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The Price of Growth

Publication Date: November 12, 2002

A Major Infraction

Usually, I stick with facts, or at least the search for them, here and don't bother you with my opinions. That's mostly because I value facts more than anyone's opinions, even my own, and I don't expect you to value my opinion any higher than anyone else's who's equally informed. When I do talk about my opinions, it's generally in the context of fairness -- there's no absolute standard for fairness, so of necessity there's an element of personal opinion. To this point, that's always come up in the context of seasonal and tournament structure. This week, I hope you'll bear with me as I talk about a different aspect of fairness.

Texas cheated, and they're going to get away with it.

Under current NCAA rules, a team is allowed one head coach, two paid assistant coaches, and an unpaid volunteer assistant. Generally, that unpaid spot usually either goes unfilled or goes to a grad student. At top programs, it's often held by someone who's trying to break into the coaching ranks and is making ends meet by holding down another job on the side. In January 2001, Trip Couch, then a paid assistant coach at Houston, left that position to take the unpaid volunteer spot at Texas. Couch was also given a $40,000-a-year public relations job with a beverage distributorship owned by former Texas regent Lowell Lebermann.

NCAA regulations limit off-campus recruiting to the head coach and one assistant, which at Houston had been Couch. Texas head coach Augie Garrido has a legitimately bad back and petitioned for and received from the NCAA permission for Couch to recruit in his stead.

Up to this point, none of this is either in violation of NCAA rules or something that would give the Longhorns an unfair advantage. However, it came to light over the course of the late fall of 2001 that Couch had not actually done any work for the company that was paying his salary. In effect, he was a third paid assistant, one with specially granted recruiting privileges.

How much of an advantage was it? Well, any recruits that came due to Couch's availability have to be considered tainted. He was not, by most accounts, the primary recruiter during his time on campus; assistant coach Tommy Harmon did a larger share of the hands-on stuff. Nonetheless, Couch did make 27 recruiting trips over the course of his time, and even if relatively few recruits are there specifically because of him, his presence had to have helped in recruiting by freeing up Harmon to spend more time on it. Therefore, any success by Texas in the 2003 and 2004 seasons will have to be viewed with suspicion.

The 2002 season, though, is obviously the big question -- did the misbehavior contribute to the national championship? The obvious place to look is at newcomers to the program, who might have been recruited by Couch or been able to be recruited because of his help in other matters. Huston Street had as big an impact on the CWS as any freshman has in some time, but in fairness (somebody needs some here), he's a legacy recruit with long family ties to Texas; he was probably coming no matter what. Looking at the rest of the freshman class and the junior college transfers, though, shows that there was a sizeable contribution there -- catcher Curtis Thigpen played in 36 games last year as a freshman, and at least three other freshmen appeared in at least 10 games. More significantly, juco transfers played a big role for the Longhorns last year, with Dustin Majewski hitting .401/.446/.601 in 64 games, Brandon Fahey appearing in 45 games as a utility infielder, and Jesen Merle appearing in 28 games, mostly in middle relief, posting a 2.35 ERA over 61 innings. Was that the core of the team? No. Did it contribute to their success over the course of the season? Yes. Are championships fragile things? Yes. I don't see any way not to consider this one tainted.

The Perpetrators

There's a rather sizeable list of people who have behaved badly here:

Trip Couch. The phantom job is not exactly a new invention. It was a staple of corrupt football programs through the '60's and '70's, and it's a well-known flag for NCAA investigators. That Couch was willing to take one is almost impossible to explain as a well-intentioned oversight; he had to have known that he was flouting NCAA rules.

Augie Garrido. Garrido's statements in public have been disappointing, to say the least: "We did everything we thought we should and they said it was a violation. My understanding was to stay out of what they were doing at that job." The most serious offense in the NCAA is called "lack of institutional control" for a reason -- the man in charge is responsible for making sure the rules are followed. In addition to not adequately monitoring what was going on, Garrido has ensured that it will be much more difficult for other coaches with physical problems (and there are a few of those around) to get the needed exemptions to allow their programs to grow during their health problems. More damningly, there's a worrisome pattern of misbehavior swirling around the program, with a couple of those pesky minor player violations of NCAA rules in the last couple of years and the unpunished (by Garrido, at least) arrest of a player during the 2002 season.

Lowell Lebermann. I know very little about Lebermann, but this behavior smacks of classic out-of-control boosterism.

The NCAA Championship Committee, mid 1990's version. I realize that it was done in response to Title IX, but that doesn't make the volunteer assistant spot any less of a dumb idea that was bound to lead to corruption. If you want three assistants, pay for them. If you don't, say so. That it is a bad rule does not in any way excuse what Texas did, but it is a bad rule.

The NCAA Infractions Committee, 2002 version. That leads us to the penalties section:

The Penalties

We went right out there and refused to do acoustical versions of the electrical songs we had refused to record in the first place. -- Todd Snider, Talking Seattle Grunge Blues

So, they cheated, and they gained an unfair advantage that contributed at least in small part to a national championship. Guess what happened then? The NCAA infractions committee has accepted Texas' self-imposed penalties. Know what the biggest of these is? Garrido, who has already declared that he doesn't want to leave campus to recruit for health reasons, is barred from leaving campus to recruit. In addition, the team loses one scholarship for the 2003-2004 school year. The committee did declare it a major violation, which means that if any sport on campus does something this dumb in the next five years, they could be given the death penalty, even though the infractions committee shows every sign that they won't ever do that again after the experiment at SMU. In short, it was a slap on the wrist where they frankly whiffed on the swing.

The Price of Growth

I'm happy to see the sport of college baseball grow. More popularity means more money, and while that's not the most important thing, it does allow for better facilities, which tends to raise the level of play. I'm happy that the super-regionals will be on TV next year. But all this growth means that the stakes are higher, and a bit more tempting, and that way lies football. Were you shocked by the Albert Means case? Chris Webber? Of course not. I want to enjoy a sport where things like this are shocking, and this decision is a step toward a world where baseball is as tainted as its big money brothers. I've talked before about the way that the NCAA is actually a cooperative venture between the schools, so there's no separate body to blame here, but in this case, the wrong signal very much got sent, and all we can do now is hope that no one decides to take them up on the invitation to try to buy a title.

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