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NCAA slaps Eastern football

Team banned from postseason, on probation

The 2009 football season won’t go into overtime at Eastern Washington University.

Citing ineffective rules compliance and former head coach Paul Wulff’s “inattention to certain aspects of his program,” the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Wednesday affirmed a number of penalties the Eagles had self-imposed for violations and hit them with a bigger one – a one-year ban from postseason play.

Eastern will be ineligible for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in which it participated three of the past five seasons – and expected to contend for again, given the return of 16 starters led by quarterback Matt Nichols, a former Big Sky Conference offensive most valuable player. The NCAA Committee on Infractions also placed the football program on three years probation.

The school’s self-imposed sanctions include the loss of two scholarships and a full-time coach each year through the 2010 season, and limits on the number of academic non-qualifiers accepted into the program.

The penalties weren’t confined to Eastern’s campus.

Wulff, now the head coach at Washington State University, will not be allowed to have contact – on or off the field – with his Cougars football team during the first three days of full-squad practices this August.

“Not only the school but the people involved in the violations should be reprimanded,” said Paul Dee, chairman of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, “and have penalties assessed regardless of the institution where they are located.”

In a teleconference late Wednesday, Wulff’s recounted the financial and resource limitations long endured by Eastern, blaming them for compliance problems.

“My part is that I regret that some things did slip through the cracks under my watch,” he said. “That is just the reality. I admit it and I addressed it. I think Eastern Washington is better for it now because they’ve implemented policies and procedures to protect the athletes, coaches and other personnel in the athletic department.

“At Eastern Washington, this has gone on for two decades. This isn’t anything new.”

In Cheney, acting EWU President John Mason said the school was “disappointed with the decision to levy a postseason ban and will be assessing our appeal options.”

Both Mason and EWU athletic director Bill Chaves also stressed that the school has taken measures to improve its adherence to NCAA rules, in particular the hiring of a full-time compliance director. A full-time administrative assistant for football is expected to be hired this year.

“Those steps were acknowledged by the committee,” Chaves said. “That assistance will help our staff in understanding the rules and monitoring and doing everything that needs to be done.”

Eastern’s players were told of the postseason ban at a Wednesday morning meeting. Linebacker Kyle Wilkins, who will be one of 18 seniors next year, insisted the team’s approach and motivation will not change but admitted it “takes a toll on the seniors.”

“It’s going to be in the back of your mind, from the off-season through the season and even to when I’m done,” he said. “Knowing that you can’t make the playoffs is a devastating blow, but you deal with it the best you can.”

The NCAA’s investigation began in 2007 after Eastern submitted a self-report. The violations under Wulff, EWU’s head coach for eight years until 2007 when he accepted the same job at his alma mater, were grouped into four categories by Dee during a Wednesday teleconference.

•During the academic years 2003 to 2007, 13 ineligible players were permitted to participate in practice activities. In addition, two players were provided housing and meals during preseason practice when they were not allowed to receive such benefits, and in 2007 an athlete was allowed to play in a loss to Portland State even after his involvement in a violation was discovered.

•The NCAA limit of 11 “countable” coaches was exceeded by two to four coaches per year. In some cases, student assistants – who don’t normally count against the limit – were not enrolled as full-time students.

•Wulff, the committee concluded, “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance.” It said that as he learned of violations, he didn’t report them, instead deciding to “not think twice about it … move on and move forward.”

“Be it head coach, athletic director or any employee of the athletic department,” said Dee, “when they become knowledgeable of a problem they have to notify the institution. That didn’t occur.”

•Eastern lacked control and monitoring in the conduct and administration of the athletics program. The NCAA noted that this was “exacerbated by consistent turnover” in leadership – the school had five directors of athletics and three presidents during that period.

WSU athletics director Jim Sterk said he was aware of Eastern’s issues during the process that resulted in Wulff’s hiring in December 2007.

“We checked with the NCAA and spoke with the faculty rep at Eastern and both kind of confirmed there were some secondary violations when Paul was the head coach,” Sterk said. “Paul was honest in the interview process and there was no deception, and he had great integrity. But there wasn’t a system in place (at EWU) to monitor, and the accumulation of violations rose to the institutional control level.

“I knew (sanctions against WSU) were a possibility, but in the end I was surprised. I felt like he tried to do everything right. It wasn’t a recruiting advantage, and that’s why they levied a penalty regarding him coaching on campus.”

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