanctions for SMU.  These include the typical penalties in such cases – probation, post-season ban, scholarship reductions, loss of recruiting opportunities, as well as the nine game suspension for Brown (and a two year “show cause”).  The COI did go to some lengths in their official report to reinforce the role the head coach plays in fostering a culture of compliance, and the presumption of responsibility that the head coach owns.  As a result, although Brown was not a direct party to the alleged academic fraud (similar to Boeheim), he was found vicariously responsible for it.

Two more Hall of Fame coaches are now potentially in the cross hairs.  Louisville University just recently launched an investigation of allegations that a former member of their men’s basketball staff arranged parties for recruits and current student-athletes that included paid escorts.  These alleged activities are part of the recently published book, Breaking Cardinal Rules: Basketball and the Escort Queen by Katina Powell and Dick Cady.  The book provides details of parties which allegedly took place at on-campus residences (presumably during official and unofficial visits) which will likely impact the presumption of responsibility for head coach Rick Pitino.  Of course, it is quite premature to draw any conclusions on these particular circumstances, as the investigative work is still early in its process.  Suffice it to say, the consequences of this could be quite damaging to the Louisville program.  And, although Pitino has denied any knowledge of the activities, he will likely have to attempt to rebut the presumption of responsibility if the allegations are found to be credible.

Finally, in what may very well be a landmark case of systemic academic fraud, the University of North Carolina awaits a final determination by the NCAA on its well-publicized academic issues.  This case is complex and all-encompassing, but one of the key issues is how much Roy Williams (or any of the other coaches at UNC) knew about the offering of “paper classes” to student-athletes over a period of many years.  And, if they knew, what duty did they have to intervene, report, and/or take corrective action.  This is a case which is being followed very closely by the intercollegiate athletics industry, and one which has already impacted how situations involving academic misconduct are being dealt with by the NCAA.

Presumed Responsibility Debate

These high profile cases do raise some interesting questions.  First and foremost, is the presumption that a head coach knows everything that everyone on his staff and team are doing 24/7 too great?  In the sport of men’s basketball, for example, the head coach would be responsible for the activities of approximately 15 student athletes, 3 assistant coaches, a director of basketball operations, and anywhere from 2-10 others (video coordinator, administrative staff, strength coach, athletic trainer, miscellaneous support staff, etc.).  Maybe 30 in total for a robust basketball program.  One could argue that the scope of this vicarious liability is simply too broad.  And I’m sure that argument will be made by coaches and their advisors as the application of this rule becomes more frequent.  Contrast this to a football program – 100 students, 9 position coaches, from 10-25 other personnel – close to 150 in all.  Coaching college football is a difficult enough job as it is.  I am guessing that the broad scope of their compliance responsibilities certainly provides for many sleepless nights for gridiron bosses.

Another interesting question that has been posed is how far up the chain of command should this presumption spread?  Some analysts have suggested that athletic directors, and even university presidents, should have the same type of responsibility for the activities of all direct and indirect reports.  As a former AD, I completely understand the responsibility that comes along with insuring compliance in a department.  An effective compliance program is one of the foundations of a successful athletic program, and missteps in this area can be quite damaging.  I also understand that you simply cannot know with absolute certainty that everyone within your scope of oversight (“all of those reporting to you both directly and indirectly”) is abiding by the letter, spirit, and intent of every rule.  In a practical sense, it just is not realistic.  Again, more sleepless nights – this time for the ADs – and all the more reason to invest in your compliance program.

How Coaches Can Protect Their Programs – And Their Personal Brands

Despite what one’s philosophical view is on this rule, it is quite obvious that coaches have to find ways to protect their programs and themselves.  The notion of head coaches arguing plausible deniability in these types of situations is simply no longer being accepted.  Head coaches who aren’t dialed into this issue should start now.  If the NCAA isn’t wavering when it comes to Hall of Famers, they certainly won’t hesitate to act on a lesser-known or lesser-established head coach.

In response to the more rigorous application of the rule, the NCAA has issued some guidance, which outlines some of the specific actions that head coaches can take to guard against a charge of “failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.”  Coaches do have an opportunity to “rebut the presumption,” and should be working closely with their compliance staffs to employ best practices in this area, in order to syndicate their risk.

Although there isn’t a great deal of precedent on successful rebuttals, coaches who commit to these principles in a disciplined manner will be able to, when challenged with a serious rules situation, have a fighting chance to overcome the presumption of responsibility.  At minimum, it will certainly be key to mitigating penalties for their programs – and for them individually – which will serve to protect their respective reputations.

 


* Vince Nicastro is the former Athletic Director for Villanova University, and currently serves as Associate Director for the Jeffrey S. Moorad Center for the Study of Sports Law.

 

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