NCAA hammers Oklahoma State, offering a sign of things to come for Kansas, Auburn and more

In the pecking order of college basketball programs bracing for NCAA punishment in the fallout from the federal basketball scandal, Oklahoma State doesn’t stand out. Of the dozen schools potentially in the NCAA crosshairs, limited oxygen and attention has been directed toward Stillwater.

In the made-for-HBO scenes of bag men paying off recruits’ mothers, “strong-ass offers” and six-figure deals, you’re forgiven if you didn’t remember Oklahoma State was involved at all. The lowest profile of the assistant coaches arrested in the scandal, former associate head coach Lamont Evans, pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in January of 2019 after receiving $22,000 to steer players at South Carolina and Oklahoma State to a financial adviser.

Oklahoma State’s relatively benign role in the federal basketball scandal is precisely why the NCAA Committee on Infraction’s ruling on the Cowboys is so meaningful. On Friday afternoon, the NCAA announced that Oklahoma State will receive a postseason ban for the upcoming season, will be docked three scholarships and faces three years of probation. It was stiff, and led OSU to pandering to its fan base by saying it was “stunned”, calling the penalties “unfair” and “unjust.” 

It would be simplistic to say this NCAA ruling doesn’t bode well for the higher-profile bad actors awaiting NCAA admonishment from the federal cases. But it would also be naïve to ignore the trends from the past few years, which have shown the Committee on Infractions delivering consistently severe punishments for rule violators.   

Just ask Missouri. Or perhaps ask BYU. And now, listen to Oklahoma State:

“The NCAA appears to have made an arbitrary decision in the sanctions applied to the institution for the egregious actions committed by a former coach that did not result in any benefit for the university.”

Oklahoma State’s rhetoric is incorrect here. And that’s the reason why Louisville, Kansas, Arizona, N.C. State, Auburn – especially Auburn, in this case – and all the others facing NCAA sanctions should be worried about how their cases play out.

The Committee on Infractions’ ruling was the opposite of arbitrary. It came from a simple equation that’s going to be in the spotlight as the Bill Selfs, Sean Millers, Mark Gottfrieds and Will Wades of the world eventually learn their NCAA fate. Listening to COI member Larry Parkinson speak on the ruling Friday, it was actually quite clear that in the NCAA’s eyes the Cowboys got off easy.

That’s not a hot take. It’s straight from the NCAA rule book penalty matrix, which has the potential to send many of the dozen programs into the NCAA wood chipper in the next few years. 

Oklahoma State Cowboys mascot Pistol Pete won't be making any appearances at the next NCAA tournament. (USA Today)

Since August of 2013, Figure 19-1 has been in the NCAA rule book. This year it starts on Page 366 and requires this reporter to flip his laptop on the side to read. It’s a penalty matrix that squeezes the emotion out of cases, and it’s what experts have pinpointed for the delivered stiff penalties we’ve seen the past few years.

In the Oklahoma State case, Parkinson pointed out that they actually gave Oklahoma State the “lower end” of the available punishment for a Level I standard violation, which the chart in 19-1 says is a one- or two-year postseason ban. They chose one year.

You can forgive the Oklahoma State PR staff for incorrectly terming the ruling “arbitrary.” After all, they’ve been busy putting out fires the past few weeks.

But for the experts who follow these cases and have no emotion tied to the presence of Rivals.com No. 1 recruit Cade Cunningham coming to campus, this case was simply business as usual.

“The pendulum has swung to where all the punishments are severe,” said Stu Brown, a veteran of NCAA cases who has no ties to the Oklahoma State case. “There may be more consistency in the rulings, and the consistency tends to be very severe.”

The biggest takeaway from the case from an NCAA inside-baseball perspective is that the NCAA held the institution accountable at the same level it did a former employee. In other words, Oklahoma State couldn’t worm its way out of trouble blaming a singular corrupt former assistant coach. They marched right down the plank with Evans, and the matrix didn’t give the COI any wiggle room to blink.

The NCAA hammered Evans, who didn’t participate in the investigation and received a 10-year show-cause penalty. And the NCAA also hammered Oklahoma State, which employed Evans but was not found complicit – or, really, the beneficiary – of his scheme to hustle players to a financial adviser. The NCAA message came across this way: You hire a bad egg, you’ll rot with him when he’s found guilty.

The NCAA had plenty of direct empirical evidence from the federal trial with Evans’ guilty plea. And it’s hard to feel too bad for the Oklahoma State administration here, as there’s plenty of anecdotal information that made it apparent the school’s compliance actions weren’t from the Brad Stevens handbook. Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel reported that testimony in federal court included Brian Bowen Sr. saying under oath that Christian Dawkins informed him that Oklahoma State offered $150,000 for his son to play there, plus $8,000 for a car and additional funds for a home in the area. All via Evans, of course.

The Evans case came from the second federal basketball trial. If there’s any of the 11 other potential NCAA cases tied to the SDNY investigation that resonates with this one, it’s Auburn’s. Former assistant coach Chuck Person pleaded guilty to conspiracy in March of 2019, which included taking more than $90,000 in bribes to steer players to a financial planner.

The potential overlay in the two cases is that the school was not spared punishment. (Other cases include USC’s Tony Bland taking more than $4,000 in bribes and former Arizona assistant Book Richardson allegedly taking $20,000.

NCAA wonks will tell you that each case will be judged on its individual merit. But between the transfer of information from federal court and the adherence to the penalty structure in 19-1, we at least have a feel how the next 11 cases could go.

If the Committee on Infractions finds a school committed a Level I standard violation – Kansas is charged with five, for context – it’s going to follow the chart and give the school a postseason ban. (The violations can be aggravated or mitigated, which makes the physical chart of 19-1 look like a migraine-inducing high school chemistry equation.)

“Can the committee find a Level I standard case and not assign any postseason ban?” Brown asks. “Maybe so. But that would require them to very clearly and expressly deviate from the penalties set forth in the matrix.”

These days, the punishments are linear to the specific violations found. And while people may argue that’s unfair to current players at OSU and beyond – all valid arguments –  it’s far from arbitrary. And that’s why Friday’s ruling likely induced some cold sweats in athletic departments around the country.

The NCAA penalty matrix charts have been unforgiving, and that’s poised to remain the same as the glut of cases go through the NCAA system.

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