Morris: Probation changes USC for the better

June 10, 2008 

SOUTH CAROLINA’S NCAA football probation concluded last week. Its athletics department surely learned a few lessons from a process that left USC on probation for three years.

First, hire a football coach with no history of problems complying with NCAA rules. Steve Spurrier fit the mold when he came aboard three years ago. Spurrier is more likely to turn another school in for cheating than to bend the rules himself, or at least that has been his history at Duke and Florida.

It also helps to have a football coach who wants to be at your school. Out of a job following his failed flirtation with the NFL, Spurrier surveyed the college landscape and found where he most wanted to coach. In the three years since, if Spurrier has wavered from his commitment to making USC a championship contender, I have not heard it.

Second, USC has learned to better handle dealings with the NCAA through a fresh approach in the school’s athletics administration. When a rules violation is found, USC immediately reports it to the NCAA. As most schools have found, it is much better to self-report violations than to have the NCAA come hunting for problems.

The previous administration never figured that out. It operated in constant cover-up mode, which is what is done when you have something to hide. Instead of being up front with NCAA violations from the outset, USC constantly claimed innocence and painted the infractions investigators as out to get the school.

Along the way, USC and its fellow SEC institutions have been aided by SEC commissioner Mike Slive in its dealings with the NCAA. Slive set a goal six years ago to have a probation-free SEC by this summer.

One way to reach that goal is for schools to discontinue the practice of turning in other SEC schools to the NCAA for rules violations. Slive asked that all complaints and charges go through his office first. Slive once worked with the NCAA, and he recognizes the value of self-reporting and being up front with violations.

Slive and the SEC will not reach his goal, but thankfully it is not because of USC. A three-year NCAA probation levied against the Arkansas men’s track program stands in the way.

Next, USC learned to ramp up its compliance staff. By doubling its size, USC can better monitor all of its programs for possible NCAA violations.

Only now have we learned that USC also began conducting criminal background checks of coaches and administrators following the probation sanctions. USC should take it a step further. As long as athletes are forced to undergo drug testing, coaches and administrators should be subjected to the same.

Finally, USC has learned over the three years of NCAA probation that openness is the best way to deal with the media and with the NCAA. There has been a tremendous altering of the attitude within the athletics department, where officials no longer operate under the mantra that “the media is out to get us.”

A big part of the previous athletic administration’s job was dealing with a steady stream of Freedom of Information requests from the media. These days, FOIs are seldom used, because USC provides the information up front.

It is the same tack taken in dealing with the NCAA. USC periodically submits its NCAA violations to the SEC for review. In most cases, they are deemed as secondary violations, and USC and the SEC propose sanctions on the front end.

All this is not to say USC is immune to further problems with the NCAA. It is to say that USC has changed its ways and is better equipped to deal with problems when they occur.

In the end, USC never should forget the transgressions of the previous head football coach’s program. The NCAA probation that followed allowed for USC to remember, but never repeat, that sordid part of its football history.

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