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WSU’s big week and more on NCAA rules


COUGARS

This week is, according to WSU basketball coach Tony Bennett, a life lesson. “The test will be, a lesson of life, can you dust yourself off and get back up and try and finish strong,” Bennett said Tuesday, looking back to the Cougars second-half collapse against Oregon State last Saturday. For more on basketball and the unedited version of our story on the role of the compliance office at your local university, read on.

••••••••••

• The Cougars played a decent game against Cal, though they lost. They played maybe their best game of the season against Oregon. Then they played a excellent half against Oregon State before … well, call it what you will. How did it happen? Bennett went back to the mental aspect, talking about the neck up part of the game. “That’s what’s sometimes has frustrated me,” he said. “Some of our lapses haven’t been getting overwhelmed. I can handle being beaten, but … when there are unforced errors or unnecessary lapses mentally … that’s the stuff that doesn’t sit well with me.”

So now the Cougars head into the overwhelming part of the schedule, with their five remaining games USC (Thursday night at 7:30), UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State and Washington, the first two and the last one on the road. We’ll get into that in more depth tomorrow.

• Now we want to share our story that will run in tomorrow’s S-R. It’s about the burgeoning business of NCAA compliance, through the workings at WSU and EWU. Of course the news peg is last week’s NCAA announcement of sanctions against Eastern and WSU coach Paul Wullf, who was EWU’s coach during the time the Eagles were cited for violations. The unedited version of our story follows …

PULLMAN – What’s easier?

Preparing your income tax alone, a copy of the Internal Revenue Service’s tax code on your desk, with maybe a finance professor available on a part-time basis.

Or having three tax experts taking charge of the return, always ready to answer questions throughout the year then taking care of the forms.

Pretty simple question, huh?

The latter is akin to Washington State University’s NCAA compliance program, though only to some degree. There are not only three full-time employees, including associate athletic director Steve Robertello, but also two other university employees, one in admissions and one in financial aid, who ensure WSU follows the NCAA manual in their dealings with student athletes.

And the former? It’s a lot like the situation Eastern Washington coaches faced until recently, trying to keep track of compliance issues without a lot of support.

The compliance departments of local universities came into the public eye this past week as EWU and former football coach – and now WSU coach – Paul Wulff were assessed NCAA sanctions for ongoing secondary violations. At the heart of Eastern’s problems, which accounted for the NCAA hitting the Eagles with the dreaded “lack of institutional control” citation, was a then-non-existent compliance unit.

Since the infractions that caused the NCAA troubles occurred – 2003 to 2007 – Eastern, under the leadership of president Dr. Rodolfo Arevalo and athletic director Bill Chaves, has built a compliance department overseen by associate athletic director Don Ross and compliance coordinator Theresa Laurente. At the same time, the school has also developed more academic support for its athletes.

“We had the one person who was the Faculty Athletic Representative teaching and (handling) compliance,” Ross said of those days, “and we had a part-time academic person.”

If there is a growth industry in this country, it is in NCAA compliance.

“When I started in this field (in the mid ‘80s), compliance was a brand new field,” Ross said. “Even when I was at USC, our (Faculty Athletic Representative) was our compliance person and he had a graduate assistant.

“But the rule book has exploded and every rule has an (interpretation) and you go through the (interpretations) and you need all these people now to do it. That was a big explosion in college athletics.”

An explosion fueled by the NCAA and its IRS-like manual.

“The NCAA – and Eastern obviously saw this – they make it very clear, if you’re going to compete at this level, sitting in front of the committee on infractions and saying, ‘we didn’t have the money to fund it,’ is not an excuse,” said WSU’s Robertello.

“(The NCAA’s) basic feeling is, if you are going to compete at this level, whether it’s the Pac-10 level, the Big Sky level, whatever, you need to have the resources to be able to fund the compliance office.”

Dealing with NCAA compliance issues costs Washington State more than $200,000 a year, according to Robertello. And the Cougars are at the low end of Pac-10 schools, all of which have as many or more compliance officers. Ohio State, recognized for its success in this area, has nine athletic staff members dedicated solely to following NCAA rules, spelled out in its 3-inch-thick manual.

“The hardest part is the way the rules are changing constantly,” Robertello said, before lifting about an inch thick stack of papers off a credenza behind his desk. “This is from January, the January NCAA convention when the leadership council got together and voted on rules. These are all the new rules that were either voted on, some approved, some denied, just in January.”

In any legislative cycle, Robertello said, anywhere from 125 to 150 rules are proposed. The NCAA’s leadership committee may decide which will expand the rule book, but it is the compliance officers who have to make them work in the school setting.

Robertello sees his department as a resource for the coaches and administrators affected by rules instituted in an attempt to “legislate a level playing field,” he said, before adding, “you can only do that so much because, inherently, the playing field is not level. There are obvious difference between us and other schools out there, no amount of rules are going to make that fair.”

Fair or not, all schools in the NCAA are covered by the Byzantine rulebook. So, if you have a question, ask compliance.

“Yes, we know the rules to some degree, but I joke that I probably know about 10 percent of this book,” Robertello said, holding up the NCAA manual. “But you can always ask people and talk to other people about the rules.

“If a coach asks a question and you don’t know (the answer) off the top of your head, you have resources to be able to work to find that answer.”

But no matter the depth of the compliance staff, violations occur.

WSU’s football program has had two recent secondary violations, Robertello said, one when a university representative got lost headed from Spokane to Pullman and bought a recruit and his family a meal and the other when an assistant coach neglected to log a phone call to a recruit and another, impermissible, call was made.

Even with the best tools – there are NCAA computer programs available to each school to assist record keeping – and the best people – Robertello and Ross has both been in the business for years – mistakes will be made.

To limit such occurrences, education and emphasis are key, both Ross and Robertello agree.

When Wulff came aboard at WSU, the NCAA was already deep into its investigation of Eastern. Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk knew of the violations and decided to make sure ignorance wouldn’t be an excuse in Pullman.

“Because of (the problems) and also coming from 1AA, we started … a compliance program, if you will, when Paul came,” Sterk said. “(We) had monthly meetings (in which) the Pac-10 compliance staff came in and met with the entire coaching staff, so we were proactive from the start and have continued that.”

Robertello said he or someone on his staff talks with Rich Rasmussen, WSU football recruiting coordinator, every day and usually multiple times each day. He also speaks with Wulff a couple of times each week.

It’s that infrastructure that lessens the chances of Wulff – or any WSU coach or administrator – making mistakes.

“Just by the nature of what we have available to Paul in compliance,” Robertello said. “He’s talked a lot about he didn’t understand the complexities of compliance and all the issues surrounding it until he got here.

“Not necessarily all the rules involved, but how compliance can be a daily factor in his program.”

Still, there are no guarantees, according to Ross.

“I’m hoping it doesn’t happen again,” he said of Eastern’s problems. “(But) it can happen at any school.”

Big or small.

•••

• That’s it for this evening. We’ll be back in the morning with links and more. Till then …


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